The Times January 05, 2007
Big not always beautiful in obsession with today rather than
OWEN SLOT, CHIEF SPORTS REPORTER
The conclusion of a three-part series looks at how the Scholes and Gerrards of the future
could slip through the net in the drive for results. If the bad news is that there is a drain of
young football talent in this country, the good news is that it has been recognised and a review of
the academy system is under way. One academy director, when asked his views, recently
delivered an entire paper about one word at the heart of the problem: fear. The clubs’ youth
academies, he wrote, were riddled with it.
This paper was sent to Huw Jennings, the youth development manager for the FA Premier
League, who was familiar with the theme. “Some academy managers and staff feel the pressure
to get results and are concerned about the fear of failure as opposed to opportunities to succeed,”
he said. “And that can transmit to the players.”
According to Scott Sellars, now a youth coach at Sheffield United and formerly a player at
Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, this culture is obliterating a whole tranche of talent. “I,
for one,” he said, “would probably never have made it if I was playing today.
“Academies foster a winning culture, not a development culture; that is the issue. Too much
revolves around winning games rather than progressing players. The result is that we are
developing big, physically strong players rather than technically gifted ones. And I wasn’t big and
strong. Today, the better players are often getting left behind.
“The word in fashion that drives me mad is ‘athlete’. Everyone has to be one. But you should be a
footballer first, not an athlete. Watch Barcelona, I don’t see a lot of athletes there, I see
footballers. We’ve got to get away from this. Look at England in World Cups: time and again
we’re not good enough technically.”
The chorus of disapproval is loud. “A big part of the problem is that clubs should be teaching the
kids to play with technical ability rather than physical ability,” Liam Brady, the Arsenal head of
youth development said. “The Dutch are technically more able than the English, the French and
Italians are too. These countries have the same sociological problems, their talent pool is
shrinking, too, yet they teach their kids to play properly.
“The clubs that teach properly here reap the rewards. Look at West Ham. In my opinion the
culture has to change at younger age groups; less long ball, more emphasis on technical ability.”
If you are a prospective scout or coach attending the FA’s Talent ID course,
then this is the very point. On the course, you are shown a scrawny-looking young boy and
informed that his technique is what we should be looking at, not his physique. The lad in the
picture turns out to be a young Steven Gerrard. Heaven help a system that would have let him
The problems here are short-termism linked to overriding ambition.
Academy directors are often former players who come from a first-team environment that makes
them: a) unlikely educationists suddenly expected to be specialists in child development, b) likely
to view the academy job as a stepping stone into management, and c) addicted to winning.
Yet developing future stars and winning every Sunday morning at under-14 level do not go hand
in hand. That is why results are not officially recorded until under-18 level. It is also why Fulham
hold parenting courses every year for the mothers and fathers of the boys on their books where
they explain how to behave on the touchline, that performance is paramount and that they should
not be throwing their toys if their boy doesn’t come home with a victory.
“But some academy directors don’t know how kids learn and don’t understand adolescence,” one
academy coach said. “And their philosophy is often about getting as many wins on their CV as
possible so they can be spotted for a better job. The attitude should be: train to develop, play to
win; but it’s usually: train to win. It’s hard for an ex-player to lose the winning mentality, which is
why so many turn out big, strong, fit teams and neglect the smaller players.”
English football has to stick with the Gerrards, but it is tempted not to. “Manchester United would
point to Paul Scholes,” Jennings said. “He was tiny at 16, but they took him because of his
potential. The best players need the time and opportunity not to have to succeed in terms of
results. But if we are focused on the results of the nine to 18-year-olds, then we will not develop
the best players.”
The sad irony of David Edgar’s dramatic welcome to the world on Monday is that he would never
have scored Newcastle’s stunning equaliser against Manchester United, he would probably not
have got on the pitch — my, we might never have even heard of him — had Newcastle’s firstteam
squad been fully fit. Only an injury crisis presented him with his chance.
And how other young men across the land must be willing such a crisis on their own clubs, for
this is one of the gravest issues facing English football: you may be a new, 19-year-old pro with a
world of talent at your feet, you may have graduated through the system despite all its inherent
problems, but what next? Who on earth is going to take the risk of letting you use it? In the far
distance you glimpse first-team football, while more immediately you are peering over the edge of
what Peter Varney, the chief executive of Charlton Athletic, describes as “football’s black hole”.
“The big problem,” Varney said, “comes when a boy makes the jump from the academy to the
first team. That is a black hole now. You go up from under-18s to pro and suddenly you are a bitpart
player. Boys can get given pro contracts and suddenly find they aren’t part of the main
This problem, of course, is inextricably linked to the foreign invasion. As Georges Prost, the
Southampton and former Marseilles youth coach, said: “The number of foreign players in the
Premiership makes it very difficult for the young lads to break through to first-team level. This is a
shame because a lot of them here get lost in between.
“In France, because the best players are elsewhere in the world, it creates more not less
opportunity for the kids. It’s definitely better for a young lad to be in France than England. In
England, the manager will always choose the older player.”
This last point is the issue. Foreign players competing for places should theoretically raise
standards — which is a positive — but if that therefore means that an injury crisis is required
before the likes of Edgar get an opportunity, then many other Edgars are falling down that black
Varney makes this point while fully acknowledging that his own club are as culpable as any.
Managers’ jobs are short term, so those who are in them naturally look first at short-term
solutions. “It’s all about today,” Varney said. “That’s the message with youth football, we’re living
for today when we need to focus on tomorrow.”
Jennings concurs. “If I had one wish,” he said, “it would be that clubs stopped looking only at the
short term and started to ensure they looked long term. Long-term planning is anathema in