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The Times January 05, 2007

Big not always beautiful in obsession with today rather than



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

slip through.

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