Youth development has always been an issue that sparks debate, particularly in the run-up to a World Cup. The blind optimism that accompanies this ‘Golden Generation’ is soon replaced by a country lamenting a dearth of top-quality English footballers as they suffer yet another quarter final exit. But is the actual youth development in this country really to blame?
Howard Wilkinson revolutionised youth development in England nearly 17 years ago with the introduction of the academy system. This saw clubs given total control for the development of players from the age of eight upwards. In truth, this was not a new invention – clubs from around Europe had been doing it for years and England were just slow to catch on.
I first entered the academy system in 1999, as an under-nine player. At the time, the academy I signed for was one of the best in the country, and it was a great honour for me to be signed by the team I supported with such passion. We were exposed to a number of innovative, highly-qualified coaches, including the current FA Director of Elite Development, Dan Ashworth. We had three training sessions a week, as well as a game on Sundays. Away from training, we were expected to practise kick-ups every night and work on our agility and balance with activities such as skipping.
In addition to this, we were taught on off-field aspects of the game, such as diet and psychology. The training itself would be innovative. Each Wednesday we would train with futsals to improve our touch and ability to work in tight areas. We would use parachutes to improve our sprinting, and sports science techniques well ahead of their time. We would be sent to ballet classes. We would travel the world, playing against the very best teams, and the tactical and technical knowledge we were given proved irreplaceable.
My under-nine side were one of the first to go all the way through the academy system. This is a key point in judging the academy system – it will only start to bear fruition now, when the players that have been right through it from a younger age have matured. From my under-nine squad, which comprised ten players, six signed scholarship forms at professional clubs. One of these was at Manchester United. This player was one of three who represented his country at youth level. Another player represented England colleges and a further three played for their counties. Three of the ten made it professional – this despite the tendency of clubs to look abroad for cheaper alternatives to fill their under-18 sides.
These statistics are incredible given the number of players that attempt to make it professional each year, and make it hard to question the success of the academy system. In this particular case, players have certainly been developed.
However, despite all of their positives, there are a number of fundamental flaws in academies. The most fundamental of these is the mentality that I, along with a number of other academy graduates, am ashamed to have developed: I don’t particularly care about winning.
There is no doubt that this is a direct consequence of the academy system. Within this system the honus is on individual performance. Winning doesn’t matter as long as you play well. After every game we played we would be told to write down a match mark and a short assessment of our own performance. The coach would then give us his assessment and conclude it with his match mark. This was the nerviest part of the whole game, and soon came to be what I placed most importance on. Who cared if we won 2-0 against Liverpool? Of course it was nice, but if you got a match rating of 5 out of 10 then you were on a slippery slope. If you had a few five performances in a row then your privileged position on the team was to be seriously questioned, and you faced the fearful reality of being released at the end of the season, tossed onto the bed of footballing rejects at the age of ten.
Soon I came to fear this part of our ritual. I was scared to make mistakes. Rather than keep the ball under pressure I booted it away, off the pitch, to the striker. Anywhere where I couldn’t make a mistake. If we conceded then that didn’t matter as long as I couldn’t be held accountable for the mistake. If we lost then so what? As long as I got a good match rating I didn’t mind, and this was what was drilled into us by a succession of coaches: the score doesn’t matter, it’s all about the performance.
Inevitably my performances deteriorated, not helped by a series of injuries, and I was eventually released from the system. Now I was no longer under pressure to do what was considered right, now I could get my confidence back playing Sunday league football, could play in different positions, could enjoy myself. Suddenly the emphasis was on winning.
The experiences I had in the academy system were incredible and improved me immeasurably. Even though I was unable to make it the whole way through the system I benefitted greatly, and the high-level technical and tactical knowledge of the game, as well as the science behind the sport that I learned were irreplaceable. The record of the system – once players have had the opportunity to go the whole way through the system and develop, from a nine year old to a physically mature 20 year old – is impressive, yet slight changes must be made. Winning has to be put on a par with individual performance. We need to develop winners. For at the elite level, if you don’t play to win, then what is the point of playing at all?
Maybe then a true Golden Generation will emerge, with the prospects of progressing past the quarter final stage a real possibility. After all, as Vincent Lombardi says: ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’.