The biggest challenge of a football season which is proving to be a severe test of his capabilities will take Raheem Sterling into the Bernabeu now. It will be a forbidding environment on Tuesday night but not an entirely alien one.
Sterling has the NextGen series to thank for some vivid formative memories of continental football at a time when Liverpool were still outside the European elite. Ajax’s Viktor Fischer crucified them in the semi-final of the inaugural competition in 2012 and there was a 3-0 defeat to Sporting Lisbon on the Anfield turf seven months earlier but Sterling has always said it was a career-enhancing experience.
He isn’t the only one to feel that way. Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and the young Spurs striker Shaquile Coulthirst were also among the young British players, learning their trade away from the bright lights of the Champions League aristocracy, who suddenly found a European stage with NextGen between 2011 and 2013.
The games were staged in the evenings in big stadiums, to get the crowds in: 20,000 at Olympiakos, 13,000 at Wolfsburg and 11,000 at Tottenham as word caught on about the new Champions League for Europe’s best young players. Talk turned to how Everton – with their immense reputation for developing young players – would fare when they entered in the 2013-14 season. Valencia, Gothenburg and Villarreal were all set to join too.
But the point of this story is that they didn’t. The NextGen adventure came to an abrupt halt because Uefa saw the competition it was presenting and decided to throttle it with a tournament of its own. That event – the Uefa Youth League – has delivered all the usual promotional razzle-dazzle but only the academies of Champion League clubs are welcome.
Any youth academy director operating outside football’s top six will tell you that European youth football has reverted to the same old closed shop.
NextGen suspended operations and watched when the Uefa Youth League was launched. It was resigned to the fact that it could not compete with some of the elite sides signed up to Uefa, which rapidly concluded a TV deal, but hoped there might yet be some scope to work around the edges. It was a lost cause. Uefa has just announced that the Youth League is to be a permanent competition from next season and NextGen has given up all hope of resurrecting the competition which made European youth football a meritocracy.
The shadow of Uefa always did loom large over the competitions that NextGen’s creators – Justin Andrews and Mark Warburton, the current Brentford manager – helped the London club’s owner, Matthew Benham, set up. Two weeks before the inaugural competition took place, the governing body revoked the permission it had granted for NextGen to take place and instructed Andrews and Warburton to get the approval of every football association whose teams were participating. Against considerable odds, the pair succeeded. But it always seemed to be question of when – not if – Michel Platini’s organisation would become proprietors of such a competition, which was showing Uefa what imagination looked like.
NextGen’s £8 family tickets were enabling fans to see excellent young players in the first teams’ stadiums, under floodlights. Scheduling around first-team matches was tricky but not insurmountable, Andrews and Warburton found. The crowds were exceeding those on Thursday nights in the Europa League.
When Uefa began muscling in, NextGen proposed compromises. It suggested a 48-team tournament, with some clubs selected purely on the basis of their commitment to youth development, complemented by those who reached the last 16 of the previous season’s Champions League. NextGen also suggested running its own tournament in parallel with Uefa’s, with the winners meeting at the end. No, said Uefa.
When NextGen suspended its tournament, the holders Villa were left with a trophy they could not defend. They were devastated. “The competition is one of the greatest development tools for young professional players in this country, and it will be lost to us,” said their academy director, Bryan Jones. “It’s shameful.”
The Netherlands, that immensely youth-focused football nation, which is allocated only one Champions League entrant by Uefa, was equally concerned. “We pay a lot of money for our academy – €11m [£8.6m] a year – but if Feyenoord win the league our Under-19s are not allowed in,” the Ajax marketing director and former Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar told me a few weeks ago.
Van der Sar has used his role as chair of the European Club Association’s youth working group to press for greater meritocracy – and Uefa responds to criticism by saying it has extended admission to the competition from next season. But it is a paltry nod to the demands for meritocracy.
The only extra teams allowed entry will be the domestic youth champions of Uefa’s 32 top-ranked nations. If the youth champions are a club already qualified for the Champions League – as Chelsea were last year – their place will go to another nation. Everton, Southampton, Villa? No chance. On the basis of last season’s youth academy leagues, Valencia, Fiorentina, Milan, Internazionale, PSV Eindhoven and the prodigiously talented Feyenoord academies would all miss out, too.
The Premier League, which NextGen asked to work with it, has countered with a competition of its own, though Uefa’s refusal to sanction it as a cross-border event forced it either to abandon the idea or organise the entire event within England. The Premier League hurriedly convinced the foreign sides to play all their matches here. It came together too late for Manchester United and Southampton, whose academies are two of the best currently outside the Champions League.
The Uefa website does not state attendances for its Youth League games but I understand that only 100 people recently saw Chelsea Under-19s play Schalke at Cobham, 520 watched Real Madrid Youth’s only home game, against Basel, and 131 saw Liverpool Under-19s play Ludogorets at St Helens. All afternoon fixtures at anonymous grounds. A far cry from the NextGen.
The consolation for Warburton comes from the partnerships he formed through NextGen with David Weir, the former Everton defender, and Frank McParland, Liverpool’s erstwhile academy director. They have joined him as assistant coach and director of football at Brentford. Warburton’s young side beat high-flying Derby 2-1 on Saturday and stand seven points off the top of the Championship.
“There’s no gripe,” Andrews tells me. “It’s just that Uefa have taken a brilliant idea and killed it.”Reuse content