Has the football academy system really failed?

England’s top football clubs have spent millions developing their academies and bringing up a large number of boys from a very young age, yet many have little, or no end product to show for it. Chelsea, for instance, have brought hardly anyone through since John Terry’s progression to the first team, and it has now become common for many clubs to scour other countries for talent, instead of developing youngsters at home. The youth development system in this country has been overhauled so many times, but have any of the changes made any difference, and are British academies failing the youth in this country?

It is over a decade since Howard Wilkinson launched the Charter for Quality document, which set out to revamp youth development in this country, by establishing the academy system that we are now familiar with. The document granted power to professional clubs, who it was thought had the coaching expertise to be able to take talented youngsters to the next level. It also geographically restricted where clubs could draw their players from, to localise and spread elite player development.

There are currently over 40 club academies, and they register children from as young as eight years old. Some have even started to look at younger children from the age of six, which makes you wonder what exactly youngsters are being assessed on. From the time when they are registered, boys are shed by clubs year on year, until there is very few, if any, left to make the jump professionally. Trauma engulfs the academy set up, as youngsters who had set their hearts and hopes on a football career, and little else, get rejected at tender ages. The ones who do come through, are more often than not given little opportunity to play in their clubs first teams, and many have to go elsewhere to develop any further. Clubs invest a lot of money and time developing their academies and youth set-ups, yet the outcome of the system is shattered dreams for the majority, with few positive results.

The way the academy system is set up, sees clubs scour the nation for the best prospects and sign up tens of thousands of children, in order to ensure that no talented child is missed. This often leads to heartbreak and disaster further down the road, as so few youngsters can actually make it in the game professionally. Only 1% of trainees will ultimately play football for a living, which shows the slim odds that those trying to make it are up against. The majority of boys will have given most of their young lives to academies only to suffer disappointment, which is a devastating blow to take after they have invested so much time and effort. Often they are tossed aside, with little thought for what happens to them from that point onwards. There certainly needs to be a better system in place to help young players, once they are cast aside from a clubs academy set-up and this is one of the main failings of the system. Another of its failings is the preference of clubs to scour other countries for teenage talent, which serves no benefit to the youth in this country at all. If you are bringing up your own kids, then what is the point of looking elsewhere for expensive talent, who will then jump ahead of your own academy prospects.

It would be easy to argue that the academy system is not to blame and that talented youngsters would come through if they were good enough, but it seems as if a lot of talent is actually turned away due to the footballing mindset within this country. If we look at the way academies select kids, they often tend to prefer the athletic, tall, strong children, whilst the smaller boys-who could arguably be more skilful-are turned away from an early age. Academy football is also played with a very rigid style, which means that true talent never really gets a fair chance. This priority of physical presence and athletic ability, has certainly not helped to develop technical footballers in this country and needs to change if we are to start developing more world class modern footballers. There is also a problem with the pressure that is put on young children at academies, instead the emphasis should be placed on putting the fun back in the game at the younger ages, with the focus on enjoyment over winning.

The changes that the Charter for Quality set out to make have not really provided the strength in depth, in terms of a bigger talent pool, that they were supposed to. However, it could be our expectations that we need to revamp rather than the academy system. Compared to the footballing superpower of Brazil, England has a much smaller talent pool to draw on, and perhaps we need to scale back our estimations as to why we aren’t successfully developing more world class players.
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The academy system hasn’t been all doom and gloom, and there are many thriving academies which have produced top quality players over the last decade. The West Ham academy is just one of the success story’s, with several of England’s so called ‘golden generation’ passing through the ranks of the famed academy youth system. The environment in the set up, is hailed as an important factor in its development, and maybe this is the problem with many of the academies around the country. You can throw all the money in the world at developing young players, but it takes more than that to produce Premier League quality players. Due to the amount of money that is around in the modern game, academies are now filled with foreign talent, which must be disheartening for the English kids, who are then told they are not good enough. The academy system was never set up to be filled with anyone outside of English youth, and it is a shame in terms of English talent that they are turned away as foreign talent is brought in.

It is interesting to look at the developments at the Liverpool academy over the last few years which illustrate that the academy system is not a total failure. Liverpool implemented changes to their failing youth set-up, taking on the Barcelona mould of developing talent during Rafael Benitez’s reign at the club, and it is already proving to be successful. Their academy has progressed at an astounding rate, and it shows that the academy system can work in this country successfully, if it is well run, and if the youngsters are given time and patience to develop, and are given the opportunity to transition to the senior team. There are success stories in terms of youth development, but there should be more if we consider the widespread changes that the academy system brought in. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the academy system so harshly, as there is so much pressure and demand for instant results in the modern game, that it has never really been given a fair shot to succeed.

It seems as if the problems and the blame for the state of youth development in this country lie somewhere between the FA and the Premier and Football League’s. The FA can’t monitor the quality of academies as the league’s don’t want them to oversee clubs work, and there is also no central body that is in place to reform and run the system. The Premier League is set to introduce the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which is the newest reform on youth development, and it will be interesting to see if the changes that are proposed can take youth development in this country from its current state of limbo.

Changes like the EPPP, show that those in charge are not averse to change and trying something new to revamp youth development. The changes will make way for the English clubs to match continental methods of training youngsters, and it will certainly be interesting to see what difference, if any, is made. Patience needs to be the key though, as the changes will take time to implement and we can’t keep relying on short term solutions and quick fixes. It is harsh to suggest that the academy system has failed, but it is clear that certain aspects have affected the development of British youth. Despite its problems, a lot of talent is being produced by academies in this country, and perhaps the real blame lies not at the feet of the academy system, but somewhere higher up the development ladder.

Do you think the academy system has failed the young players in this country? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below or following me on Twitter @LaurenRutter for more comment and debate.