Sam Wallace: A simple lesson for English football, courtesy of Team GB
On The Whistle
Saturday 23 August 2008
In the Manchester United academy canteen there is a wall decorated with pictures of the boys who went on to become the club's most famous names. No matter how many times you wander in, the imagination always sparks. The teenaged faces of Duncan Edwards, Mark Hughes and Paul Scholes remind the young footballers who now eat in that room what is possible with a lot of talent and dedication in equal measure.
Chelsea's new academy was opened this summer. It is a spectacular building with a coppery finish that, caught in the sunshine, looks like a golden sheen. It is set in acres of pristine pitches in a part of the Surrey countryside where even the stockbrokers need a stretched mortgage.
Both these academies are bold investments in the next generation of English footballers, and both might yet prove to be resounding failures because of Premier League rules that are keeping the development of our young footballers behind that of our peers in Europe.
Before England embarrassed themselves against the Czech Republic on Wednesday night we watched, rapt, as Britain's cyclists and rowers made the rest of the world look as mediocre as our own football team. And with these personal victories came stories about the people in charge of these sports. Of David Brailsford, the performance director of British cycling, dropping the women endurance cyclists he did not consider good enough. Or Jürgen Gröbler, the chief coach of British men's rowing, ruthlessly rearranging the personnel in his key boats.
These Olympic sports recruit, promote and drop talent as they see fit. They are shamelessly elitist and single-minded about success. It is a level of control about which Premier League academy directors can only dream.
Somewhere along the way the Premier League – that bastion of greed and self-interest – lost sight of the notion of elitism in developing young players. Clubs' academies have to recruit their players at the age of eight and generally – for reasons that will become clear – they have to stick with them until the age of 16. One academy director told me that to pick out a footballer at that age did not just require a practised eye for a good young player or an insight into the psychology of a child. What he needed was a crystal ball.
For 10 years, academies have only been able to recruit children under the age of 11 who live within a one-hour radius of the club. For boys over 11 that widens to a 90-minute radius, but by that age any kid who is any good is already at an academy. Once there, they cannot leave unless they can prove that their parents are moving for work reasons, and signing players from rival academies means punitive compensation payments. Which means that if you live in Cornwall or Essex – where David Beckham grew up – there is no chance your son will be able to join Manchester United's academy.
The system – which was designed to help smaller clubs develop their own talent – is a ham-fisted attempt at equality by football's super-powerful which ignores one crucial point: elite sportsmen need to develop with the best of their peer group, not in isolation. That is why, in cycling, the 20-year-old Jason Kenny trains with the 32-year-old Chris Hoy.
In France, clubs send their best young footballers to train together at the national federation's regional centres, such as the Clairefontaine academy. In England, the best young footballers are stuck, in the most crucial years of their development, playing and training with 15 others their clubs have rounded up from the locality.
This parochial system means that clubs such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal are instead buying their young talent in, from across the world. At 17, players can sign professional forms, and the academies of our great clubs are increasingly populated by foreign footballers. Buying such youngsters is cheaper than buying their English equivalents because Fifa sets lower compensation tariffs.
But that is not all that is wrong with the system. Young players, recruited locally from the age of eight, have a contract with their club that guarantees them a certain number of games each season. Some coaches believe that this rule is turning out a generation of players who cannot even grasp the concept of playing for their place in the team.
Of course, the big clubs want it all their own way. They want to harvest all the best young English footballers for themselves, take them back to their beautifully appointed academies and make great footballers out of them. And they want to do it for their own, selfish reasons.
Yet as we watch the unapologetic elitism of Team GB rescue the nation's sporting self-esteem, letting the biggest Premier League clubs have their own way is exactly what we should do, for the selfish reason that clubs such as Chelsea and United should not be forced to develop France or Brazil's next generation of footballers for them. They should be developing our own.
Just one sweeping statement at a time please, Mr Cook
A new champion of marketing-speak has hit the Premier League and even Peter Kenyon is running for cover. Manchester City's executive chairman, Garry Cook, throws around phrases like "cultural cascade" in his interview with The Independent today. One minute proposing reducing the Premier League to 10 clubs, with no relegation, the next Cook is promising City will be bigger than United in 10 years. Far be it from me to take the wind out of Cook's sails as he envisages the population of China wearing Darius Vassell shirts by the end of the season, but how about first building a team that can beat Aston Villa?
When Harry Enfield was still funny he did a sketch called "The Dutch Coppers". Eschewing traditional policing methods to sit in his car, smoking dope, Enfield essayed the kind of ludicrous Dutch accent that should be adopted by any reporter who asks a question of Steve McClaren next week, when FC Twente play Arsenal. It's the least he deserves.
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