Chris Lakey: What on earth are we doing to our young prospects?
It started with a tweet (as it often does) and ended in a trawl through the gold-encrusted bowels of the Premier League.
“24 year old Belgium international Michy Batshuayi who cost £32 million has scored for Chelsea under 23s against MK Dons in the Checkatrade trophy which is supposed to be help young English players get game time.”
The tweet had a stick in a hornet’s nest effect so I decided to pick the previous Saturday’s Premier League fixture list and count up how many homegrown players had started for their clubs that day.
For my purposes homegrown meant any player who had come from the academy at their club to sign as a pro, without leaving on a permanent transfer. So Paul Pogba, although coming through the ranks at Manchester United, didn’t count, as he had departed for Juventus before returning to Old Trafford. Jesse Lingard started at United and had loans at Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby – so he counts.
There were eight Premier League games played on December 2 – and the starting line-ups featured the not-so-grand total of nine homegrown players
Chelsea v Newcastle: None
Brighton v Liverpool: Lewis Dunk for Brighton, Trent Alexander-Arnold for Liverpool
Everton v Huddersfield: Jonjoe Kenny and Tom Davies for Everton, Tom Smith for Huddersfield
Leicester v Burnley: Ben Chilwell for Leicester, none for Burnley
Stoke City v Swansea: None
Watford v Spurs: None for Watford, Harry Kane for Spurs.
West Brom v Palace: Sam Field for West Brom, none for palace.
Arsenal v Manchester United: Lingard for United.
Most of the nine have spent all their footballing lives with their clubs, although Davies had been at Tranmere, Smith at Manchester City and Kane had shorts spells at Arsenal and Watford.
Huddersfield no longer have an Academy – and it makes you wonder why other clubs bother. Spending millions on young players and then not managing to include even one in your starting line-up suggests there are failures along the line somewhere.
Imagine the scene at the training ground: you have scores of children of all ages milling around, many of whom have been at the club longer than the senior pros. They start as whippersnappers but each year edge closer and closer to the promised land. They’re in an academy set-up, what could possibly go wrong? And then comes the day when the club says, “right, we’ll have you lads over there. The rest can find new clubs.”
On the scrapheap before you’ve got a National Insurance number.
Then, if you are kept on, you have to battle against the machine: the one that harvests mega bucks to spend on other club’s players. Not ones they have nurtured themselves, but ones who have proven themselves elsewhere. Before you get the chance to do likewise. Maybe your club will raid a lower league club for a rising star in our same age group. If it doesn’t work, he can be discarded as well.
In the pursuit of glory, what happens to the late teens? Many sit and watch from the stands, neatly dressed in a club tracksuit but possibly never going to play. One or two will get a game, one or two will make a career of it.
Many more will play every Saturday – in the lower leagues or non league, where clubs will benefit from the years poured into their footballing education. Those clubs are probably the only real winners.
Look at Joe Lewis: a fine goalkeeper who helped Peterborough to promotion to the Championship and is now performing very well for Aberdeen. He was in Norwich’s youth system at the age of eight, but 13 years later left for London Road, having never played a game. Fortunately, the current regime is trying to rectify that with an overhaul of the Academy set-up – they can ill afford the incredible wastage that football’s development process produces.
Anyone who has read No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin will know that behind what we see played out on a Saturday afternoon is a cruel world.
England manager Gareth Southgate said “one of the worst days he can remember” was when six fellow Youth Training Scheme lads at Crystal Palace were told they wouldn’t cut it at the club, reducing them to tears.
It is a cruel game, but the clubs don’t help, treating young players like pieces of meat, discarded when they reach their can’t sell-by date.
Seat of learning
First things first: I am not after sympathy. Ok?
I have a bad back, which means if I want to go and watch a football match I usually have to sit down. If I watch non league games, as I often do, it’s not bad because I can wander, move around a bit, sit a bit, stand a bit.
I much prefer standing, probably because I was brought up standing at matches and never even considered the possibility that one day I would have to sit down.
If I go to a league match, there’s a problem: you can’t wander around and, in many cases, you cannot stand up. I use the word ‘cannot’ in its loosest sense. What I really mean is, you are told not to stand, but nobody takes a blind bit of notice.
If they want to stand they will. It’s natural: increase the excitement level and there is an immediate reaction. And if you want a sing song you cannot possibly sit down: you’re not Boyzone crooning some schmaltz: you’re a footy fan with a team to follow.
Football clubs which enforce the seating rule do so because they have to, by law. If not, bits of the ground get closed down.
Standing in seating areas has been a problem for years – it is a problem not just through safety reasons but for people like me who will remain seated - and spend 90 minutes looking at the back of the person in front of me.
I know seating regulations were introduced for very good reasons, and no one wants to see a return to the incidents which ruined so many people’s lives. But it beggars belief that a suitable alternative is still not available to all.
The availability of safe standing areas should be the norm, whether it means clubs lose seating capacity or not. Otherwise, you are simply denying some fans what they pay for – entertainment. And annoying the hell out of those who want to stand too.
I suspect too many clubs are fearful of the cost of introducing safe standing, which is understandable. But didn’t they face a cost when they had to go all-seater as well?
Maybe if the elite spread a bit of financial love around it would solve a lot of problems – and improve the lot of fans at the same time.