Is the academy system still failing English football? If it’s working well now then a huge culture change must have occurred over the last five years. Here’s Christopher Smith.
When Thomas Muller hammered the fourth and final nail in England’s World Cup coffin last summer, it instigated an unprecedented inquisition into the state of youth football in the country.
Green with envy at the likes of Mesut Ozil and the aforementioned Muller, the English media demanded to know why our top clubs were not producing this kind of homegrown talent. After all, Muller had only just broken into the Munich first team and was already helping spearhead his national side’s attack. England’s own boy wonder, Theo Walcott, was sat at home; Emile Heskey considered a safer bet.
The media inquisition placed an unfair amount of attention on two factors; the influx of foreign footballers into the English game and the ‘lack of talent’ at grassroots level. The second factor particularly sticks in the throat, an ignorant statement that no doubt disheartens thousands of talented youngsters across the nation. It sticks in the throat even more when it comes from the FA’s youth development officer, Sir Trevor Brooking.
Of course, anyone who actually considered Brooking’s comments in depth would have noted it was actually a damning indictment of the way English footballers are taught to play in contrast to the highly technical, total football that the Germans produced in South Africa.
So why don’t English clubs produce the sort of magnificence we see emerge from Barcelona’s La Masia academy on an almost constant basis? Is there something fundamentally wrong at the heart of the English game?
I recently spoke to Matthew, whose name I’ve changed out of respect for his privacy, who has first hand experience of the academy system in England. Matthew was a central defender, and happens to be the same age as Thomas Muller, 21. He had trials at the likes of Aston Villa, Leicester City, Coventry City and Walsall, before finally signing a youth contract with a football league club at the age of 13. By 16, Matthew was already an ex-footballer, turning his back on the game he grew up loving.
Matthew’s relationship with football began at a young age; a Spurs fan by trade and with a football-loving father supporting him, Matthew began playing for his local youth club. Yet, even from this point in his short career, Matthew recalls bad experiences aged nine.
“The first training session, I remember having the ball and dribbling past all the players on the other team and scoring, much to the shock of the team managers. The club was split into three different teams, and I was put straight into the top team.”
”But in the first game – my actual first proper game – I remember the manager saying ‘If you ever get into trouble, just put the ball out of play’, which I wasn’t used to. I used to just play the game and run with it. So whenever a player came up to me, I used to just kick it out of play. I got demoted after that for a few months!”
Nevertheless, Matthew recovered from this experience to eventually become one of the top players in his region. After interest from the likes of Villa and Coventry, he eventually signed for a football league side at 13. Yet, for a football fan brought up in the age of the top four and the megabucks Premier League, joining a club wasn’t the opportunity many would perceive it to be.
“I think to start with I only saw it as going along to training. This sounds bad, but I never really considered the side I joined a step up to a professional club. It’s always made out in the media that you’re only a big-time player when you’re at one of the big clubs in the Premier League.”
Despite this, Matthew noted the set-up was familiar to a few of the clubs he had trialled for before, “I was surprised at the set up definitely. I’ve had trials with other top clubs, and I was shocked how similar the set up was, considering it was a League One side at the time.” Is this down to laziness on the part of top clubs, or just a rigid English system no one dares to confront? Matthew believes it’s the latter:
“I think there is a big problem in the English academy system at the moment. I mean, I look at the teams I used to play for or have had trials with, and there are very few who has made it into the first team regularly at any level, maybe the exception of Jack Wilshire at Arsenal. I think a lot of young players go into big clubs and think of the big-time too soon, heavily influenced by the media attention around the game today. The way clubs tend to retract this is by distancing themselves from the youth set up. But I think this has the opposite consequence – a lot of youngsters are turned away because they feel disheartened and uninterested in the game; or it produces players who aren’t ready for the professional game.”
This distance between the youth set-up and the professional clubs is one of the reasons Matthew eventually turned away from football, one of the enduring memories of his time in the academy system:
“They call it the youth team, and that’s how you’re made to feel. It’s a weird experience really, how isolated I felt at times when I was there. You’d think playing for a club like that, they would really encourage you to get better and try grooming you for playing in the first team, but I never got that. It was felt like we were there to make up the numbers; I never met any of the first team, or reserve team for that matter!
I don’t think I ever met the youth academy’s director, who offered professional contracts to players, until the day I was offered one. That was 18 months after I joined. It was all made out that the first team was a completely different world to the youth team, as if the club was made up of the privileged and the have-nots.”
These factors led to Matthew’s departure from the club, and with it, his departure from the game he loved as a child.
“I had been considering leaving the club for a while. We didn’t have the best team, we rarely played good football and I wasn’t enjoying the experience. So when I was offered a contract I just thought; well, I could put up with this for a couple of years or I could go back to my local side, enjoy playing and enjoy school more. I chose the latter. Looking back, I never considered a window of opportunity into playing professionally, mainly because I don’t think it was ever sold to me that way.”
Matthew’s experiences left him feeling isolated from football, yet from speaking to him, it’s clear he has very few regrets; after leaving sixth form with excellent A Level results, he is now in the final year of a history degree. He has reignited his passion for football once again, regularly going to Spurs matches and enjoying playing football more than ever. Yet the system that is supposed to nurture this love of football instead turned it into disillusion, ruining a dream that most of us harbour from a young age but were never quite good enough to pursue. Not that talent is particularly important, from Matthew’s experience:
“At the youth academies, you’re taught to play a very rigid style of football. In the tabloids, they call it the British way; the ‘safety-first’ way, or ‘for-the-team’ way. I think young players are groomed to go onto the field and do their job, and that’s it.
I remember playing against Cardiff, and they had a centre half there – 6ft tall, very stocky – and we were told he was destined to be captain of Wales one day. He must have been the worst footballer I have ever seen at that level, but because he could head the ball, and outmuscle most players, he was what they wanted. True talented players weren’t given a chance.
I think foreign players coming into the country play with a freedom that English players don’t, which means a lot of English players will struggle getting to the highest level now as the game is heavily influenced by a more continental game.”
Matthew’s story is a sad one, but unfortunately, it isn’t the only one. Glenn Hoddle has even set up a club in Spain, Jerez International, with the express aim of helping British players get their ‘competitive edge’ back. Somehow, academies across Britain are taking raw, hungry talent and churning out disillusioned, disaffected young men with no love for the game. Even those who have ‘made it’ at the top such as Andy Carroll and Jack Wilshire find themselves at the centre of various tabloid scandals and legal trouble. Is this a product of society, or the actions of young men who have been brought through systems, which don’t appear to care much for individuals who are not only failing to develop their football skills, but their life skills?
Perhaps this is all futile. Perhaps we are stuck in a horrible rut, the kick-and-rush mentality that is routinely mocked by the rest of the world. Perhaps the thousands of promising youngsters threatening to break through are all destined to fall out of love with the game due to a system which regards them as a number, and is likely to shaft them for a pricey foreign player when they can’t deal with the rapidly evolving Premier League due to the fact the ‘British’ way is all they know. For all the money the FA wants to throw at ‘grassroots’ development, it seems likely we’ll be chasing circles until academies change their ways.
You can follow Christopher on Twitter @ChrisJoseph897