If you keep your ear close to the ground on all events concerning your football club, you may be aware of the NextGen series; a new European football club competition designed for under-19 footballers founded in 2011. Arsenal and Chelsea are just the latest English clubs to enter the competition for the 2012/13 edition after a successful maiden season whereby Inter Milan beat Ajax on penalties to become champions. Mind-bogglingly, Manchester United remain one of few European elite clubs to shun the competition, with United reserve-team boss Warren Joyce maintaining there is enough quality in reserve without the need for a holistic European experience on top.
What struck me as surprising about this tact was that in this country, we are so het-up about developing youth to build a robust England squad for the future as well as looking on enviously at the German 2010 World Cup Squad with many talents remaining in their infancy. So what better way to get the best out of youngsters than to throw them into their own specially designated tournament?
It is heavily documented and widely applauded that achieving European qualification at first team level is an accomplishment in its own right. Just take Newcastle United and their surprising season. Now they can almost taste Champions League football, Alan Pardew isn’t thinking whether it will be too soon for his squad but he wants to seize the opportunity. Similarly, Arsene Wenger has spoken countless times about European football offering a valuable, money-can’t-buy experience for his youngsters such as Carl Jenkinson and Emmanuel Frimpong who he employed in the group stages this term. So if European experience is lauded as a distinct progression at first team level, surely it should at reserve level also; if not more.
In my experience, as a youngster, you want to play as much football as you can, but also you want to compete against the best teams to prove you are indeed the best. Warren Joyce’s one-dimensional standpoint is foolish in that his reserve ranks won’t get to find out about differing and potentially advantageous playing styles on the continent, but will blindly just experience English football in a restrictive manner. On the contrary, Liverpool reserve boss Rodolfo Borrell had nothing but praise for the NextGen series.
‘We have enjoyed the NextGen series so far and it has been very beneficial for the lads. They have played in different countries against different styles of play. It has been good for their mentality” (Liverpool Echo).
Borrell’s point is valid in that as a youngster it is not only the football that forges good character but also the team spirit, exposure to travel and multi-faceted experiences which shape well-rounded individuals. The bottom-up approach that players play in different countries and are exposed to what they wouldn’t expect in a Premier reserve league surely means a better grounding and a more holistic upbringing. There have always been criticisms levelled at England national teams in that they play far too slowly, don’t encompass enough technical ability and struggle to acclimatise to differing temperatures. Although, we would be wrong to surmise the NextGen series fixes all of these factors in an instance, surely it would contribute to a better understanding of the problems.
As we know, it has been Manchester United’s prerogative to send many youthful talents to their feeder club Royal Antwerp over the years, with John Cofie being the latest to sample this tried and tested route. Whilst this may forge decent steady characters in the case of Jonny Evans, Danny Simpson, Phil Bardsley and so on, a grounding in the Belgian Second Division surely isn’t as robust as competing against the European elite of youngsters in a governed annual tournament. After all, the latter two examples indeed proved that they weren’t cut out for a long career at United.
We may point to the modern-day examples of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley currently competing in the first team at Old Trafford after a rise from the schoolboy ranks, but aside from these talents, the United academy has struggled to fast-track youngsters through on a rate as comparable to an Arsenal perhaps. United do have a future squad in place but many younger talents have been poached from other clubs in the cases of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, the Da Silva twins and Paul Pogba whose future is yet to be decided. Manchester United no longer anticipate a whole batch of home-grown academy stars coming through like their golden generation which yielded talents such as Scholes, Giggs and Beckham but instead have opted to sign the best youngsters from elsewhere as an alternative, most recently that of Frederic Veseli from cross-town rivals Manchester City in the January transfer window. Will Keane, Michael Keane, Ezekiel Fryers and Ryan Tunnicliffe have all received first team experience, but just how far they go remains to be seen. Only time will tell but Manchester United just might regret not signing up as England’s eighth representative in the ever-impressive NextGen series.
Have United been stupid in their decision not to enter the NextGen series? Follow me @ http://twitter.com/Taylor_Will1989