The Youth Development Debate
Robert Elstone, 10th October 2013 - 23:34
About the author
I’m moved to write. Having worked with the Premier League on the Elite Player Performance Plan, having seen how hard Everton and other Premier League clubs work, having two teenage boys playing ‘top level’ junior football, I feel I have a reasonably credible handle on youth development.
And I hear so much that frustrates me, so much rhetoric, so many unsubstantiated claims, so little robustness, so little effort to do any homework, and frankly, so much abdication of responsibility.
I write as a committed ‘Premier Leagueist’ but I’m certain those in the game know which organisation has transformed the fortunes of English football, has put our game back on the map, has put respectability back into our game.
The world’s most admired, envied and respected League is ours. And it’s not just about the money. The Premier League has created the most demanding and competitive league in the world where only the best survive. The Premier League has created the perfect environment to develop world class players, a research and development laboratory with maximum stress testing and the potential for true Darwinian outcomes.
It is the political capital leveraged by the revelation that ‘only’ 30% of total minutes played in the Premier League is English that has moved me to write. It’s hardly revelatory, it’s something we’ve known for a while, and, it is claimed to reveal the root of the problem, our League is full of foreigners. But maybe we should consider whether ‘full’ is a problem. How many great players do we actually need to win a World Cup? The Belgians might do it with fifteen? 30% is actually quite a big number when you consider they’re playing in the most demanding League in the world.
Maybe it’s time to think quality and not quantity? These 60 or 70 players can prove Darwin’s theories on the ‘Evolution of the Species’ like no other sporting competition in the world; like no other environment in the world. Our English talent looks over its shoulder every day. They have players from all over the world chasing their livelihoods. Where better to get the 20, 30 or 40 players we need to fight with the best in the world at a national level? Why would we want it easy? Why would we want to take the pressure off? And it’s a framework built by the Premier League.
Over the past 48 hours, I haven’t heard a single word about the Elite Player Performance Plan – the Premier League-led initiative to modernise the development of young players. It’s a thorough, well-researched and benchmarked blueprint for the future, funded and implemented by the Premier League.
It’s a plan designed to challenge, refine and optimise the colossal £70m spent every season by the Premier League on young players, a contribution way beyond any other league in the world. An environment where 4,000 boys are coached, monitored, mentored and educated week-in, week-out in world class facilities, and in our case, in the same building where Ross Barkley
listens intently to the guidance and wisdom of Roberto Martinez. Funds, facilities and strategies all provided exclusively by the Premier League.
I then turn to my two poor lads who are decent footballers, and have been inside the Academy system but sadly now reside in the domain of the Football Association. They play in the top division of the Stockport League. They play in teams at the top of the top division. But about now, in mid-October, their games will start getting called off. If it rains on a Thursday, the whole fixture list goes. They played when they were younger with the wrong sized ball, often incorrectly inflated, with inappropriate sized goals, on a pitch, when open, that was too big.
They continue to play with coaches who’re enthusiasts but scream ‘get rid of it’, with opposition coaches who shout ‘off side’ and encourage dissent, with opposition parents who abuse them, with referees who are either 12 years old or have enjoyed being centre-stage for far too long. It is desperate. I look forward to Sunday mornings with such hope. I’m always left shattered. This is breeding ground for the World Cup winner. It’s English football’s pyramid.
It’s English football’s pyramid because the other pillar – our schools football - remains incomplete, disengaged and at best, only ever starts in Year Seven. Thirty-odd years ago it was no different. I never kicked a competitive ball in Junior School. I never played on a Saturday. And my Sunday mornings were on the street. It’s hasn’t improved. And who’s responsibility is that? The poor young lad unlucky enough to be only the 21st best player in Liverpool in his year might as well stick to Xbox.
Who is trying to do something to give us a chance of winning the World Cup? Who’s having an impact? I know the answer. I also know who it’s not.