It’s often been said that the powers that be within the realms of English football aren’t particularly au fait with pulling in the same direction. Whilst the Premier League has always felt too wrapped up in it’s own hype and commercial shtick to cater to the greater needs of English football, the cataclysmic fallings of the FA at just about every level, has seen the real priorities undermined.
Indeed, as a variety of men in suits participate in one of the biggest tugs of war in UK sport, it has been the very genesis of the game in youth development, which has immeasurably suffered as a result.
But times are now, finally changing. A smattering of new, more technically proficient young talent in the likes of Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain have emerged with the long overdue construction of the National Football Centre up in Burton.
And as the Premier League announce the formation of a new Under-21 league for 17 Premier League and six Championship clubs for this coming season, it finally feels as if the penny has dropped for English football’s governing bodies. It feels strange and almost begrudging to bestow credit upon the Premier League bureaucrats. But this decision has the real capacity to make an impact upon the game at both club and national level.
The Premier League under-21 competition will consist of 23 teams. As already mentioned, 17 of these teams are Premier League affiliates and six are from the Championship, all of whom are deemed to have Category One status academies.
The first elements of the competition will seek to place the teams into a more evenly competitive set-up. All 23 teams have currently been split into two groups of eight and one group of seven. As of January, the teams will be placed into three new groups, based on their performance in the past four months in order to generate more even and fair competition. From this point, teams will play out of their groups into a knockout round and then to a final in something that represents a ‘Champions League-lite’ format.
Some could question the logic in the creation of yet another tier of youth football in the Premier League. There is already a Premier Academy League, set to evolve into the Elite Player Performance Plan and clubs arrange a number of fixtures for their youth teams in house. Add to that the culture of loaning players out to get real game time in the lower leagues and you could wonder if clubs really need the hassle of another league system.
But it is important to reaffirm the aims of the Under-21 league before people begin to probe it. The focus of this league is to try and smooth one of the hardest journeys of a young footballer’s career, from academy to first team. It is there to showcase and finish off the development process, not to instigate it. But that doesn’t mean it is any less important.
The bread and butter of skills that are cultivated in the academy and the millions of pounds spent doing so, are rendered redundant if there is no path to the first team. This league will hopefully change that.
Because you can have the best coaches in the world, as we are trying to develop up at St. Georges Park, but it won’t make an inch of difference if the players simply aren’t playing. Young players need a route in and the caliber of training can be as high as it wants but it will never replicate the real thing- they must have game time.
And the under-21 league, on paper, offers the perfect compromise. It is designed to fit in and around the first team fixture list- so in theory, if a young player was to catch the eye of the gaffer when playing for the under-21’s, he could make the team for the Saturday, as their fixtures are scheduled to be played mid-week. The principal is of course set to be a lot longer-term than that, but the idea is there.
But it could act as the perfect buffer to aid the transition from academy to first team level. The addition of three, overage players (and one overage goalkeeper) echoes elements of the Olympic football set up and the tiny smattering of experience is also a nice touch to give these players a helping hand, but not enough to turn it into an overblown reserve league. The competition will be forged with the hunger of these players- the prize of a place in the first-team can be a real reality.
Speaking as the U21 league was launched, Premier League director of youth Ged Roddy said:
“As a first team manager there is a great benefit in knowing that you can have your U21 player on the bench for the first team, but if he doesn’t play then there’s still the option for him to have high quality competitive football that weekend.”
Roddy’s words emphasize the longevity in this project. The league is there to aid the development of these players. It is there to offer real playing time to these players and a fluid route to the first team. But the fact that the Premier League has devised this ensures there will always be an element of cynicism behind its motives.
There has already been talk of a television rights deal being put in place for the next season. Initially, the clubs will have the rights to show the games, but there is a school of thought that the Premier League could be set to generate a profit out of this. The exposure that it could bring to the U21 league could be a double-edged sword; players will be able to perform on a whole new level and make a real name for themselves. Those involved would have to make sure, however, that any financial gain doesn’t loose sight of why the league was devised in the first place.
But the fact is that there is no posturing, no debate and no more consultation. This is real and it is starting within a matter of weeks. The fact that younger payers have been given the platform to ease their route into the first team at their respective clubs is something that we must applaud. It will ultimately be down to managers to take the punt on a player. But hopefully the next generation now have an opportunity to not just knock on the door, but knock it down completely.
National Group 1: Arsenal, Blackburn, Bolton, Everton, Norwich, Reading, West Brom, West Ham.
National Group 2: Aston Villa, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland, Tottenham, Watford.
National Group 3: Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Wolves.
How do you feel about the new U21 Premier League? Optimistic that this can really aid the development of English football or is it just showcasing a depth of talent to a wider audience? Tell me what you think on Twitter, follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me your views.