There is nothing tangible at stake at Gresty Road this afternoon, no championship to play for, no relegation to avoid, but the League One fixture between Crewe Alexandra and Walsall is far from meaningless.
Crewe, long a byword for sustained, patient and intelligent youth development, will field an entire team of academy graduates. It is not a gimmick. While the oldest is 24-year-old Byron Moore only one player, goalkeeper Ben Garratt, will be making his debut and many are regulars.
Meanwhile, in the Premier League, several clubs will not field a single youth product. Last weekend that was the case with the starting XIs of half the teams. Of 220 players, 14 came through the ranks. Only Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United matched Crewe for youth products, the Alex being represented by Ashley Westwood (now Aston Villa) and Billy Jones (West Bromwich). A third ex-Crewe trainee, David Vaughan, came off the bench for Sunderland.
This is, admittedly, a snapshot. On another weekend Arsenal might have fielded Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck could have started for Manchester United and West Ham might have picked Mark Noble. Several others might also have played. But, equally, Alex McCarthy, Victor Anichebe and Ryan Shotton have often been omitted this season. Either way, it is inescapable that very few clubs field players they developed themselves.
Contrast that to events in Munich this week, when the world’s best club in recent years met their probable successors. Nine of the 22 starters in the Bayern-Barcelona semi-final were youth products and three more, David Alaba, Sergio Busquets and Pedro joined their respective clubs before their 18th birthdays. With the exception of Lionel Messi, all are also native to their clubs’ countries. The disparity will, it is claimed, be fixed by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), the exhaustively researched youth development system strong-armed on to a reluctant Football League by the Premier League. One hopes so, for the messages currently coming out of the nation’s premier youth programmes are decidedly mixed.
Recently three of the semi-finalists in the NextGen U-19 series were English. This was understandably hailed as an encouraging sign in a season when the Champions League’s last eight was devoid of English clubs.
However, the semi-finalists, Arsenal, Chelsea and Aston Villa, had very different teams. In the final Villa, who won the competition, and who have shown a bold commitment to native youth in the Premier League this season, fielded an XI drawn entirely from Britain and Ireland. But the Arsenal team beaten in the semi-final by Chelsea was rather more cosmopolitan in hue.
Only three of the XI were from the British Isles. The other eight were all signed between the ages of 16 and 18 from the Continent, including a goalkeeper from Macedonia, Deyan Iliev and, inevitably, another from the Barcelona production line, defender Hector Bellerin.
Arsenal are renowned as a club who give young players a chance, but these imports must make those playing and coaching in their system despair. It is interesting that two of Villa’s winning XI, Lewis Kinsella and Josh Barton, joined the club at 16 from Arsenal.
There are positive role models for the starry-eyed kids at London Colney. but not many. Wilshere came through the ranks and so have two of that NextGen team, Chuba Akpom and Nico Yennaris, Londoners who have been with the club for a decade; if Arsène Wenger is to achieve the English core he seeks without raiding the likes of Southampton again, they will need to continue progressing.
John Terry remains the last player to come through the ranks at Chelsea (Ryan Bertrand was signed from Gillingham on the eve of his 16th birthday) with the club becoming notorious for importing foreign teenagers such as Gaël Kakuta, Lucas Piazon and Patrick van Aanholt. Yet while the NextGen team that beat Arsenal had players from Denmark, France and the Netherlands, the rest of the XI were British, including five players who had been with the club since they were 11. Maybe the youth system, so expensively overhauled, is finally bearing fruit. The next step is stability at first-team level, for it takes a brave manager to give them a run.
Having invested so much in youth, Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, ought to back such a move, for while there are many motives behind EPPP the one which the owners like most is the premise that it will save them money. In Richer Than God David Conn writes of Manchester City’s Etihad complex, “rather than continue signing ready-made footballers for £38m and £45m and £27m at a time the vision was to attract the world’s best young players as teenagers by offering the most lavish of opportunities”. There are, he adds, rooms being built on-site to accommodate the players who will arrive from Africa and Europe.
What, though, is the cost to the boys who do not make it? It is inevitable that clubs of this stature seek talent globally, for only the best will get into their world-class teams. But however good the coaching there are not enough places for all. Then what? It is hard enough being tossed on the scrapheap in your own country, usually having neglected your education: imagine being rejected when your family have given up everything to follow the dream.
In an ideal world there would be a network of clubs like Crewe offering high-quality coaching to local boys but that takes time, commitment and belief. Instead, some lower league clubs have scrubbed their youth systems because of the cost, and a fear their best players will be picked off on the cheap. Meanwhile, too many of their richer brethren cherry-pick, here and abroad, rather than do the hard yards themselves. Maybe EPPP will change this. Maybe.
Rarity value: Native talents
Youth products starting last week:
Arsenal None. Aston Villa Baker, Agbonlahor. Chelsea None. Everton Osman, Anichebe. Fulham None. Liverpool Gerrard, Carragher. Man City None. Man Utd Evans, Giggs. Newcastle S Taylor. Norwich None. QPR None. Reading McCarthy. Stoke Shotton. Southampton Lallana. Sunderland Colback. Swansea Davies. Tottenham None. West Bromwich None. West Ham None. Wigan None.
Qualification: Trained by club before 16th birthday.
Signed around 16: Weimann (Aston Villa), Bertrand (Chelsea), McManaman (Wigan).
1. It’s time to let three sides into the League each year
As seven clubs quiver at the prospect of dropping out of the Football League today it may seem cruel to suggest it is time three teams went down to the Conference rather than two, but those League Two chairman who resist this should note three down also means three up. The Conference is a very hard league to escape – this year’s winners Mansfield are the only club relegated since 2008 to get back into the league, and it took them five years. That shows how high the standard now is in the fifth tier. For reasons of quality, morality and self-interest the time is right for three-up, three-down.
2. How the old forwards got their two bob’s worth
The long-running QPR fanzine A Kick up the R’s recently carried a feature about former Rangers centre-forward Bert Addinall, who played for the club from 1945-53. It described how, after his playing days, he would park his taxi near Loftus Road and pay his two shillings to watch from the terraces. No doubt in years to come Loïc Rémy will be doing the same.
3. Sentiment allows no room for rival clubs to unite
Leafing through The Non-League Paper, the number of Essex-based Ryman League clubs which attract sub-100 gates never ceases to amaze. How do they survive? Logically a few should amalgamate but, despite the success of the Frankenstein club, Dagenham & Redbridge, this is anathema to most fans in a world where the defunct Scarborough gave rise to rival Phoenix clubs. Such passion is the reason these clubs survive, via an army of volunteers.
4. Not all glamour for Danny’s Fearless friends
Next month a new football charity, The Fearless Foundation, in honour of much-missed former Daily Star football writer Danny Fullbrook, is launched with a dinner at Hurlingham featuring Harry Redknapp. The first initiative is less glamorous but very worthwhile, focusing on training young unemployed people to coach in schools. Details available from firstname.lastname@example.org
5. If Cipriani played football he’d be branded a disgrace
Once it became clear that Danny Cipriani was not seriously hurt after running in front of a bus while on a pub crawl, much of the coverage was humorous. Were he a footballer, of course, it would have been censorious; maybe the Prime Minister would have joined in. Are rugby players not role models too?