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Manchester United will contest the Champions League final this week for the first time since 1999, and there are still a couple of holdovers from that golden generation groomed from an early age at Old Trafford. But the pipeline of British players developed by Manchester United to their first team has dried up in recent years, as it has at the rest of the Big Four.
This followed an overhaul to the youth development system in Britain a decade ago, the result of a 1997 report by the F.A.’s Technical Director Howard Wilkinson, “Charter for Quality”, which laid the groundwork for a nationwide network of local youth academies at over 40 clubs in the Premier and Football Leagues. This was supposed to lead to a new generation of talent coming through within a decade to give England the depth of talent it has so often lacked; whilst the Champions League final will showcase the fact that there are still numerous world-class English players, the drop-off below the likes of a Ferdinand or a Rooney remains alarming.
Wilkinson’s system has clearly failed. In one of McClaren’s final squads in the failed Euro 2008 qualification campaign, only one player had come through his club’s academy to the first team, Stewart Downing, and only four others played for the club they had been developed at.
This new set-up in 1998 restricted where clubs could draw their players from geographically, as it attempted to localise and spread elite player development: as the Premier League’s website explains, “The nine-eleven age group players are registered for one year at a time and must live within one hour’s travel time of the Academy. The 12-16 age group players are registered bi-annually and must live within 1 ½ hours travel time of the Academy.”
This meant Manchester United could no longer recruit the cream of the talent nationally, weakening the talent their best academy players worked with daily. Last year, Alex Ferguson claimed the academy system was “falling apart”.
Brian McClair, head of United’s academy, places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the system as well. He recently explained to the Independent that “United were very good at getting all the local boys and they got out-of-town boys to come on their holidays. If you look at that group of players who won the 1992 FA Youth Cup for United, nearly every single one of them played at the highest level because they were the best from Northern Ireland, they were the best from Wales, the best from England, the best from Scotland. You can’t compare anything to the Beckham, Butt, Scholes generation with what happens now. It’s impossible to do that now.”
A National Academy?
On the one hand, given the Big Four’s dominance of English football, it seems only fair that the top clubs should not be able to cherry-pick all of the talent from across the country, leaving the smaller clubs with the scraps. On the other, the prohibitive cost of buying young English players from the smaller clubs has meant the Big Four have increasingly looked abroad for cheaper young players at the age of 16. It also means that the best players are not necessarily training with their best peers and the best coaches, stifling development.
Ten years on, Wilkinson is also clearly unconvinced that his academy structure has reached its fullest potential, saying that for many clubs “youth development is no longer seen as a priority”. Many academies are not up to scratch nationwide, meaning players who do not live near one of the best academies are having to put up with substandard development.
One answer would be to develop a national youth academy for the elite players. The Football Association’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall closed in 1999 after having developed the likes of Michael Owen, Wes Brown and Joe Cole. Wilkinson believed the model was too centralist, and that it could be successfully replicated at clubs across the country with the academies being set-up at the time. Lilleshall has also been criticised by graduates of the centre who argued it pushed players too hard, too young, and that selecting a small number of players at such an early age risked missing some of the best talent (Steven Gerrard was famously rejected by Lilleshall, something that still apparently drives him on to this day).
In the years since, there has been considerable debate over whether to found a new national academy at Burton-on-Trent, which finally got the go-ahead after seven years of procrastination by the F.A. last week. The £20 million National Football Centre will open in 2010 with eight grass and two synthetic pitches, for the best of the country’s talent.
Some argue that resurrecting such an elite national model would be a mistake. Despite claims that the English F.A. is replicating France’s successful model of youth development at Clairefontaine which has produced stars including Henry, Anelka and Gallas, that ignores the fact that the French system actually consists of nine regional elite academies cooperating with club academies rather than one national centre: Clairefontaine is the best known, but it’s supported by a regional network each developing the best players yet allowing them to also work with their clubs. In France, the best players spend the week at one of the nine regional academies, returning to their clubs for the weekends.
Why not such a system in England? Instead of a single national academy in conflict with clubs and highly restrictive in its selection, it would ensure that whichever club’s academy players were restricted to geographically, they would still get elite development at a regional level and the pool of players being developed would be far deeper. After all, if England are going to copy the French, shouldn’t they do it properly?