Hear from the U's Director of Football
There has been a debate over a number of years which surfaced again when the new Chairman of the Football Association highlighted “youth development” in his key note speech last week. With such luminaries as Dan Ashworth and Stuart Pearce speaking on this subject this week, I thought that I would base my column around this theme. I do so from a different slant, one from the Football Conference, but based around three factors that I believe are pivotal: money, opportunity and the academy system. Ultimately, if you compare top Premier League clubs with Cambridge United it is like comparing “feast” v “famine”. However, sometimes hunger creates a greater to desire to succeed and the less you have, the harder you work. I cannot comment on the clubs with money because we operate in a completely different world, that is poles apart. I can offer an opinion though, simply be looking at what we do, why we do it and then considering the contrary argument.
Look at the money available to Premier League clubs. The television revenue now totals billions not millions, so every club has the ability to buy top players from any country in the world. That is no longer just the top few clubs but any club in the Premier League. You only have to look at the transfers this summer to realise that even clubs finishing in the bottom half, who are yet to fully establish themselves as a top flight club, can spend £10 million plus on players and wages to rival “bigger” clubs throughout Europe. In a profession dominated by the short-term, why would managers spend time and the risk of developing their own home grown players when they have the resources to bring in the ready-made article? With the domestic transfer market inflated, due to the lack of top quality English players, clubs will go abroad for better value. That is even prevalent within Championship clubs, many buoyed by the increased parachute payments, which in time will create an unofficial Premier League Two.
There is so much money awash in the game at the highest level, young players can earn a fortune before they get anywhere near the first team at their club. Armed with agents, all the trappings of being a superstar and a potentially inflated opinion of their ability, it is little wonder that question marks will persist about the hunger of young players to improve, challenge themselves and do whatever it takes to be successful.
Our young players certainly do not earn unrealistic wages too early; in fact it is the exact opposite. Our club certainly does not have the resources to recruit senior players that will unnecessarily block the development pathway of our home grown youngsters. We have to produce our own players. It is a financial imperative. Whenever you need to do something, it focuses the mind. In our case, it becomes a culture, something that defines our club. Even if suddenly our finances changed, this commitment would remain just as strong. The bar would be raised but the opportunities would remain.
That takes me onto that next issue, opportunity, which is totally interlinked with the vast resources available to the top clubs. Everything conspires against youth development, even the rules of the competitions. For example, every place in the Premier League is worth a considerable amount of prize money. A club might be safe or in a position where they can neither be relegated or qualify for Europe but if they win their last couple of games and go up a few places in the final league table, it is worth millions. Those “dead” games used to be an opportunity to blood young players. Now they are too important financially. It leaves the League Cup as the only competition deemed unimportant enough by most clubs to play youngsters. The quota system for “home grown” players is also flawed because a foreign player signed at a young enough age qualifies as “home grown” for a club even if he will not be eligible to play for England. Foreign players are not just prevalent within first teams but academies as well.
The short-term nature of football, where managers have a shelf life of less than eighteen months, also means that there is very little incentive for someone in the hot seat to spend the time and take the risk of throwing a youngster into the first team. No-one can be sure how any young player will react until they play. That uncertainty, in the context of such an insecure industry, is the reason why the safer option is to go with experience. In finding experience and quality at the highest level for the right price, the best place to shop is outside these shores.
If you look at the clubs that produce their own players it is built on a fierce culture within the organisation which transcends any individual. It also requires stability, whether within the boardroom, the manager’s office or a structure that ensures continuity. That is what we now have at this club.
And finally, the games programme for 16 year olds onwards is crucial in order to make the step from age group, developmental football to the first team environment, where results are the imperative. I am not sure if the authorities have got it right. I watch a lot of Under 21 games but only ever see one type of game. Is that realistic preparation for the spectrum of challenges that first team football will pose? It is still age group based, results are still not life and death, the type of opposition is very similar and the players will have faced their opponents throughout their academy career.
In essence it is an extension of the academy and youth football. The more progressive and forward thinking clubs will ensure their best young players have an experience of the real world by loaning them to clubs where they have a taste of first team football and the associated demands of having to win football matches against a variety of styles or less than perfect pitches. That’s if a young player will go on loan or their agent will agree! How do young players ever get “proper” games on their CV’s if they won’t drop down a couple of leagues to gain valuable experience? The answer is they don’t and many of them fall out of professional football before they are 21 years old. In many cases, I think extending the age group from U18 to U21 through EPPP simply delays this inevitability.
Again, initially maybe not through choice but definitely through necessity, we do things differently to everyone else for our 16-21 year olds. The Thurlow Nunn League may not be as aesthetically pleasing to the eye but it does provide our scholars with senior football at a young age. They have to cope with the harsh realities of football that resembles the demands they will face in the first team far more closely than a competition against their counterparts at other professional clubs. For those who excel, we loan them to clubs higher in the football pyramid and closer in level to our first team. It bridges the gap and allows them to come into our first team better equipped for the challenges ahead. Look at Liam Hughes after his spell at Corby Town last season.
The balance of playing against more technically adept players is fulfilled by Under 18 fixtures against top English clubs and tours abroad where the scholars face teams with different team shapes, tactical plans and methodology. We then aim to give the best players additional experiences to accelerate their development, such as Bobby-Joe Taylor and Liam Hurst training and playing with Slovan Liberec at the end of last season.
Do we do everything right? No. Can we improve what we do? Yes. But my point is that for any organisation to be successful with any aim they wish to achieve, it must be embedded in the fabric of their culture and everything they do. That cannot be achieved in England because the Premier League, and particularly the biggest clubs, is more powerful than the FA, primarily due to the huge revenue generated through the TV deals. Quite simply, the Premier League product is therefore more important to the clubs than a successful national team. Compare that to county cricket and the ECB. The opposite is true as counties are dependent on the success of the England Cricket Team for the majority of their income and therefore are incentivized to produce talented young home grown players.
And finally, I would cite one huge contradiction with EPPP that fails to build on the unique forte of English football, which is its strength in depth. EPPP encourages more young players to go to fewer clubs. It will lead to smaller Football League clubs closing their academies. We know that clubs outside the Football League are excluded to funding and protection but EPPP will effectively do the same to clubs within the Football League by reducing the compensation clubs will receive for their players but increasing the investment that clubs need to make to adhere to the required number of staff. Therefore, young players will be stockpiled at clubs where the likelihood of them breaking into their respective first teams is small because of all the reasons highlighted above.
Most other sports try to grow their base to increase the pool of talent and therefore the chance of producing elite players. English football is unique in the fact that it has almost five professional leagues, with over 100 full-time clubs. However, EPPP will lessen the number of those clubs with a development pathway for their most gifted and talented local youngsters. The part of the pyramid that was strong will be weakened and the part of the pyramid that is flawed, the problem of getting young players through at the top clubs, has not been addressed.
The strength of our youth scheme is that we have a large base through 1000 players within our 16 regional development centres and a structure that ensures progression all the way into the first team with no blockages. With producing our own players being a financial imperative, it has become our culture, our commitment, our ethos. With stability, continuity and a single philosophy, opportunities will always exist for the players if they are good enough.
We are all proud when Luke Berry wins a Player of the Month award because we remember his first steps into the first team and we know his talent has been developed by our club. The number of young players that progress into our first team is an anomaly compared to all of our competitors in this league. Our biggest influence as we grew our youth scheme was Crewe Alexandra, a club synonymous with youth development, producing countless England internationals and fielded a whole team of home grown players last season. It will be impossible for them to gain category one status in EPPP. That says it all.
Enjoy the game,