It’s probably fair to say that while the youth setup at Tottenham Hotspur has always shown great promise, the end product in terms of player development simply hasn’t always been there.
Supporters have been introduced to a whole raft of fledgling names in recent times and while the nature of youth development dictates that not all prospects will blossom into the players they had been touted to become, a distinct lack of palpable results has offered a simmering source of frustration.
Yet while it’s a sentiment that fans have heard all too often, there’s a growing feeling at White Hart Lane that their sometimes-faltering youth system, might just be about to start paying dividends.
Indeed, as Tottenham’s superb under-19 side play Anderlecht at Hotspur Way this afternoon, needing only a point to progress in the NextGen tournament, there’s a quiet sense of optimism surrounding the prospects of their developing young players.
Because although the smatterings of talent have always been there, a viable route to the first team hasn’t necessarily laid in tow. Or to a greater extent, perhaps even the regime itself has been built more towards harvesting talent, as opposed to seeking to develop it.
The added exposure that both social media, in-house club video and tournaments such as the NextGen & U21 Premier League have brought to all aspects of the game in recent years, means that fans can keep abreast with the fortunes of their youth squads like never before. Where as keeping track of the progress of a Tomas Pekhart or a Dorian Dervite was hard business a few years ago, now we can all judge for ourselves how the likes of Souleymane Coulibaly and Shaquile Coulthirst are getting on.
This added exposure has of course gone a long way to promoting the youth football aspect at the club and although there were many at Spurs that have always harnessed a dedicated interest in the journey their young players were embarking on, the chance to see them play in the flesh – both NextGen and the U21 Premier League see youngsters play at White Hart Lane at least once this season – has triggered a far wider following with supporters.
But the differences between now and even as early as two or three years ago, stretch further than just a change in exposure.
In recent times, where as the club has put both energy and resources into attaining and retaining their top class youth talent, the job has always felt a little half finished.
From the aforementioned Dervite and Pekhart, to Dean Parrott and John Bostock, Spurs can hardly be accused of not proactively seeking the young talent to build for the future. The issue has been more in the actual building aspect.
Because where as now Tottenham seem to have a bustling, resourceful and ever deepening pool of talent at youth level, it’s maybe not always felt that way. The likes of Parrott, Bostock and Jonathan Obika have always seemed to bestow the talent, yet they’ve been seemingly caught in between the vortex of a youth set up that wasn’t necessarily offering enough in terms of their development and a first team that had no intention of catering to their needs.
The compromise has always been utilizing the loan system in order to find a happy medium, but the results have most certainly been a mixed bag. While it’s worked superbly for Steven Caulker and to a slightly lesser extent, Harry Kane, others have found it a far more difficult prospect.
Jonathan Obika has been farmed out on loan eight times at five different clubs. Simon Dawkins has enjoyed three loan spells, Dean Parrett four, with Adam Smith now on his sixth spell away from Spurs with Millwall. Andros Townsend has had a staggering eight loan spells with eight different clubs.
Clearly the loan system has its advantages and in the case of Steven Caulker, who was clearly ready for a loan spell, it can be a priceless tool in a young players development. But instead of being used as a finishing school to give a taste of competitive football, too often Tottenham have used it as an outlet of convenience – unintentionally, but perhaps sometimes to their players’ disadvantages, too.
Yet although change certainly takes time, we’re beginning to witness a steady slew of evidence to suggest a far more positive focus upon Spurs’ young players.
It may be the first team who appear to gain the biggest benefits of Tottenham’s new, state-of-the-art £40million Enfield training ground, but it’s the youth set-up that is set to benefit just as much, if not more so. Where as before, youth matches were split between Spurs Lodge and Myddleton House, now the club can accommodate all age groups under one roof at their new headquarters. A route to the first team isn’t just being given a wider berth by the club – it’s now physically visible to young players, too.
But now Spurs have a group of young players both growing and developing together as a collective, not just a smattering of individuals. The aforementioned likes of Coulibaly, Coulthirst, Milos Veljkovic and the highly rated Alex Pritchard are coming through the ranks together, learning their trade as a unit and prospering together in-house.
If Jake Livermore’s 38 appearances in all competitions last season wasn’t enough to give hope, then the way in which Andre Villas-Boas has been happy to throw Tom Carroll into proceedings, is all the evidence you need that the club are finally paving a clear, direct and viable route to the first team for their youngsters.
Youth development at any club will always be a tough nut to crack, and Spurs have made their share of mistakes in the past when it comes to nurturing their young talent. But most importantly, the club look to have learnt from past experience – it’s a long road ahead, but there should be real ground for optimism at White Hart Lane.