Rethinking the production line – how can the youth of today become tomorrow’s stars?

“You can’t win anything with kids” has long since passed into football folklore as one of punditry’s most ill-judged comments – even if that judgement was only in hindsight.

However, Manchester United’s golden generation proved to be the exception, not the rule.

Since the Premier League began, the average number of U-23 year olds in title winning sides stands at only around two and a half.

The statistic perhaps makes Alan Hansen’s comment more accurate than we give him credit for.

The question of young players’ progression – in particular young English players – has again been brought into the spotlight by England’s U-20 World Cup triumph and how many of these players will have the opportunity to progress to full International level.

On the surface, the progression of young players is a no-brainer. Harry Kane or Marcus Rahsford through the Academy or Morata for over £60 million; why pay the rumoured £70 million asking price for Virgil van Dijk? Is he really £53 million better than Harry Maguire?

The England U20 World Cup winning squad, England U17 European Finalists, Kane, Alli, Davies, Holgate, Rashford, Pickford – all proof there are talented young English footballers.

The question is how to increase the number of young players coming through from a trickle to a flow. There is no clear cut answer or rather there are a number of issues to contend with.

Regulations were put in place to, as UEFA stated, “protect young players”. As such, one of the reasons for the double lock of Financial Fair Play and Home Grown Quotas was an attempt to promote youth academies and home grown players.

The Home Grown Quota may have had some impact, but whilst the rule covers simply age requirement, not nationality then the primary benefit will be for club not country.

As to the FFP, some questionable sponsorship deals may have surmounted FFP to begin with, now it’s the sheer amount of TV money raising the revenue bar, especially when transfer fees are amortised over the period of the contract of the signed player. UEFA have since relaxed FFP restrictions themselves.

Money – money underlies everything. TV money, money just for participation, prize money dependent on final league position.

According to a report by Sporting Intelligence’s Nick Harris – Watford who finished 17th earned £108.5m last season; Southampton finishing eighth earned £127.6 million; the points difference between the two was just six. Sunderland finishing rock bottom earned just shy of £100 million.

By contrast Newcastle [excluding parachute payments and gate receipts] winning the Championship will have earned around £7 million – £2.084 million participation, £4.3 million solidarity payment from PL and £100,00 for every televised home match (this falls to £10,000 if away) .

No wonder the pressure on managers in the Premier League is immense. Football is a business and faltering performances can cost literally millions. Dropping out of the league, even with parachute payments is a massive financial hit.

Therefore some owners hit the panic button if there is a smell of poor performance let alone relegation. Manager turnover is high and any incoming managers must feel the demand to hit the ground running.

Conventional wisdom appears to be to turn to the old hands – experienced known pros rather than younger players to get a team out of a mess. This is not a guarantee for success – the number of old Everton hands in Sunderland’s relegation team may bear testament to this.

Arguably the tendency towards mistrust is perhaps the hardest issue to define or overcome. Is there a perception that young players have neither the experience nor physicality to play against “adults”? How would you know if you don’t play them? Some managers of course simply prefer working with older players. Tony Pulis may be one example.

The youngest player to make over ten league appearances for West Brom last season was 26 years-old Matt Phillips.

In contrast last season has seen the benefit where other managers prefer working with younger players. The belief being they may feel young players are more susceptible to taking on board their philosophy.

Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman have been two of the prime exponents in bringing through young players.

Does the marquee, or at least high profile, signing impact youth development? Clubs can feel the pressure to make a statement of intent by such a signing or at least the club operatives may.

There is also the not so small matter of merchandising to consider – again, a question of money.

At Manchester United, Marcus Rashford had a break-through season under van Gaal, a manager noted for giving young players their chance.

Last season Rashford arguably went backwards under a manager who could be said to have a preference for working with older players.

The second season expectations may have been challenging anyway for Rashford but the signing of Ibrahimovic may not have helped.

A great player, one who’s presence demands inclusion, but at the same time one who slows the game down.

If, as expected, Chelsea sign a high profile centre back this summer, the cost may not just be the transfer fee but the loss of the young but talented Nathan Aké.

Called back from a promising loan spell at Bournemouth last season only to be sparingly used by Conte, Aké is said to be wondering where his career at Chelsea can possibly go.

his is a question that could be on constant replay at their Cobham training ground. Chelsea have a high number of young players stockpiled – many on loan, who may never be seen in the Premier League before being sold.

So are there any answers? Arguably there are always answers if vested interests can sit down around a table. Also as so much of football is about money, types of financial deterrents should be considered.

The following are intended as food for thought.

Manager transfer windows

Windows may help ease the pressure on managers, giving them time outside of the windows to focus on the football without looking over their shoulder.

To create some kind of stability for them to develop the team as they want, and more importantly help develop and look at young players to bring through.

One Manager transfer window a year in December would give the manager a 12-month period but also a club to change manager if needed during a season but before the January transfer window – giving the new manager backroom staff some time to assess existing players.

Home grown quotas

Three home grown players to be included in the match day squad. Is it also feasible to look at having different qualification time period dependent on nationality?

So for instance, for an English club, home grown quota applies after three years, but a non-English player is only categorised as home grown after four.

Would both of these benefit the promotion not only of young players, but particularly young domestic players?

Age limits

Coupled with the above is the question of whether there should there be an age cap on new players coming to the league.

Take Dani Alves’ recent move to Manchester City. Alves is a wonderful player that many would love to see in the Premier League, but there is a part of me that wonders if a 34-year-old who is past his peak should really be coming to the Premier League? Particularly to a club spending a fortune on their Academy with as it seemingly very little results.

Similarly, but in a slightly different context, Chelsea are looking to sign Willy Caballero  who was released by City. Again with the millions spent on their Academy they have to sign Caballero?

Anti-stockpiling measures

How do you determine between clubs developing/signing young players in the belief they will make the grade, or just for profit to be sold on at some point?

Is there an argument to say that if a player has not made a set number of appearances in the first team by a certain age or over a set period of time – serious injury adjusted – the club has to mandatorily release them for free.

This may focus a club on a young players development rather than some of the perma-loans we see players on.

Revising the pyramid

The Checkatrade Trophy’s introduction of U21 teams  to the competition may have met with some resistance from fans, but young players have benefitted from the involvement.

The idea of B-teams had also been mooted before but rejected by the 72 teams. The idea should perhaps be revisited but in a different way.

The sheer number and variety of clubs in England, each with their own fan base, their own proud history, is in some ways what makes football in England delightfully unique.

However, many clubs live on a financial knife edge, living under the permanent shadow of a winding-up petition or the last minute saves from extinction.

Surely there must be some scope to re-organise the structure below Championship level – including the National League – into a regional format. Would the less distances to travel, more local rivalries and increased gate receipts.

If on top of this Premier League B teams were mandatorily included but had to pay a fee of £1.5 million a season which was evenly distributed, this could generate around £400,000 for each of the other clubs on top of the EPL solidarity payment.

This could be the difference between survival and extinction for many clubs.

For the fee Premier League clubs have B-teams – with a mandatory number of U21 players in the squad – in a proper league competition, though they would not be eligible for promotion to the Championship.

Young players should gain experience against older, perhaps more physical players with more know-how; Clubs, rather than loan players out to other teams where there is less control on training and match time have the opportunity to keep players together within the own club structure, controlling development, training and bringing young players through together.

Wage capping

How many players in Premier League academies are earning salaries that dwarf those of us mere mortals? Does this in some cases stunt any drive, ambition to succeed?

Jurgen Klopp instigated a wage cap of £40,000 per year for 17-year-olds. That is still a massive amount. Should there be a salary cap per age group up until the age of 21 year. Arguably to do this [and this may have to be not just England but FIFA wide] a player up to the age of 21 should not be able to sign with an agent.

Remove the “necessary evil” from the equation where there may always be questions over who is acting in who’s best interest?

Could – up to the age of 21 – all players contracts/transfers be handled by the FA or PFA of that country they are playing in. The FA/PFA would be responsible for educating young players on how to handle the large salaries and in contractual negotiations so when they reach 21 they have an understanding when signing with an agent.

The FA/PFA could also be responsible for players that do not make the grade either signing with lower league clubs or being re-educated into another profession altogether.

As mentioned there is no clear cut answer. How much is feasible – all, none or maybe somewhere in between – is all up for debate.

But one thing is not up for debate is that whilst there is talent being produced in England, more should be produced and more graduates should be coming through. Action does need to be taken to ensure it happens.

The Author

Alan Robins

Love all things football. Blogger. Views my own

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