Playschool for tomorrow's stars

Guy Hodgson on the summer camp attracting Europe's best young players
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In the sort of dream Gordon Strachan hopes he will never have to leave, Coventry City are leading Ajax of Amsterdam 3-0. Pure fantasy, of course? Not at all. It happened last week.

Before supporters ring Highfield Road in protest at missing a glamorous fixture, it ought to be hastily pointed out that the match was being played by under-13 footballers. Nevertheless the scoreline was real enough and so, sceptical City fans would argue, was the outcome, Ajax rallying to make the result 3-3.

The match was one of three being staged in the leafy confines of Keele University - Parma and Manchester United were on one pitch, the more prosaic Middlesbrough versus Nottingham Forest on another. The games, like those being played at under-12 level this week, were not for points but they were not pointless either. The future, not the present being the priority.

"Each team has five games," Dave Richardson, the Premier League's director of youth development, said. "There are no cups, medals, or records kept and only the clubs know how they have done. Hopefully, they bring a group here with a view to getting a picture of what needs to be done with their boys ready for 97-98 season beginning in September."

The five-week programme, which has incorporated teams ranging from under- 18 to under-12s, stemmed from Richardson's work when he was assistant manager in charge of development at Aston Villa. Then it was apparent the school summer holidays were an ideal time to meet teams they would not normally play and from a loose collection of clubs seven years ago it has burgeoned into the current scheme.

Foreign clubs have been incorporated, Parma and Ajax last week, Antwerp and Feyenoord this. Which allows coaches - Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Derby were the other English clubs represented last week - to compare schoolboy development domestically and abroad.

Last week, the comparison was not flattering, Ajax defeating Liverpool 5-0, although Richardson would not draw definitive conclusions from that. "Funnily enough it's only two weeks ago that Liverpool beat Ajax 4-0 at under 16s," he said. "That's typical of schoolboy football. One week is high, another low.

"Ajax play 11-a-side from 10 years old on, while we, and other countries in Europe, prefer games with smaller numbers. When Liverpool were beaten it was some of their players' first introduction to 11 against 11. It'll be interesting to see how they develop in six to nine months' time."

A schoolboy coach's raison d'etre is tomorrow and while Richardson was loath to over-condemn Liverpool for last week's result he could note a trend. Manchester United (surprise, surprise) appear to have the best British youngsters along with Arsenal. It is Ajax, again to no great amazement, whose skills burn brightest.

"Their technique is better," Richardson said. "Whenever we ask the foreign coaches why they come over to England it's for them to experience the physical side of our game. Even at this stage it's apparent. I'm hoping that in a few years' time it won't just be the physical side that they come to experience but our technical ability as well."

Watching Coventry pitch their strength and agility against the heirs to the Dutch masters were the Premiership referee Martin Bodenham and the former Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith.

Different people, different priorities and Bodenham was overseeing an off-shoot of the programme exposing promising young referees to more elevated competition. "It gives them a chance to referee at a higher level and then I and other referees can advise them as to how they can improve and enjoy themselves. Anyone who shows real promise will be brought to the notice of the FA and the Premier League. They just won't be names on sheets of paper."

Smith, still wearing an impressive tan from a recent coaching trip in Israel, was there to see how clubs are nourishing the grass roots. "European teams are more gifted," he said. "That's why we're importing so many players at the moment. There isn't the real quality there. We're about 15 years behind countries like Germany, Holland and Spain but weeks like this will help. Look at it, you couldn't do much better than this.

"The old time professional had it in his mind that football was a part- time living. They played at it. These boys are learning otherwise. They train in the morning and afternoon. they learn about diet and stretching. It's a whole re-education programme."

That education is urgently needed. "I saw Aston Villa play a Swedish side in the Uefa Cup last year and it was embarrassing," Smith said. "Our players were miles behind. This is the route we have to go. We can't go on having 500 professionals in the Premiership with 120 of them from abroad."

This week's work in Keele will go some way to correcting that balance. Maybe then Coventry City 3, Ajax 0 will not seem to belong to fantasy.