Sam Wallace: French lesson for academy system takes a leaf out of Lilleshall's book

Lilleshall was a brave coaching experiment that worked in a more innocent time
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The Independent Online

Imagine if one club's academy produced Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Sol Campbell, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, Andy Cole, Wes Brown, Nicky Barmby and Scott Parker. Blimey, Chelsea would have their scouts parked permanently outside with a good pair of binoculars and a pile of blank contracts.

Those players have one thing in common: they were all graduates of Lilleshall, the Football Association's former national school for outstanding young footballers, which has now been shut for 10 years. It is not just the 10-year anniversary that makes it poignant but the fact that the last major graduate of Lilleshall – Defoe – is now approaching his peak years as a player.

After Defoe, the Lilleshall legacy will wither away, another memory from English football's past. Tony Pickerin, the former principal, who is still fondly mentioned by the likes of Joe Cole as the firm but fair headmaster, is now retired and declined to talk when contacted by The Independent this week. Not surprising, because it was football politics that did for Lilleshall. But Lilleshall might just be due a comeback.

Lilleshall, or rather the coaching model that brings together the very best players from all over the country to live and train together, is back in vogue. In fact, French football has just approved a radical change to the way they develop young players. Their club academy system which, like England, produces so many footballers who never make it, is out. Centralised academies and fewer players are in.

Lilleshall was a brave experiment that worked in a more innocent time for English football. The best schoolboys in the land, whether they were affiliated to a club or not, were sent for a trial in Shropshire and, if successful, stayed from between the ages of 14 and 16 for an intensive football education before returning to their clubs.

Yes, there were mistakes. Steven Gerrard was unaccountably rejected at trial. But the French were so impressed that they set up an identical string of regional academies for the same age group – of which the famous Clairefontaine is one – and, as time was being called on Lilleshall, some of France's kids were in the 1998 World Cup-winning team.

English football went the other way. The then Premier League chief executive Rick Parry decreed that clubs should have their own academies, albeit restricted in their scope for recruitment by geographical limitations. More clubs established academies than had been intended and now instead of a select few there are 41. The practice of poaching foreign teenagers has grown, which led to the unedifying Gaël Kakuta affair at Chelsea. Quotas for home-grown players have been introduced to appease the governing bodies Uefa and Fifa.

Last week, Arsène Wenger laid out the problem for English clubs: they are squeezed by the academy system's limitations at home and a potential ban on signing foreign under-18s from abroad. The system is creaking. The progressive recommendations made by Richard Lewis, in his 2007 report into youth development, have been killed off in the committee rooms.

The answer may lie with a visionary youth coach from France. Frédéric Paquet is the academy director of Lille OSC and he has formulated the plan to scrap the very system he is part of. French clubs are already reducing the amount of boys in their academies and soon they will thin down the age groups from 15 to 18 to a handful of players. Those boys will attend regional academies with their peers from other clubs.

Paquet has already given presentations on his plans to Premier League academy directors. In England it would mean the end of academy football as we know it. No youth teams, no big academy facilities at every top club. Just a handful of super-academies, like Lilleshall, dotted around the country coaching the best players from the surrounding clubs.

Paquet makes a persuasive case. "In France we have between 32 and 35 club academies who spend a total of €70m-€80m [£64m-£73m] a year," he told The Independent. "That means each year we produce 250 to 300 players. We only need 100 each year so that makes between 100 and 200 unemployed. This is almost stupid.

"At Lille we have 60 players between the age of 16 and 19 and of that group we think only 10 have the ability to make it as professionals. Why, as a sport, are we spending €80m for a 70 per cent failure rate?"

Paquet believes that the best players from across the country training with each other every day will mean they have a greater exponential improvement. He admits there are drawbacks, that a young player will not be immersed in the culture of his particular club. But he poses one fundamental question. "At the end of the day the question is: what system is more efficient in making good players?"

There are obvious problems with a centralised academy system, such as smaller clubs losing boys who have their heads turned. When Trevor Sinclair was a teenager, Blackpool opposed him attending Lilleshall for fear of losing him to a bigger club. Incredibly, in Lilleshall's early years, it was suggested that the FA should own the registrations of the players and the clubs then buy them from the governing body.

That idea looks absurdly old- fashioned now because the clubs have all the power and if the Paquet system was to be adopted in England it would, in all likelihood, be the Premier League and Football League which administered it rather than the FA. But one thing is clear: the academy system that produces the next generation of young English players needs a revamp.

That is not to say that the current system that Howard Wilkinson came up with in 1997 was completely wrong; just that, with football having changed dramatically, it might not be right for today. As usual, the French are forging ahead with an idea that is bold and interesting and English football owes it to the next generation to keep up.

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