Young players at Premier League clubs must use the loan lottery if they want to make it – the Under-21 league is too soft and sanitised

The Weekend Dossier: At that level you understood that people, their families and their jobs were on the line

For Andros Townsend the loan system worked wonderfully. After nine years being developed in Tottenham’s youth system he was sent out on loan to discover the wider world. In all he went to nine clubs between the ages of 17 and 21, gradually working his way up from League One to the Premier League. So when Aaron Lennon was injured at the start of this season, Townsend was ready to seize his chance.

For Adam Smith, Townsend’s former youth-team colleague, the loan system worked differently. The 22-year-old defender signed on a permanent basis for Bournemouth last month three years after a loan spell with the Cherries. He also played on loan for Wycombe, Torquay, MK Dons, Leeds, Millwall and Derby, but only for 14 minutes for Spurs, the club he joined from school.

It is too early to say whether Jonathan Obika, another Spurs academy graduate, will follow Townsend’s path or Smith’s. The striker, 23, this window joined Brighton, the 10th loan of his career. All these loans have not, it seems, equipped him to replace Toronto-bound Jermain Defoe on the subs’ bench at White Hart Lane.

In May Obika scored one and made the other as Spurs lost the final of the inaugural Under-21 Premier League 3-2 to Manchester United. The goal was his 18th in the competition, which is billed as the finishing school for the Premier League’s much-heralded Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), the scheme designed to end the talent loss which occurs between 18 and 21.

In its debut season the professional Under-21 development league was split (at elite, category A level) into three divisions leading into a second-stage group then a knockout conclusion. This season there is one 22-club division with the top four going into a knockout. In addition there is an Under-21 cup (open to all academies). Next season there are two divisions with promotion and relegation.  

The ever-changing structure reflects, said the Premier League, “a work in progress”, which is a polite way of saying the clubs, so far, are not impressed. Take Everton, who are one of the few Premier League clubs consistently developing their own players. Their Under-21 team is in danger of finishing in the bottom half of the league and thus starting next season in the second tier. Yet this January Everton have sent five of their leading Under-21 players out on loan, including the captain Tylas Browning and England Under-19 centre-forward Hallam Hope. As a result the Under-21 team Everton fielded against Aston Villa on Monday had an average age of 17.

They follow a well-trodden path. Ross Barkley played for Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United on loan last season, Leon Osman went to Carlisle and Derby. The downside of loaning players is that the parent club cannot control the environment, or, usually, dictate when and where a player plays. The upside is that they get to experience football in the raw.

The Under-21 league is regarded as good technically, but soft. Not enough is at stake, and it is not physical enough. In short, there is no hairy-arsed centre-back in the team who will grab a 20-year-old twinkletoes, shove him up against the dressing-room wall, and deliver an almighty bollocking for costing the centre-half the win-bonus he needs to pay the mortgage by playing around with the ball in the wrong goal area. As Joe Hart has said of his early years at Shrewsbury Town: “At that level you understood that people, their families and their jobs were on the line. If you didn’t perform, things could get nasty. That was the environment I grew up in and it served me well.”

Going on loan to the lower leagues also exposes those youngsters who have been molly-coddled from their early teens the reality of life outside the elite. Stevenage’s Jimmy Smith said last week of leaving Chelsea, where he had been a schoolboy starlet: “You’ve got your own locker. your own plug in your locker, and your name on your locker. Then you go somewhere else and you’ve just got a peg.”

Then there is the experience of playing in front of a crowd. Leroy Rosenior once told me most people had no idea of the courage it took just to go out and perform before spectators who could quickly turn on you. As Smith added: “You’re playing for points, you’ve got fans who work all week, come to the game on a Saturday, and it means so much to them. It’s not just about yourself.”

The problem for those charged with developing players is that they need to replicate playing “real” games while encouraging passing, possession-based football of the type that will incur the hairy-arsed centre-half’s wrath when it goes wrong.

So promotion and relegation are being  been introduced in the Under-21 league to create result pressure. The cup ties must be played at a stadium rather than a training ground so players – many of whom have played all their formative football in that sanitised setting – experience playing in a big arena with noisy spectators (clubs are encouraged to attract fans). So far, however, it is not enough. Colin Cooper, manager of Hartlepool, observed when signing Jack Barmby (son of Nick) on loan, “Manchester United and his dad feel he’s ready to step up from Under-21 football.” Barmby, 19, could play another two-and-half years at U21 level.

He is just one of dozens of players eligible to play in the Under-21 competition who were this month sent out on loan. This is on top of those loaned out before Christmas. However, as Terry Westley, the Premier League head of professional development, said, “We have over 380 contracted young players who do not go out on loan so we’ve got to provide a programme for those players.”

Think about these numbers. There are more than 400 players aged 18-21, plus there are another 350 aged 16-18, all at 20 Premier League clubs. Which is a lot of teenagers chasing a dream few will realise.

It is impossible for them all to make it as there are not enough players retiring to make room, and it can be argued that there are too many academies and too many teenagers being conned into sacrificing their education and friendships in the belief they can be a professional footballer.

However, the current drop-out rate – more than three-quarters of players leave the professional game between the ages of 18 and 21 – is appalling. So the quest goes on to find a way to realise the potential of young English footballers. With the spectre of feeder clubs lurking in the background it is not just their dreams that are at stake.

Leaving home: Under-21 loanees

Arsenal C Akpom (age 18, to Brentford), B Afobe (20, Sheff W) D Boateng (21, Hibs). Aston Villa  J Graham (18, Bradford C), M Drennan (19,  Carlisle). Chelsea K Omeru (20, M’boro),  P Bamford (20, Derby), B Traore (18, V Arnhem), N Chalobah (19, M’boro), J McEachran (20, Wigan). Everton T Browning (19, Wigan), M Kennedy (19, Tranmere), C Long (18, MK Dons), M Pennington (19, Tranmere), H Hope (19, Northampton). Fulham J Grimmer (19, Port Vale), M Bettinelli (21, Accrington), S Arthurworrey (19, Tranmere). Hull C Townsend (20, Carlisle). Liverpool R McLaughlin (19, Barnsley), C Roddan (20, Accrington), T Ilori (20, Granada), M Ngoo (21, Walsall). Manchester City J Guidetti (21, Stoke), A Rusnak (19, Birmingham), E Huws (20, Birmingham). Manchester  United J Barmby (19, Hartlepool), W Zaha (21, Cardiff), C Ekangamene ( 19, Carlisle), S Byrne (18, Carlisle), T Blackett (19, Birmingham), T Thorpe (21, Birmingham).  Newcastle A Campbell (18, St Mirren), C Good (20, Dundee U). Norwich J Loza (19, Leyton  Orient). Swansea R Donnelly (21, Coventry), L Lucas (21, Cheltenham). Sunderland M Mandron (19, Fleetwood), B Knott (21, Port Vale), D  Whatmore (19, Hibs), D Moberg Karlsson (19, Kilmarnock). Tottenham S Coulthirst (19, Leyton Orient), R Fredericks (21, Millwall). West  Bromwich G Thorne (21, Derby). West Ham B Turgott (19, Rotherham), P McCallum (20, Hearts), G Moncur (20, Partick).

*All eligible for U21 league (born after 1/1/92). All have gone on loan in this window. List not exhaustive.

Five asides

1. Strikers win matches

It took six minutes for Robin van Persie to confirm the belief that if he and Wayne Rooney had been fit all season Manchester United would be in the top four, maybe challenging for the title. And without them United would not have won the championship last year. Sometimes it is about players, not managers.

2. Plastic inevitable

The Conference’s vote against artificial pitches is not just a blow to Ryman League promotion hopefuls Maidstone United, but also a short-sighted decision. The Stones’ Fifa-standard pitch is used by all manner of teams – young, disabled, male, female – making the club a community hub. It is the future.

3. Unhealthy policies

Yet another report, this from the Royal Institute of Architects, identifies lack of spaces in which to exercise safely as a factor in rising obesity. Meanwhile the Government continues to sanction the sale of playing fields, invests just £10m in football facilities, and shows no obvious interest in assisting other sports either.

4. Open NFL sets example

There is blanket coverage of the Super Bowl in the US media, free advertising hugely increasing the event’s value. This has much to do with every player being available to the press several times this week. In England too many football clubs regard the media as the enemy rather than symbiotic partners.

5. England duo for Notts Co

Never mind deadline day, the real transfer activity is in the women’s game. Half the national team have moved, with Rachel Unitt and Dunia Susi joining Notts County in the latest switch, while Chelsea added a Swede and a South Korean to four England recruits. 

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