As Greg Dyke presented to the Football Association board the findings of his inquiry into the domestic game's failure to develop sufficient young English players, Stoke City's Britannia Stadium hosted a match that could be part of the answer.
As Dyke's report revealed anew, the English game is a thicket of vested interests, few of whom can see beyond their own needs. As a result one section rarely trusts another. For many years this was the case with the professional game and the schools. Wednesday's final of the Premier League Schools Cup highlighted the rapprochement between these two factions after years of mutual antipathy.
Most of the 16- and 17-year-old boys of St Francis Xavier's College, Liverpool, and Whitgift School, Croydon, were not even born when the two camps fell out in 1997 and a study of their squads highlights the difficulties involved in bringing together the warring parties.
Given these schools emerged from a competition which has as many entrants as the FA Cup, it is surprising that only one of the players was at a professional academy (Whitgift's Andre Coker, at Crystal Palace).
Or is it? The problem is there are only so many talented kids, and everyone wants them. If a player is at a professional academy he will not play as much for his school, if at all.
Until 1997 the schools had first call, followed by the district, county and region. With the clubs also playing youth matches, the best boys were involved in far too many games, leading to over-use injuries, and reducing the time spent learning through coaching.
Then Howard Wilkinson launched, with similar fanfare to Dyke this week, the FA Charter for Quality. The Premier League clubs were already the most powerful grouping in the game and the report stated "categorically that the best environment in which to develop talent is inside our major professional clubs". The Charter hugely increased the access professional clubs had to youngsters below the age of 16 – and cut the power of the English Schools FA.
"As the academies blossomed, there was only one place the children could come from and that was the schools," said John Read, chief executive of the ESFA. "It is fair to say there was a little animosity."
This was fuelled by some professionals regarding teachers as "amateurs in blazers" who were unable to coach, some academies banning boys from playing for their schools, and some teachers suspecting clubs had little concern for boys' long-term welfare.
"But," said Read, "In the last 10 years there has been a lot of hard work to get past that. We found talking to each other, instead of sending emails and letters, made a difference," he added. "We get on well with the clubs now."
One major initiative is to reduce the wastage that is a by-product of clubs, in their hunt for diamonds, taking on too many boys, then releasing them. I once coached a goalkeeper who, at 12, had already been dropped by four club academies and no longer wanted to play in goal as a result. This waste of talent, said Read, is not unusual.
"We want a system that can breathe in and out," said Martin Heather, the Premier League's head of education. "When players are released from an academy they need somewhere they can go. At present that means a club lower down the ladder, which many kids find difficult. The aim is to offer an alternative within the education system. There is a lot of fantastic club football going on, but some kids are disenfranchised as they can't afford it. Schools are free."
The 25 Category One academy clubs link with local school district teams, initially at Under-11 level. The latter use academy facilities for matches and pick up those boys who are discarded. It is hoped they will also provide their replacements. The idea is that by still playing at academy facilities, the boys will not feel as rejected, and have more chance of regaining their places. Clubs are also less likely to miss out on late-developing talent.
The Stoke match is the flagship of this alliance but, added Heather, "if that was all we did it would be tokenism. This is part of a wider investment."
That spending will involve improving coaching within schools, though it is yet to be decided whether that means sending Premier League coaches into schools, training teachers to be coaches, or both.
"Teachers get battered a lot but a lot would willingly get involved," adds Heather, a former teacher himself as well as an ex-academy coach. "They need help and support. The PE education primary school teachers get while training is minimal."
Quality coaching certainly helps. Whitgift, a school charging £11,132 a term for full-boarders and £5,780 for day pupils, though with a comparatively high number of scholarships and bursaries, has Colin Pates (ex-Arsenal and Chelsea) as head of football and Steve Kember (ex-Crystal Palace player and manager) coaching the year 11 finalists. Alumni include Chelsea's Victor Moses and Bertrand Traoré (currently on loan to Liverpool and Vitesse Arnhem respectively).
Facilities are also significant. Being a private school, Whitgift neither needs nor is eligible for Football Foundation funding, but five of the other quarter-finalists had 3G pitches part-funded by the Foundation (now the FA and Premier League Facilities Fund). St Francis Xavier's is an exception but, explained headmaster Les Rippon, "we are fortunate to have extensive playing fields, 13-14 acres of green space, on site, though we are aiming for a 3G so we can play under lights in winter in midweek, and when the weather has been bad."
Founded by Jesuits in the mid-19th century, St Francis Xavier's is the former school of Liverpool's Jon Flanagan – indeed, they wear kit donated by him as part of the Premier League's Players Kit Scheme. Sammy Lee and Mike Newell also attended but the school specialises in mathematics and computing rather than sport – the year 11 coach, Kenny Glover doubles up as a maths teacher.
It does, though, take sport seriously. "We believe sport should be an entitlement for all pupils," said Rippon, "but that competitive sport is really important. It teaches leadership, reliability, self-awareness and determination. These are skills employers look for alongside academic qualifications."
Those qualities were certainly tested at Stoke in a gripping match made extraordinary by the parallels with Liverpool's dramatic draw at Crystal Palace less than 48 hours earlier. As at Selhurst Park the team from Merseyside took a three-goal lead, only to be pegged back to all square by their south London opponents. Whitgift then went ahead, but St Francis Xavier's forced extra time when Michael Fearnehough completed his hat-trick with an 87th-minute penalty. With no further goals Fearnehough then struck the winning penalty in a shootout to ensure one Merseyside team would be celebrating this week.Reuse content