How can football clubs bridge the academy gap?

According to some quarters, youth development in England is in crisis. There are certainly problems regarding investment, coaching and facilities, but it appears that the problems with the youth system might actually be further along the line than the grass-roots level. The transition between academy and senior level seems to be stopping a lot of good talent making the jump to professional football successfully, so how can we bridge this gap?

Young English players don’t seem to be given a fair shot at making it professionally, particularly in comparison to their continental counterparts, who are given first team debuts much earlier. In England young players are stuck with Carling Cup and substitute appearances, and often judged on those fleeting appearances. There is simply too big a gap between the youth set-up and senior teams and players aren’t groomed in the right way for the level of professional football. The transition between the ages of 18-21 is the most important time for a young player and it seems that more often than not we are not getting it right.

Part of the problem is the lack of patience in the English game. Players aren’t given the time to develop, and are expected to make an immediate impression. This season alone we have seen young players like Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll be written off by the media, for not making an immediate impact. There is now so much pressure on young players shoulders to impress straight away, and they aren’t given enough time to learn and develop in the game.

This lack of patience runs right through English footballing philosophy, as young English players are not given the time to flourish, with the general lack of opportunity available in the Premier League. There is too much money being thrown around these days, and this has led to a culture where it is now the preference of clubs to go out and buy a cheaper foreign import, than to spend time developing an English kid. These short term solutions are now preferred to long term thinking. There are exceptions, and lately teams like Liverpool and Manchester United have been more than willing to give their young players a chance. However, Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson are in safe positions, with the pressure off their shoulders, so they can afford to give opportunities to the young home-grown talent available, and not be judged for it, unlike many other managers out there.

There have been significant moves to address the problems regarding the transition from youth to senior football. One of the new additions this season is the Next Gen Series, which is billed as the Champions League of youth football. Sixteen of the worlds best clubs including Liverpool, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Man City and Celtic are taking part in the exciting knock-out competition. The players are able to pit themselves against world class opposition from the best clubs in Europe, which can only be of benefit in terms of improving standards and also helping to bridge the gap between the youth and senior teams. Players learn vital skills like adapting to an unfamiliar style of play, getting used to travelling, playing two match weeks and playing at a more competitive level than the Regional Premier Leagues, with all their restrictions and constraints. English youngsters don’t really have enough competitive games in order for them to test themselves and develop, so the Next Gen Series is an improvement on this front. Currently youth sides take part in the Regional Premier Leagues, which are split into two northern and two southern leagues, meaning the best sides may only play each other once over the course of a season. The regional leagues lack a competitive edge, and players don’t really gain much from this standard of play. Reserve football is of an equally poor standard for young players to learn their trade, and they gain little if anything from this level of football.

We could improve youth standards in this country through the creation of an Elite Premier Academy League, which would certainly provide better competition, with youngsters playing at a higher standard regularly, and pushing each other to higher levels. However, this has its own problems, as it would widen the gap between the Premier League big clubs and the rest, with the smaller academies likely to lose out. This could force the system into becoming more elitist and have a negative effect on youth development in this country as a whole. Ideas like the Next Gen Series, and the possible forming of an Elite Premier Academy League exclude smaller clubs, who will subsequently find it difficult to improve, or compete in terms of youth development.

One of the options that works well in Europe is the nursery club. Clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid have B teams playing in the lower Spanish leagues, which provide a higher level of football for their young players to learn their trade. This is a much more competitive option than reserve, or academy football we see in England. It provides a higher standard of football at an earlier age, as well as the option of players staying under the guidance and tutelage of their own clubs. The Barcelona academy players are given the chance to learn and develop at this level before moving on to the first team, where they are given the chance to impress. This is in contrast to players at big clubs in England, who rarely get the opportunity to break into the first team, and often have to go out on loan to gain vital experience. The loan system has proved effective for many English players, but it comes with its own problems. With the loan system, you can’t guarantee young players are going to play and they may return having gained little from the experience. Shipping a youngster out to a strange city, where they don’t know anyone is a tough ask for any young player to handle. Nursery clubs do seem like a good idea, but it is unlikely the FA would sanction any such moves for them in this country. There would need to be vertical integration between nursery and feeder clubs, and the idea also raises issues over the identity of clubs in the lower tiers.

There are many problems with youth development in the country, but one of the biggest is bridging the gap between the youth and the professional game. The whole footballing landscape in England is not conducive to helping young players achieve success, and the focus needs to move from short term results and winning, to placing full long term commitment behind young English players. We can make all the changes at grass-root and academy level that we want, but if access to the first team is closed off then in the end these changes will have little difference.

How do you think we should bridge the gap between academy and senior level? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below or following me on Twitter @LaurenRutter for more comment and debate.

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