Need to nurture the young

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The Independent Online
IF SOME revealing information is anything to go by, Alex Ferguson and Howard Wilkinson are entitled to be spared the quite ludicrous responsibility of explaining why they refused last month to supply England with players for a youth tournament.

For the benefit of anyone who is not fully conversant with the issue, it arose when Ferguson and Wilkinson, respectively managers of Manchester United and Leeds United, stood out resolutely and in my view, justifiably, against a rule that requires clubs to support the national team at all times and in every age group.

Fine in essence, the rule becomes seriously flawed when it intrudes upon the delicate process of bringing young footballers forward.

This brings me to a recent conversation with Great Britain's senior athletics coach, Frank Dick, who is at a loss to explain why so many aspirants leave his sport prematurely. Athletics is largely a mystery to me as it probably is to Ferguson and Wilkinson, but from what Dick had to say it might be an idea for them to get together with him.

For example, they will surely be interested to learn that for a variety of reasons, physical, emotional or just plain hardship, 50 per cent of the juniors who represented Great Britain in 1986 (John Regis is a notable survivor) have disappeared from the sport. From 1987 34 per cent are no longer competing. Dick said: 'Of the 56 athletes we sent to the world junior championships in 1988, 19 have retired, approximately 35 per cent. Only 11 made it to the Olympic Games. In four years you would expect a better return than that.'

Those figures, and he admits they are extremely disappointing, has persuaded Dick to question the merits of a concept based on elitism. 'When you find the kids, when you've got them up there in front of you, what are you actually doing for them?' he asked. 'In my mind there should be a level of responsibility at that point which would involve me as director of coaching.'

It is when this laudable notion broadens to embrace other sports, including football, that we get to Ferguson and Wilkinson who have been ordered to appear before the Football Association later this month. In Dick's view, and only a fool would challenge it, as soon as a young player of outstanding potential emerges, a conversation between his club and his national association should begin right away.

As he puts it: 'It we don't collectively provide youngsters in every sport with the level of support they need we are letting them down. Whatever the activity it's all of you that goes out there, not just your body. It's actually about who you are.'

Going back a few months, Tottenham Hotspur came into a serious conflict of interest with the FA, when their most promising young footballer, Nick Barmby, was selected by England for the World Youth Cup in Australia. As it meant he would not be available for an FA Cup tie, Tottenham's annoyance was understandable but it clouded the real issue.

Nobody can tell how rapidly a youngster will develop, and in Barmby's case he progressed from junior to senior level in a short space of time. That is why dialogue along the lines Dick suggests is so important. In order to keep faith with Fifa, which frequently is out of order in these matters, the FA insisted on Barmby's release, thus exposing him to unnecessary physical and emotional stress. He is now under treatment for shin splints, an extremely painful condition that could well affect the rest of his career.

These days, of course, money comes into it in a big way, making life increasingly difficult for athletics coaches when trying to nurture the talent they work with.

Recently, there was the case of David Grindley who was fancied for a medal at 400 metres in the World Championships until he broke down shortly after running second to Michael Johnson in Zurich. A more mature athlete might not have pushed himself so hard so close to such an important time in his career. If Grindley had sensibly been asked to state a preference, Zurich or Stuttgart, what would have been his answer?

Physical injury is a hazard in every sport. To win, you've got to be there and compete. There isn't any other way. Unfortunately for the future of sport, there is now too much of it.

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