Failing Our Youngsters

Mark is a member of the All-Party Group on Football and represented the Conservatives on its reports into the game’s governance (2003-04) and finances (2008-09).

In the warm glow of England’s convincing qualification for next year’s World Cup Finals and with promising prospects of a successful bid to host the competition in 2018, there is one sphere of the national game, club-run youth academies, where the garden is rather less rosy.

The 18 month transfer embargo imposed on Chelsea by FIFA earlier this month has overshadowed the start of the new Premiership season and confirmed a trend that many of us football fans have long feared. Namely, that some of our top clubs have been involved in signing young foreign teenagers in a manner that is, if not always technically illegal, at least unethical. Indeed, since the news broke several other leading clubs have also been accused of similar breaches highlighting just how widespread the problem appears to be in the highest echelons of the professional game.

Nevertheless, the severity of Chelsea’s punishment for inducing the former Lens player Gael Kakuta to break his contract in 2007 has come as a shock to our top-flight clubs. For too long many have considered themselves to be out of the reach of football’s authorities as an ever-increasing imbalance of power has developed between the powerful ECA (formally the G14) and the rest of the football world. As such the controversy over player poaching raises some serious questions for our national game whilst also providing a unique opportunity for the Football Association to radically reform the academy system from top to bottom.

At the outset we need to ask what motivates our top clubs to go to such lengths to acquire increasingly younger talent from all corners of the globe. After all our failure to develop home-grown talent has dire consequences for our own youth academies here in England and, if left unchallenged, it threatens to further erode our already diminishing production of international class players.

Over the past five seasons Premiership clubs have invested over £66 million in developing academies yet not only are our youth systems largely unregulated, but they are also palpably failing to produce enough local talent. The figures highlighting these failures are frightening with just 1% of the current 10,000 registered youth players (from age 6) now expected to make the cut as a professional footballer. Despite this colossal financial investment clubs are increasingly letting English talent go, particularly at either 16 years or 18 years of age, and replacing them with foreign counterparts, whose early development has been nurtured in their home countries. The hope is that these evidentially better trained young players will provide more immediate success on the pitch or greater asset value in the future.

The impact of English clubs’ short sighted approach is threefold. First, the recruitment of children on such a scale will doubtless result in countless dreams being shattered at a tender age, institutionalising mass rejection. Over three decades ago Eamon Dunphyin his classic book ‘Only a Game?’ bemoaned the failings of an apprenticeship system which discarded young men in their late teens without the skills, aptitude or discipline to transfer into the ‘real’ world of work. Not much has changed.

Secondly, attracting young foreign schoolboys to fill the void is a potentially dangerous and socially irresponsible practice, particularly if clubs are found to be enticing foreign parents to part with their children through extravagant financial incentives.

Lastly, the failure to develop more English youth players will ultimately deal a fatal blow to the quality of future England teams in the decades ahead thus threatening our reputation as a world power on football’s international stage.

Part of the problem in the domestic game is the institutionalised buck-passing between the three governing bodies of English football – the Football Association (FA), the Premier League and the Football League. Alongside the much welcomed Home Grown rule introduced last week, I believe further regulations relating to the signing of youth players now need to be properly enforced. Too many of the largest clubs in the Premier League have a vested interest in continuing confusion, so I firmly believe all matters relating to academies should come under the authority of the FA.

Meanwhile, our academy coaches and first-team managers should be encouraged to give younger indigenous talent greater opportunities to make the cut, whilst Directors of Football and wealthy owners must be persuaded not simply to fund academy systems, but also to wait with greater patience for them to bear fruit.

The FA must no longer accept the Premiership as a billionaire’s playground. As a consequence we cannot leave the responsibility of safeguarding our academies and youth players to the clubs themselves. Throughout national life there is an increasing realisation that we are letting down teenagers by a failure to instil values and promote skills-based training. For the sake of our national game let us hope that the footballing authorities will rise to their own challenge.