The Last Word: Talk of revolt at folly of youth system
Suspension of NextGen series and worries over Premier League plans leave coaches up in arms
Sunday 18 August 2013
It was the future, and it worked. The NextGen Series was football's finishing school, in essence the Champions' League for Europe's best young players. A tournament featuring 24 teams drawn from 12 nations created excitement and expectation in the name of progress and education.
Over two seasons, a teenaged elite emerged. Current champions, Aston Villa, unearthed Gary Gardner, a midfield player of rare promise. Nathan Aké smashed the glass ceiling protecting Chelsea's first-team squad. Arsenal's Chuba Akpom announced himself as a natural goalscorer. Raheem Sterling broke through at Liverpool.
Tottenham's philosophy of cultivating mobile, technically adept youth players was embodied by Alex Pritchard, a small, two-footed attacking midfielder. Further afield, Viktor Fischer, at Ajax, and Sergi Samper, of Barcelona, were hailed as embryonic superstars.
Scouts were mesmerised. Coaches learned how their best young footballers coped with the rhythms and challenges, both tactical and cultural, of regular continental competition. Club executives saw, in the precocity of home-grown players, a solution to a new era of financial fair play. The initiative was too good for its own good.
Though Friday's announcement of NextGen's suspension for a year because of "a lack of definite funding" was largely lost in the small print of a new Premier League season, its significance lies in the political and commercial machinations which led to its demise. Aston Villa academy director, Bryan Jones, spoke for many when he condemned the situation as "shameful and hugely disappointing".
The usual suspects stand accused of blatant self-interest. Uefa, driven by the expansionist principles of their president, Michel Platini, sought to kill the NextGen project by unveiling the Youth Cup, a rival competition run on similar lines. The Premier League rejected the opportunity to support a counter proposal guaranteeing entry to 16 English clubs in an expanded 32-team event.
Their response, to offer clubs a series of weekly tournaments, featuring three games at a cost of £50,000 to each entrant, merely increased the sense of alienation with the £340 million Elite Player Performance Plan, which purports to be a blueprint for a better England team, supplied by a streamlined, strategically driven coaching system.
Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, hails it as "a huge breakthrough". Clubs are obliged to employ more coaches, who theoretically spend more contact time developing young English players in state-of-the-art facilities. Yet resistance to the plan, and scepticism about the viability of the new Under-21 League, are growing. There is a widespread lack of faith in Ged Roddy, the Premier League's youth director. Clubs like Manchester City and Liverpool are understood to have grave doubts about a system which is regarded as excessively bureaucratic and philosophically flawed. Villa and West Bromwich Albion are among those angered by the iniquities of the compensation system for players poached by rivals.
Crewe's Director of Football, Dario Gradi, the most respected figure in youth development, complains that coaches are spending too much time in front of computers rather than working with players on the training pitch. Several coaches of my acquaintance admit they have been distracted by obligations to supply PMA, the Premier League's new data system.
These are not natural agitators. They are educated, passionate football men. They understand the magnitude of the task and the extent of previous failures. They promise any revolt will be tempered by realism.
Perspective is stark. A Liverpool side containing Sterling, Andre Wisdom, Jack Robinson and Jonjo Shelvey, who all played in the England Under-21 team which thrashed Scotland 6-0 in midweek, was beaten 8-1 on aggregate by Sporting Lisbon in the NextGen Series. They lost 6-0 at home to Ajax. Clubs in Spain, Holland, Italy and Germany are light years ahead of their English counterparts. Smaller nations like Portugal, Greece and Belgium, where Anderlecht excel at youth level, are immensely more productive.
We are the poor little rich boys of Europe. Our future doesn't work.
Hero Hall deserves all help he can get
How far would you go to support your football club? Would you sacrifice the family home and face bankruptcy because of your commitment to tradition and the truth? Micah Hall has done so, in the name of Portsmouth.
Hall was one of the originators of the Pompey Supporters' Trust, which took control of the club in April following a four-year protest campaign. His investigative work, examining a series of shady owners, helped expose the flaws in football's fit-and-proper person test.
He was working unpaid for the Trust earlier this year when Malaysian bankers Pascal Najadi and his father, Hussain, who were involved in the unsuccessful takeover attempt fronted by financier Keith Harris, sued for libel. The court recognised Hall had no case to answer and ordered his costs, £20,000, should be paid by the complainants. Hall doubts this will happen, because on July 29 Hussain Najadi was assassinated. His son remains in Moscow on business and did not attend his funeral.
Hall, who sold his house to meet earlier legal bills, is dependent on a fighting fund started, in his name by Portsmouth fans. He deserves football's support, and gratitude.
Let's enjoy Mo
Mo Farah, touted as Britain's best-ever athlete, has the pioneering spirit of Sir Roger Bannister and the grit and grace of Sebastian Coe. His importance as a cross-cultural role model is unchallengeable. Yet, instead of pigeon holing him for historical purposes, let's enjoy him while we can.
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