If the senior team are experiencing something of a hiccup at Tottenham Hotspur during the season’s run-in, then supporters of the club can at least take solace in the unprecedented success that the Lilywhites’ youth set-up is currently enjoying.
With Spurs’ U21 side now guaranteed qualification from the elite group into the semi-finals of the Barclays U21 Premier League competition – thanks in no small part to an eight point gap accumulated with three games still to play in the group stage – things are looking extremely rosy for the club’s future. Throw in an impressive run to the quarter-finals of the NextGen competition and optimism is understandably high for the next generation of home-grown talent.
But for as exceedingly well as Tottenham’s crops of youngsters have done this season, the overall success of their youth academy is always going to be judged on how many make the step up to first-team proceedings – a feat that’s been notoriously hard to achieve at the club in recent seasons.
With the duo of Jake Livermore and Tom Carroll serving as real beacons of hope to those looking to follow in their footsteps, the roadblock that seems to have too often separated the youth and first teams in N17 seems to have slowly subsided. But looking to convert 90-minute outings in the academy into 10-minute cameos with the full squad still remains an extremely difficult trick to pull off.
The common solution in bridging that gap between youth and professional level is of course through the medium of a loan spell away from the club. But while the loan market is fraught with danger and inconsistency, it remains one that Spurs have struggled to consistently exude the best out of.
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And should they wish to really profit from the wealth of talent that they currently possess at U21 level and beyond, the club could do with ensuring less of their young prospects return from their loan spells having learned very little and played even less. The question is however, how much as a parent club, can Tottenham really do to prevent their loanees’ flailing prospects away from White Hart Lane?
There is no cast-iron formula for a successful loan blueprint and no team can accommodate for a loss of form, injury or a change of philosophy from the player’s temporary manager. Yet while it would be somewhat naïve to suggest that Spurs have been guilty of adopting a haphazard approach to the loan market, there have been occasions in recent times where you must wonder whether the club have really given their young players the best shot at success.
Andros Townsend may now be enjoying life in the Premier League away on loan to QPR, but after eight previous spells away from White Hart Lane, his apprenticeship within the Football League has often resembled more a case of trial and error, as opposed to a carefully planned road-map for success.
One man who has of course enjoyed a wonderful road-map for success, is Steven Caulker, but while he has perhaps been one of Spurs’ best managed youth products, he is more of an exception to the rule, rather than the default example.
After a superb loan spell at Yeovil Town during the 2009-10 season in League One, the 21-year-old was carefully moved up the ladder with moves to Championship side Bristol City and then-Premier League new boys Swansea City following in successive seasons. His success owes more to his own defensive gifts and outstanding work-ethic, but by sending him to clubs in which he’d earn first-team football – not to mention gradually increasing his exposure to quality – Spurs gave him the best possible chance.
But that road-map hasn’t always been adhered to at White Hart Lane.
The pairing of Jonathan Obika and Ryan Mason also enjoyed a fruitful loan spell at Yeovil alongside Caulker at Huish Park. But although Caulker was obviously at a more advanced stage in his footballing development, when both Obika and Mason hit sticky patches after moving on from Yeovil, Spurs’ only answer appears to have been to keep flinging them at clubs in the hope that something changes.
After making his step up to the Championship with Doncaster Rovers, Mason struggled to make an impact after injury during his second loan spell at the Keepmoat Stadium. After a spell away at Millwall where the Lions had little real need for him, Mason is now sitting on the bench in France with FC Lorient – a side in which he is unlikely to make a single appearance for.
Obika is another who, after facing difficulty at Crystal Palace following his time at Yeovil, was flung into another five loan moves – two of which that were back in the South West – in a hope of getting it right. He now resides at Charlton – his ninth spell at his sixth different club.
Of course there have been successes, with young right-back Adam Smith looking like the latest to break the mould following a great spell under Kenny Jacket at Millwall, but the list continues past the likes of Obika and Mason. For every Smith, there seems to be a lot more Dean Parretts, John Bostocks and other players who have fallen victim to the loan system.
Just as Spurs can’t prepare for how a club will utilise a loan player, they can’t second guess how a player will develop either, and not all who show promise in the academy will be able to cut their teeth in the Football League and beyond. But through learning from the mistakes of the past couple of years, perhaps the club could take a little more care when looking to find their current set of gifted youngsters a temporary new home.
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