Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. These are the names of players West Ham’s Tony Carr has nurtured through his youth academy. West Ham and Carr are working proof that veritable English talent exists at youth level but the quandary this country finds itself in is this: how do we promote the development of young English players in a competitive climate that simply demands short term fixes?
“We pressure ourselves every year that we want one player to make the first-team squad,” Carr said. “Over the last three or four years we’ve had more – [for example] Tomkins, Stanislas and Freddie Sears.”
Tony Carr has had a prominent role in shaping the skill base of several key England internationals and it is clearly not a coincidence. His desire for youth products to break into the first team is not only admirable but necessary if we want players to espouse ability with experience. We will find out in the future whether the next generation of West Ham’s talent pool reaches the calibre of its predecessors but despite these examples of success I am forced to wonder: why has the FA not asked Carr for his thoughts on how best to restructure the grassroots in this country when he clearly possesses a nous in youth development?
The question leads to more ominous forebodings regarding the future of home grown talent in England. I am on the one hand absolutely in favour of employing and nurturing the best talent, irrespective of nationality, in the Premier League because elite competition duly deserves elite craftsmen. However what I do not subscribe to is the endemic marginalising of skill and style that this nation propagates at every level of football; that it is more desirable to be stronger, fitter and faster than it is to have technical mastery of the ball and a tactical understanding of your role in the team. This failing is irrevocably linked to our nation’s failing when breeding home grown footballers because the emphasis at grassroots is for our players to focus on the physical aspect of football instead of the technical.
We are startlingly lacking in facilities and a progressive coaching ethos, which should be based on exposing very young players to the paramount importance of technique, and allowing this to eventually be the foundation of a culture. It is something that will take years to achieve. We need only look to Barcelona and see that idealism is met with pragmatism as they nurture players as young as seven years old. Whilst I understand that they are the paradigm of contemporary football and that it may be unreasonable to expect teams closer to home, with lesser means, to emulate their achievements, surely we should try and understand how they reached the summit.
The formula is found in La Masia, their youth academy. Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, Valdes, Pique, Bojan, Puyol, Pedro – these are just from the current team. What do they do so differently?
“From the age of seven to the age of fifteen everything is about working with the football,” says Albert Capellas, senior youth coordinator. “With the very small boys, the most important thing is to control the ball very well…to run with the ball and to think very quickly and execute their passes very well. We spend so much time on passing and on tactics, to understand our style of play, which is the same from the eight-year-olds to the first team.”
Every team throughout La Masia, at every age group, adopts the same expansive 4-3-3 formation. The reasoning behind this is so any transition is seamless between age groups; that the tactical knowledge of their individual roles and the team’s pattern of play be consummately understood by every player at the earliest opportunity. For those ready to make senior appearances a strong affinity to the club’s ethos is already ingrained.
Though I can see why teams require quick short term successes due to the pressures of top level football, what I cannot understand is why more haven’t at least tried to implement even the most basic lessons at youth level. Introducing tactics at a young age, focusing on ball control, and allowing the physical aspect of the game to be addressed later: time in the gym can be put in and the physicality of the men’s game can be learnt but missing the window of opportunity for honing a child’s development is the difference between world class performers (Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, Fabregas) and every other professional. Trevor Brooking conceded the current state of the game in this country:
“We must all accept that for a country of some 60 million people, we are not producing the depth of players at the top level with the technical skills now required by the major clubs and international teams. If we want to increase the number of English players competing at the highest level, radical change is needed.”
Again this leads back to the importance of consulting individuals like Tony Carr who have a proven record of producing top level home grown players in a climate not conducive for it. I would argue that the cost of nurturing the youth (time scale, facilities, coaching staff, education) dwarfs the cost of a succession of short term solutions. But, as I continually stress in my articles, the need for progression – survival even – depends on foresight and the ability to forgo immediate results. The danger is it requires faith, not only in the youth, but in the model that is being taught by coaches, and a time frame that fans and managers are not willing to accept.
“It’s not luck,’ insists Capellas. “It’s work. It’s our model, which has been honed over many years by lots of people providing specialist skills and all working in the same direction, with the same objective: to prepare players for the first team.”
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