Soccer academies – stepping stones or exploitation?

“I’ve seen the future and I’m scared”

by Matt Slater – BBC Sport

For the last month or so I have been speaking to people involved in youth football (soccer) development in England and to say that our conversations have been illuminating is an understatement. They have also been equal parts encouraging and depressing.

The starting point for my interest in the subject was Rafa Benitez, or more precisely his pre-Christmas rant that academies, which were set up in 1998, weren’t working.

My initial reaction was to dismiss his comments as a case of getting his excuses in early, or perhaps a not-very coded message to Liverpool academy boss Steve Heighway. That soon, however, gave way to indignant jingoism – “you cheeky Spanish git, how dare you suggest our lads aren’t as good as your lads etc etc”.

But with memories of last summer’s World Cup still fresh, I reconsidered. Rafa could be on to something here. After all, the entire academy system is currently under review. And wouldn’t I be annoyed if the only product of a £3m a year coaching complex was Stephen Warnock?

So I spoke to youth development experts at the Football Association, Football League, Premier League, a few clubs and even a few interested outside observers.

What they told me was that academies have been a great success…and a complete waste of time and money.

The quality of coaching is improving all the time…and no better than before.

Our clubs are producing better athletes with better techniques…and nowhere nearly enough players of Premiership quality.

English kids are coming through the system and the first real batch of the academy years are only now reaching maturity…under-pressure managers are still more likely to prefer a short-term fix from the transfer market than an unproven youngster from the academy.

And so it went on. Numbers of coaches and decent facilities, up. Actual time spent with a ball, down.

Some clubs struggling to turn expensively-nurtured potential into Premiership reality, while others can’t stop turning out first-teamers and internationals.

Some clubs eager to join the academy gang and unearth some Gareth Bales of their own, while others starting to wonder if that youth development money can’t be better spent somewhere else, namely abroad.

But what everybody agreed on was that youth development matters. And it will matter even more if we start to miss international tournaments again. What good is having the world’s most popular league if we can’t actually play the game ourselves?

Two of the most passionate people I spoke to were Football League development manager Graham Hawkins and Brazilian Soccer Schools founder Simon Clifford.

Hawkins is as football establishment as they come. He played for some of this country’s oldest and most storied clubs and went on to manage Wolves. He is now chief cheerleader for the Football League’s academies and centres of excellence.

Clifford is as far removed from the football establishment as it is probably possible to be whilst still making a living from the game in this country. A former teacher who turned to football coaching after meeting Juninho’s dad at Boro, Clifford has been upsetting FA suits for years with his radical plans and outspoken style.

Inside or outside the gang, both agreed on a few core issues that can no longer be brushed under “World’s best league/brand” carpet.

1) The money at the top is not filtering down (the Premier League, which will earn £1.7bn next season, gave Football League clubs just £4.2m to help fund their youth set-ups this season).

2) The top flight’s riches make getting there or staying there all important. This leads to short-termism, particularly in regard to signing players (65% of Premier League signings in January were not English) versus developing them.

3) Talented English youngsters are not playing enough football and the football they are playing is probably not the right kind. Teenagers at Brazilian clubs are practising, mostly on basic technique and conditioning, for 20 hours a week. On the continent, they get 10-12 hours. Our brightest prospects are getting five hours.

4) There is no scientific or social reason why English kids, with the right coaching and sufficient time, cannot be as good as kids from anywhere else. In fact, with the levels of interest, expertise and wealth here, they could be better.

So with that last point in mind here is my very short manifesto for saving English football from becoming English tennis.

1) Implement Uefa’s quotas for home-grown players. If Boro can field a team that has 15 of the 16 players from their own academy (as they did against Fulham at the end of last season) surely the others can field teams that have four of 25 (as Uefa has demanded and the Premier League has ignored). I know it is unrealistic to expect to see another team of local lads win the Champions League (as Celtic did in 1967) but it would be nice if at least one or two of them were more than just short-term contractors at the company.

2) Reduce the academies’ catchment areas. They can currently take under-14s from within a 60-minute travel time radius and older kids from within 90 minutes. Clifford wants to reduce that to 10 minutes. I think he has a point. Access to the players is a huge issue, and our climate, clogged roads and school timetable don’t help. But let’s work around that. Let’s get the kids into their LOCAL club before school. Or perhaps let them have their PE lessons there. Clifford has told Leeds chairman Ken Bates to forget recruiting academy kids in Liverpool and Newcastle. He thinks he could field a Leeds United side of locals in just 10 years. It won’t happen but it wouldn’t be any worse than what they have now and it would be considerably cheaper.

3) Stop competitive 11-a-side games for the youngest players. Most academies spend two thirds of their five-hour allotment with the kids on preparing for the upcoming weekend’s game. That leaves just one third of the time for work on technique, the very building blocks of young player’s career. Less focus on competition, with smaller games and more touches is the way forward. Who cares if their teams under-12s are top of the table if your under-18s can’t trap a ball?

I could go on (to more dangerously communist territory like salary caps) but I won’t.

What I will say is that I am fed up of waiting for England to win an international tournament and I am not convinced that the mega-bucks world league that is the Premiership is going to help that.