Most young footballers who make it through to the Premier League first teams from the academy systems do it from the big clubs themselves. Graduates of the academies of the biggest clubs around the country are to be found all over the league, though depressingly, rarely at those big clubs themselves.
But the reason why young English players are seldom seen in starting lineups of the top four probably has to do with game time and perception rather than ability. After all, how can the best youth teams in the country like Manchester City and Chelsea fail so badly to promote their players. The answer surely isn’t in the quality of the players, but the pressure to get results.
That means loan moves, and in some cases players falling by the wayside. That’s partly because host clubs are less likely to care about the player’s long-term development, and more likely to only care about the player’s short term performance levels for the duration of their loan.
It’s also partly because ending up on loan can also tarnish a player in the eyes of some onlookers – that’s not necessarily a conscious thing, but when you see the likes of Marcus Rashford bursting onto the scene and scoring in big, glamourous games, it does make loan players in lower leagues look bad, and there’s nothing they can do to change that perception if they aren’t trusted to start in the top tier.
This will come under the microscope again as England’s U20 side reached the World Cup final this week. For only the second time in 87 years, then, England have reached a World Cup final at any age group. Which makes this kind of a big deal, but it also means that there will be hype, that media speciality so unconducive to youth development in football.
One player who didn’t make the World Cup squad, though, was Rico Henry. Billed as the ‘next Ashley Cole’ by a headline in the Daily Mirror almost two years ago, there were links to Arsenal, as well as Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham. At the age of 17, though, you can see why the hype was such a burden, as Henry hasn’t spent the last two years ousting Nacho Monreal from the Emirates side’s starting XI, but perspective is needed.
Unlike so many of the players to have made the u20 World Cup squad, Henry doesn’t play for a Premier League side. In fact, in the squad, there is one Reading player, one Charlton Athletic player and two Newcastle United men. The rest of the 21-man squad is made up of players owned by clubs who competed in this season’s Premier League. Each and every one of them will face the problems of getting into a top tier first team over the next few years.
But not Henry. Although he wasn’t snapped up by a Premier League side two years ago while still at Walsall, he was brought to the Championship by Brentford at the start of the season, and at the age of 19, played 12 times in the second tier this season.
For such a young full-back 12 games is probably the perfect amount, even if the current footballing climate seems to want young players to embark on a meteoric rise to their first team without any regard for the concept of development – that is, getting better over time.
This is why Henry could yet come very good indeed. Taken away from the limelight by a competitive Championship side, rather than rotting in the academy of a top team and sent on loan to clubs who don’t care about putting any effort into his development, Henry has become part of a first team squad, and used sparingly enough to shield him from pressure. It’s been two years since national newspapers compared him to a legend of his position and that can only be a good thing.
On top of that, having missed out on the chance to represent his country at the World Cup this year, the Brentford man may be disappointed, but he will also be spared the hype that the rest of the team will get for their stunning efforts.
In the end, most of the squad will not be playing Premier League football next season, they’ll be out on loan to Championship clubs. And yet Henry will be at exactly the same level, the only difference is he’ll be spared the hype and he’ll be at a club who actually care about his long-term development. He may be a long way away from being called the ‘next Ashley Cole’, but that may just be the best thing that’s ever happened to him.