Exclusive: Tony Cottee on how the game has changed for young players

In an exclusive interview with Football FanCast on behalf of the London Football Awards, Tony Cottee discussed his time coming through as a youngster and the differences today’s academy graduates face in forging a career as a footballer at the top level.

Young footballers are always looking to set themselves apart from their competitors to forge their path in the game, with collecting accolades being a way of helping that process along.

Last year, it was Declan Rice who won the London Football Awards’ Young Player of the Year, and Cottee feels that other youngsters playing in the capital should be looking to win when the evening is repeated on 5th March 2020: “I think, if you’re playing for a London club, then you would certainly have one eye on looking to be the best player in London, so it’s a fantastic awards dinner and it’s a fantastic night that I always look forward to.”

There can be comparisons made between Rice and Cottee’s emergence in the sense of awards, as the former striker recalled his PFA Young Player of the Year win in 1986: “We had a wonderful season, we finished third in what you would now call the Premier League, and we very nearly won the league that year. I scored 26 goals, so as a young 20-year-old kid trying to make your way in the game, it was a great season for me.

“Then once I’d won that award it was a case of trying to kick on and get in the England squad and everything else that followed beyond that.”

Both being youngsters who came through West Ham’s fabled academy to go on and represent England, their stories are very similar – apart from Cottee’s goals and the Hammers’ league finish – but the 54-year-old has admitted things are very different for those coming through the ranks now compared to his day.

Speaking of his own experiences when emerging from the Hammers’ academy, he said: “For me personally, it was a wonderful experience, because first and foremost I’m a West Ham fan, so to be a fan and then to go and be a player was incredible for me to come through and develop in that academy. They’re still working hard and they’re still producing good players.”

While he has accepted that there isn’t the same number of graduates making the Hammers’ first-team as there used to be, Cottee insisted the academy is doing as good a job as ever, considering the circumstances: “It is very difficult to get a local youngster to come in and do that, but the club are still working hard and I’m still a big fan of the academy.”

The striker, who went on to play for Everton and Leicester City, has even admitted that things may have unfolded very differently for him, had he been coming through in the modern-day: “I think the difference nowadays is the players have got to be a little bit more patient because it’s harder to get into the first team.

“I got in at a very young age, I was a regular at 18 years of age and you don’t normally see players as regulars at 18 now – unless they’re a Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen, a real top of the tree.

“I think the rest of the players, and I include myself if I had come through now, you would have to be patient and you’d have to go out on loan.”

While Cottee believes he may have needed a different path, there are options now that seemed out of his reach back then, such as moving abroad.

He is encouraged by the fact that a move overseas is now a more viable career move, using the example of Jadon Sancho to show how effective this can be: “He was at Man City and I think it would have been easy for him to pick his money up every week and sit on the bench to play a minute every other week. But he’s said, ‘No, you know what, I actually want to go and play football’, gone to a top club in Europe and he’s doing really, really well.

“I think by him doing that, it’s encouraged all the players to think about going abroad and playing football.”

While the goal of reaching the very top remains the same for aspirational youngsters, even the end target has changed in the years since Cottee broke into the game, according to the man himself.

He reached an FA Cup final during his career, and despite losing it, he sees this as one of his greatest accomplishments in the game, though when asked if the competition has been devalued, he replied: “Yeah, of course it has, the reason for that is simple really. I think it’s the Champions League, with how big that’s become and the Premier League, which you could argue has become even bigger.

“When I was younger, the one game you wanted to play in was the FA Cup final. In a way, the youngsters wouldn’t understand it nowadays, but probably more important than winning the league was to win the FA Cup.”

Things may have changed since Cottee’s day, but he is still very much in touch with the modern game and is in a position to give advice to those coming through: “I always say to players if ever I get a chance to speak to them, enjoy your football and play as much as you can because you blink and it’s over and you’ve been playing 15 years, but if you’re not careful at the start, you can miss five, six years of your career where you’re not playing football.”

When the winner of the London Football Awards’ Young Player of the Year is announced, Cottee may afford himself a moment to think back to 1986, appreciating that while he was also among the city and country’s best young footballers, the game’s evolution has seem circumstances for young players drastically change.

Tony Cottee was speaking as a judge on The London Football Awards, due to take place on 5th March 2020 at Camden’s Roundhouse. Tickets are available from https://londonfootballawards.org.

Article title: Exclusive: Tony Cottee on how the game has changed for young players

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