Young English footballers aren’t alright…or are they?

A series of early international tournament exits in the last year have placed question marks over the quality of English footballers. Unsurprisingly, the finger of blame has yet again been pointed at the system responsible for developing young players. Zarif Rasul investigates the English youth development system.

THE diminutive young Nigerian Olarenwaju Kayode skips down the left-hand side of England’s box, and whips a superb ball across the face of Jack Butland’s goal. The ball eludes almost everyone and lands at the grateful feet of Edafe Egbedi, who duly smashes home. Fifty-two minutes gone, and Nigeria lead England 1-0 at the Centenario de Armenia stadium in their FIFA Under-20 World Cup 2011 last-sixteen clash.

Despite the valiant attempts of Blackpool winger Matt Phillips, Nigeria hold onto their advantage for the remaining 38 minutes and dump England out of the tournament. England coach Brian Eastick bemoans the failure of clubs to release eligible players, but admits that his side’s performances in Colombia, which failed to see them score a single goal in four outings, are indicative of failure.

The Under-20s were not the only group of young Lions to follow in the underwhelming footsteps of the senior side. Seven weeks earlier, and less than a year after England’s 4-1 humbling at the hands of Germany in South Africa, Stuart Pearce’s highly-touted Under-21 side left Denmark having failed to make it out of the group stage of the European Under-21 Championship.

This recent run of ignominious international tournament exits has sparked another witch-hunt to find the scapegoat responsible for England’s failures. And yet again, critics have been quick to point to the perceived technical inadequacies of English players and flaws within the youth development system.

Overplayed and under-coached

The current system, which has been in place since 1998, is drawn from Howard Wilkinson’s landmark 1997 report Charter for Quality. As Technical Director at the FA, Wilkinson was commissioned to undertake a comprehensive review of the existing youth development structure at the time. This review laid the foundations for the Charter.

During the 1990s, concerns had developed over the amount of coaching contact time and playing time young footballers were engaged in. Wilkinson says that dealing with these problems was a key priority.

“Youth development in professional clubs was confined to the then Centres of Excellence. Some of them would be very lucky to get to a Centre of Excellence [for coaching] for about an hour and a half a week.

“The best players at 15 years old, would be playing over 100 games a season because as well as being registered with, say, Tranmere Rovers’ Centre of Excellence, or Liverpool’s Centre of Excellence, they would also be playing for their school, their district, their county and the national team.”

Playing too many competitive matches was seen to be detrimental to the development of young footballers.

Ben Marskell, an ex-professional footballer who enjoyed spells with Brentford and Luton in the 1990s, was forced into early retirement due to a series of recurring injuries. As a youth player Ben trained with Chelsea and Aston Villa, and was considered one of the best defenders in the country. Now running his own soccer school in West London, he describes the rigorous playing schedule that elite youth players often had to adhere to.

“Sometimes, I would have to play three matches a day. I’d go from one pitch to the next – because when you’re a good player, everyone wants a piece of you, and you just get stretched and pulled each way,” he explained.

He believes that overplaying as a teenager eventually caught up with him and forced him to retire early.

“Overuse injuries made me stop. It wasn’t one injury that finished me, it was an accumulation of injuries. I would probably be playing at the top level now if I hadn’t had those injuries.”

A Charter for Quality

Wilkinson’s report, which he wrote soon after he joined the FA, revolutionised the youth development landscape and gave birth to Academies.

“The Charter for Quality was about creating more and more effective coaching time, and more quality practice and quality playing time,” he said.

“And to do that we had to get rid of the FA rule that allowed schools priority over talented footballers. Academies were the vehicle to deliver those principles.”

Having looked at several continental models, including successful methods employed by Dutch giants Ajax, Wilkinson also sought to lower the age at which clubs worked with players.

“Ajax were churning out hundreds of great players. They’d be finishing school early, being bussed in and bussed home three, four, five times a week,” he said.

“In Holland they believed in boys staying at home and being bussed in, and therefore the Dutch were effectively looking at a much earlier age. They were bussing kids into Ajax at 11.”

After being appointed manager at Leeds United in 1988, Wilkinson introduced changes to the way in which young players were developed at Elland Road, changes which influenced his later work with the FA.

“When I joined Leeds they were typical of other clubs, so I outlined my ideas to the chairman to develop what I called a ‘training centre’. The idea was to increase practice time by having boys living near, and we did that at Leeds.

“By the time I left Leeds and joined the FA [in 1996], I’d seen my ideas on youth development start to take shape. Consequently, my ideas had not just been a hypothesis.”

Wilkinson’s changes at Leeds resulted in a string of high quality players, such as Ian Harte, Alan Smith and Harry Kewell, making Leeds’ first team. All three players featured in the club’s memorable run to the semi-final of the Champions League in 2001.
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Academies and Centres of Excellence

Under the Charter, the Premier League and the Football League are authorised to award licences for Centres of Excellence or Academies to clubs. All but three Premier League clubs (Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Wigan Athletic) run an Academy, and 23 Football League clubs also do the same, whilst an additional 51 Premier League and Football League clubs run Centres. League Two side Hereford United were recently granted a licence to run a Centre and began their youth operation this season.

Clubs with an Academy or a Centre of Excellence can coach boys from the age of nine; before the Charter, clubs first engaged with young footballers at 14. The switch which allowed professional clubs to coach boys at younger age was key, and a point highlighted by several notable figures.

Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live, ex-England manager Glenn Hoddle described the period between the ages of six and ten as “the most important time in a child’s technical development”. Former Arsenal and Holland forward Dennis Bergkamp famously labelled the eight years to twelve years phase as “the golden period of learning”.

As the flagship product of the Charter, Academies must meet more stringent criteria than Centres. Academies are required to operate at all age levels from under nine to under 21, as well as providing a minimum amount of weekly coaching time. Those under the age of 11 must receive a minimum of three hours of coaching over two sessions, boys between 12 and 16 must receive at least five hours over the course of three sessions, whilst full-time scholars aged 16 and over must be coached for at least 12 hours per week.

On the other hand, Centres are permitted to operate at any age level, as well as being allowed to set their own weekly coaching hours. Differences also exist in the standard and quantity of facilities and staffing required, and Academies, as such, require far greater investment.

Upon reflection, Wilkinson admits that the implementation of the Charter hasn’t turned out quite as he had planned.

“I only envisaged 12 to 14 academies, but we finished up with 40, which in my humble opinion was always too many. I didn’t think the country had enough talent to support 40 high-level development centres,” he said.

“A lot of clubs and a lot of clubs’ directors would ask ‘Where’s our Rooney? Where’s our Joe Cole?’ That’s how they actually judged it. The notion that 40 academies can unearth 40 Rooneys every season is unreal – it won’t happen.

“The second thing was that there has to be adherence to rules. It’s fair to say that there wasn’t. The high standards set out in the Charter were not adhered to in some cases, in terms of numbers of coaches, the number of medical staff and education provisions and so on.”

Although the Charter successfully facilitated increased contact time, the amount of coaching time English youngsters receive still pales in comparison to the amounts received by their continental counterparts.

According to the Telegraph, young footballers in Spain enjoy 4,880 hours contact time between the ages of nine and 21, whilst this figure increases to 5,740 hours and 5,940 hours in Holland and France respectively. English players, on the other hand, receive a meagre 3,760 hours.

Coaching

Domestic resistance to the idea of coaching as a serious profession is an oft-cited failing of English football. In continental countries such as Holland, a suitable coaching qualification is an essential prerequisite to coaching players at any level, including grassroots.

Wilkinson says that this mentality developed due to the way physical education was taught.

“In the 1990s I recognised that culturally there was a different attitude in England, a fundamentally different culture to that what existed on the continent, in particular France, Italy and Spain.

“Physical education was performed by a teacher, who was supposed to be skilled in a multiplicity of disciplines. On the continent, however, you had education at school, and where there was physical education or sport at school it was theory.

“[Playing] sport was left to clubs, so all towns, all villages, had some form of sports club. Barcelona is a prime example of a sports club that’s become huge. In those clubs, professional coaches were part of a profession, so on the continent, training and education of coaches was recognised as wholly legitimate and essential to the sport.”

The Guardian reports that there are 2,769 English coaches holding UEFA’s three highest coaching badges (B, A and Pro), whilst Spain (23,995), Italy (29,420), Germany (34,970) and France (17,588) have significantly higher numbers.

Although England has fewer UEFA-qualified coaches than these countries, Nick Levett, the FA’s National Development Manager for Youth Football, says there is a perfectly good explanation for this.

“When we joined the UEFA coaching system and our courses fell in line with B licences and A licences, the other European countries had been running their systems along that model for a number of years before us. They’ve probably been doing it ten years longer than us. If you look now, the amount of coaches we train at A licence and B licence level is comparable every year with the other European countries,” he said.

However, Levett, who also coaches at Fulham’s Academy, feels that the coaching pathway is not necessarily tailored towards the best interests of young, developing footballers.

“I think it’s a bit of a paradox to be honest, because in this country we put our beginner coaches with our beginner players, and you could argue that you should put your best coaches with your beginner players. If we could raise the professionalism and respect of younger age appropriate coaches, I think it would be a good thing for the development of young players in this country,” he says.

Another issue, one that is particularly prevalent at grassroots level, is ensuring that coaches have age-appropriate knowledge suited to the children that they are coaching. Stuart Allen, County Development Manager at Middlesex FA, illustrates from his own experiences how beneficial and important coaching qualifications can be.

“I got involved with an under-11s club through a friend. He said his son’s club were losing ten-nil every weekend and I offered to help. I went down and said ‘we’re here for an hour and a half, we’ll do half an hour of physical work, half an hour of technical work and half an hour of a game.’ I thought that was right,” he said.

“Totally wrong. We did shuttle runs with these kids, I used to say ‘faster, faster, I used to do this as a kid.’ But shuttle runs aren’t appropriate for a ten-year-old, because their lungs can’t take in the amount of oxygen needed to keep it going. So my knowledge was completely flawed, and I couldn’t see that until I did my coaching course.”

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Role of the FA

The role of the FA within youth development has also been scrutinised. Sir Trevor Brooking, speaking in Chris Green’s book Every Boy’s Dream, opines that the FA is the “only governing body that doesn’t have power over its academy system”. Its influence extends as far as permitting the Premier League and the Football League to award clubs licences for Academies and Centres, and providing coach education courses. Howard Wilkinson explains the role of the FA.

“The FA is mandated by UEFA. The role of the FA is player development and coach education. It’s a different matter with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), and in the case of cricket and so on, where the governing bodies have a much stronger hold over the clubs then the FA does,” he says.

Wilkinson’s reference to the RFU highlights an interesting comparison. With one World Cup triumph and another appearance as beaten finalists in the last 10 years, it could be said that the English rugby team has enjoyed something akin to a golden period over the last decade. The current Six Nations title holders will enter September’s World Cup in New Zealand ranked fourth favourites by most bookmakers and with genuine aspirations of reclaiming the crown they won in 2003.

Gary Henderson, Head of Coach and Player Development at the RFU, believes that the role of the RFU and its relationship with professional clubs has been a key contributor to the quality and depth of elite young players coming through on the English conveyor belt, as well as ensuring that the nation’s best players perform for their country.

The clubs and the RFU signed an eight-year agreement in 2007 which ended long-running club v country disputes. Henderson believes that this deal was essential in order to ensure harmony between the two groups in the long run.

“Basically it’s just a legally-binding contract which says, ‘this is how we’re going to operate, this is the framework we’re going to operate.’ It’s given certainty for how the game’s going to be run for eight years – it almost traverses three World Cup spans.

“What we want them do is get [players] to play for England and for the professional rugby club too.”

As well as smoothing relations with clubs over the availability and use of players, the agreement also sought to encourage the continued development of young English players.

“A lot of the funding for the Championship and Premiership clubs’ players is now based on England-qualified players. The more England-qualified players you have in your Academy, or your starting 15 or matchday squad, the more money you will get. So there’s an incentive [for clubs] to develop English players.”

Arsene Wenger’s reluctance towards the idea of Jack Wilshere featuring for the Under-21 side earlier this summer mirrored the stance of several Premier League managers over the last twenty years. After being beaten by Nigeria earlier this month, England Under-20 coach Brian Eastick pointed to the clubs which refused to release up to 30 players for last month’s U-20 World Cup. If clubs are not willing to support English national teams by releasing their best players, how can we possibly expect the national sides to achieve success?

“In rugby the interests of both (the professional clubs and the RFU) are entwined with each other – they have to work together. I just don’t think that there is a joined-up approach to the development of players [in football] – the clubs basically do pretty much what they want despite what the governing body is doing,” said Henderson.

High hopes

Incredibly, Fifa’s latest set of international rankings place England at fourth place. Whilst there would be very few who believe the national side are amongst the top four teams in the world, there tends to be a heightened sense of belief amongst fans and large parts of the media that they can succeed in international tournaments. Inevitably, this leads to disappointment, accusations of underachievement and calls for a root and branch overhaul of the youth development system when it all goes wrong.

“Define underachievement? Because if achieve means winning, I’m not sure that should be our benchmark. If you look at Brazil for example, they’ve got 200 million people in the country, and statistically they’ve got a hell of a lot more people to pick from than us. So potentially we overachieve based on population,” says Nick Levett.

“I think the weight of pressure from the national media and their expectations, we always seem to have a golden generation of players that underachieve. I think under Sven, when we got to two quarter-finals, I think that is probably where we’re at, because if we make the semi-final or final we’ve done well. Therefore if we don’t make the quarter-final then I think we’ve underachieved.”

With this admission, is there anything really wrong with the way young English players are developed? Although Wilkinson believes that there is “an expectation far in excess of where England are placed in the ranking”, he says that two main issues may be preventing young English players from achieving their full potential.

“Firstly, I would say that talented boys now find it more difficult to play top-level football, opportunities to play with the best and against the best,” he says.

“Secondly, we have to focus on the development of individual skills, and that has to be a top priority, from an early age. The boys have to play the sort of development football that encourages creativity – we’ve got a long way to go when you see some of the youth football that gets played.”

The diminution of opportunities for young English players is an increasingly worrying threat. Chris Lightbown states in his 2007 report Meltdown that “the number of overseas players making Premier League debuts every season is running at three times that of English players coming into the game through the Academy system”.

Although Premier League clubs have been criticised for overloading their squads with foreign talent, Levett sympathises with them.

“It is tougher for Manchester United and Chelsea to produce players from their Academy, than it is for Darlington or Stockport, because they have to produce players for the top nought percent in world football. And the likelihood of the best right-back in the world coming from within an hour and a half of Old Trafford is unlikely.”

Lack of technical ability amongst English footballers is frequently used as an excuse for the national team’s shortcomings. This explanation has curried more favour since the recent rise of Spanish football and the virtues of their style of play, but few would suggest that the likes of Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard are not as technically gifted as Xavi, Iniesta and Villa.

The view from outside – France

Matthew Spiro, writer and broadcaster specialising in French and African football, discusses youth development in France and perceptions of English football.

ZR: Could you outline the youth development system in France?

MS: There are 14 elite academies run and financed by Fédération Française de Football (French Football Federation). These take around twenty 12-13 year-olds every year, and train them for three years.

Clairefontaine houses one of the academies, and is the administrative centre. Clubs have recently been given permission to run their own academies for 12-15 year-olds. After finishing their pre-training, the players, aged 15/16 are integrated into clubs’ ‘centre de formations’ (youth academies).

ZR: What sort of impact did Clairefontaine (the national football centre that was opened in 1988) have on the French national team successes in 1998 and 2000?

MS: Clairefontaine was a great base for the national team at 1998. But the academy system cannot be said to have had a major impact. Henry was the only Clairefontaine graduate in the World Cup 1998 squad.

Clairefontaine’s centralised training programme for players and coaches had a broader impact on the French game as a whole than the elite academy at Clairefontaine itself. The talented generation of intelligent, tough players was a more significant outcome.

ZR: What is the perception of English football and the English ‘style’ in France?

MS: The perception is that the Premier League is great to watch but that it has sold its soul to foreign investors and no longer provides opportunities for English players. The French watching games on TV regret this as they love the all-action styles of players like Gerrard and Rooney.

In terms of style and coaching, some of the French look down their noses at England. They feel the English still like to play kick-and-rush with a big striker and a terrible goalkeeper. Of course, these comments are generalisations!


The view from outside – Holland

Ernst Bouwes, columnist for ESPN Soccernet and expert on Dutch football, discusses youth development in Holland and perceptions of English football.

ZR: Could you outline the youth development system in Holland?

EB: Most professional clubs have a youth academy. All amateur clubs have youth teams in competition in age categories, starting at age six. Anyone can join in.

ZR: How is the Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond (Royal Dutch Football Association) involved in youth development?

EB: They demand that coaches need KNVB certificates to coach at any level. They provide referees, organise the leagues, provide advice on club structure and regional selection teams.

ZR: What is the perception of English football and the English ‘style’ in Holland?

EB: That it is very physical and tough. Players are not able to change positions. A lot of emphasis on the result, less emphasis on the gameplay.

Follow me on twitter at www.twitter.com/zarifrasul 

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