Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas said yesterday that he believes the structural set up of the English academy system is fundamentally flawed. The Portuguese former Porto man took over from Carlo Ancelotti in the summer and has had a tempestuous first six months in the English game. The thirty-four year old said:
“The youth development system in England is not right, in my belief. There is plenty of effort and talks to get it right but in my opinion it is not. The reserve team league is not competitive. The youth levels are not competitive enough. The FA Youth Cup: does it favour talent or competition? In my opinion there is a missing link between age groups in all competitions. There should be national championships played between teams from around the country. The older ones should play nationally. The younger ones should play regionally. You promote more talent and competitiveness and it is that which generates talent and willingness to drive.”
This is the latest in a string of attacks on the way young talent is developed in this country. The new Elite Player Performance Plan, or EPPP, was approved before Christmas and will replace the system of tribunal-set transfer fees with a compensations scheme, which essentially makes it easier and cheaper for the big clubs to poach young players from teams in lower leagues. The EPPP has come under intense scrutiny from the Football League teams who, although voting to accept the new system, felt they were pressured financially into allowing it to go ahead.
Villas-Boas lamented the English system claiming that without the competitive side to the youth and reserve leagues the younger players are not ready to make the step up to the first team without first going out on loan, which would mean putting those players at the mercy of an inferior coaching team. Instead the Chelsea manager would rather adopt a system similar to that in Spain where the top clubs have ‘B’ teams, which compete in the tier below their parent club. Essentially all top clubs would have their own feeder club in the Championship. The benefits of this for top clubs are clear for all to see: they would be able to not only give their youth and reserve players competitive matches to play in but they would also gain that experience as a team and benefit from the high level coaching of their parent club at the same time. This model has worked exceptionally well for teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, many of whose players have been playing together competitively since they were very young.
However Villas-Boas’ suggestion merely adds another dark cloud to the possible future of Football League sides, many of who are already struggling on and off the field.
The goal of every non Premier League team is to make it to the top tier and establish themselves there in order to secure the future of the club. However that task would be infinitely harder if they had to compete against the feeder cubs for the best teams. Moreover, how Villas-Boas suggests these ‘B’ teams should be integrated in to the Football League would be a proposal worth hearing. It would be unacceptable at any level to oust teams from a league to make space for the ‘B’ teams of top clubs. The only other alternative is to persuade teams in the lower leagues to become the feeder teams of Premier League clubs, but if that is the Chelsea manager’s proposal then he should be aware that this is already a possibility. Top English clubs already have feeder clubs in England and abroad. At a time when the worldwide economic downturn has lead to a continuous stream of clubs facing existential crises Villas-Boas suggestions, whilst undeniably beneficial for clubs such as Chelsea, could be the final nail in the coffin for many English clubs. Not only would tier mobility be more difficult than it already is but it would present clubs with the option of either losing their identity as a football team or face their ambitions being severely hampered.
At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, whilst under extreme pressure in his own job, perhaps Andre Villas-Boas should recognise that he is not the only manager in the Football Leagues struggling to get the best out of his team at the moment and his proposals could greatly damage effectiveness of many managers who are in similar situations at smaller clubs. The other important factor is that as much as football is concerned with competing globally and being the ‘best’ it is also a sport that provides entertainment and a sense of community for millions around the country, it is a sport that has its roots not in the glitz of the international stage in front of hundreds of cameras but in the small smallest stadiums in some of the poorest sections of the country. To abandon our roots would be to abandon the very aspect of football that has made it such a national institution in the first place. Progress for the elite is important, but not at the cost of an array of historic clubs.
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