When I heard that the Football Association had announced a new vision for the way it wants young footballers to play when they are representing England, my mind went back to a meeting I had a few years ago with an FA coach at Tottenham’s training ground.
I should say that the new regime under Dan Ashworth, the director of elite development at the FA, is very different now, but the frustration that we had at Spurs back then with the FA was its identification of the best players. On this occasion I had an FA coach in my office whose job it was to identify and keep tabs on who he regarded as the leading players in a particular age group.
Every time this coach would concentrate on one particular boy who, at Spurs, we felt had long since dropped off the pace. We had tried our best to help him to fulfil his potential but it was getting to the stage where, as eventually happened, he was going to have to leave the club. Yet every time, without fail, he was selected for his England age-group team.
To satisfy my own curiosity, I asked the coach in question when he had last seen the boy play. He ummed and ahhed and stared up at the ceiling of my office for a little while and then said he had seen him play at his loan club. I pointed out that he must have been watching a lot of that particular club because the lad in question had only managed a few minutes as a substitute.
When I suggested an alternative, a boy who had been doing really well for our youth teams, my suggestion was ignored.
Fair enough, that was the FA’s prerogative, and we all see the game differently. It is no easy task to keep a handle on so many different clubs. Even so, there seemed to be a tendency back then to stick with what they knew, rather than who had come through more recently.
It changed when I started to deal with Gareth Southgate when he joined the FA. He would pick my brains about young Spurs players and we would invite him over to watch training and games. I recommended Tom Carroll, who is well established in the Under-21s now.
I wish Dan Ashworth and Gareth the best with their “England DNA” plan, to try to instil a playing style and values in the young men who represent the junior England teams right up to the seniors.
Youth development is something I feel passionate about but the power to make the big change is in the hands of the clubs. They scout, train and develop the boys on a day-to-day basis and, ultimately, it is they who either pick the players in the first team or not.
I fear that at some clubs there is a climate of fear around the selection of young players. Obviously, it starts with the manager, who is working on such a short-term basis that he is afraid to select those young academy players because he feels pressure to win games immediately, in order to keep his job.
It is worth nothing that one thing you learn quickly as a manager is that young players do not let you down any more than the experienced ones. In fact, the only guarantee with the experienced players is that they will be expensive. You need to be brave.
The academy coaches at leading clubs are under a lot of pressure – more than people can imagine – to produce players who will perform the very moment they step into the first team. That is not right.
Young players take time and they have to be allowed to make the same mistakes as any player makes. But there are too few managers who can give them that latitude.
There are recriminations when a young player comes into the first team from the junior sides and does not perform. That means that you can develop a culture at the club where it is easier for the academy coaches if the manager does not select young players. That way, at least if the youngsters never get a game, they can never fail. What a mess.
For the academy coaches, pointing to a manager’s reluctance to select academy players is their “get out of jail” card.
My view is different. As a manager I want to know who the next crop are and when they are handed over by the academy to the seniors I do not expect the finished article. I just want something that I can work with and try to polish up as a player to be good enough, over time, for the first team. If you do not have at least one or two players in the academy who can make the step up into the first team then I would consider that a disgraceful state of affairs at any professional club.
At Spurs there was the opportunity to build the team around a nucleus of home-grown players, including those like Steven Caulker and Jake Livermore who were sold before they had the chance to flourish.
Against Chelsea on Wednesday it was notable that the young academy boys like Harry Kane and Ryan Mason were those who had the better games.
In order to build a team, and a squad, you need a manager or a sporting director who knows what the club have already. I am sure that is what Spurs’ new head of recruitment Paul Mitchell will be doing now – watching the junior age-group teams, observing first-team training – because only then do you build up a picture of where the gaps need filling.
Every club has some potential in its academy that can be nurtured, and there is no point spending money before you have thoroughly assessed what you already have.
For the Premier League clubs, however, football is a business and a highly successful one. Their priority is not making the England team stronger. Their priority is the most successful team they can get on the pitch within the parameters of their budget.
Producing players for the national team is the preoccupation of the FA and it does not have the control of the academies.
If it is so hard to produce young players, why do Barcelona and Ajax, for example, manage to do it year after year? Their leagues are less competitive, which helps, but it is also about the value that they place on that process.
If you look at the performances of the England junior teams over the last year, they have been good. The senior team have a large proportion of graduates from that process. The FA is doing something right.
In the future it will have to make sure that its identification of players is right on the money.
Even when I was an Under-21 international myself, I can remember there were some who were a certainty for the squad every time, yet never made it in the seniors. Picking the best players might sound a simple starting point, but it is not always as easy as it looks.
The only way to shut up the moaners is to win matches
When he looks at it in the cold light of day, the Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson will realise that there is not much you can do about supporters who want to criticise from the stands during games. It is not pleasant, but when push comes to shove you just have to put up with it.
There were a few experts sitting around the dugout when I was in charge at White Hart Lane. They always knew who wasn’t playing well and who needed to be substituted. I don’t mind the flak aimed at managers – we can take it. I just feel that at times there is a danger it can affect the confidence of certain players.
The bottom line, however, is that fans pay their money and they can say what they like.
You cannot ban them from saying anything, that would be ridiculous. You just need to be thick-skinned enough to take it – and to know that once you win a few games it all goes away.
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