E ngland’s youth footballing sides have been the focus of much praise over the last few months, with virtually every age group experiencing some degree of success at the tournaments they have participated in. This was arguably topped by the successes of the U17s, who won the World Cup for their age group in India most recently. Talent clearly resides in the academies of Premier League clubs, with only Jadon Sancho – formerly of Manchester City, and pulled away from the squad to play for Borussia Dortmund after the quarter-final stage – playing football outside of England, and just four others not at academies of clubs who currently play in England’s top division. But, the pathway from U17 prodigy to regular first-teamer is far from guaranteed, partly due to factors intrinsic to footballing ability and mentality, but more importantly, the Premier League and its nature of merciless sackings hindering substantial youth development.
Of course, it should be pointed out that winning a youth tournament doesn’t automatically mean players are, or will be ready, for senior football. The Nigerian youth teams have, for example, experienced immense success in international tournaments winning three of the last six World Cups at U17 level, but they aren’t an African footballing superpower just yet. Even within the academies themselves, in the Premier League 2 – essentially an U23 league – only the best two or three players will typically go on to appear in the Premier League. The “Class of ‘92” at Manchester United is clearly a notable exception, but it isn’t the norm. There are several factors that will affect a player’s development from youth level through to the first team and any one of these could be enough to inhibit a career in the top flight; anything from a bad attitude, distractions off the field, lack of physical or mental development or even a lack of talent. The over-arching point is, nobody should expect every single one of these young players to have illustrious careers in the Premier League.
“FEW WOULD HAVE THOUGHT Harry winks would be instrumental in the dismantaling of REAL MADRID”
Yet clearly, and frustratingly, the potential is there for at least a few to make it. And this is where some aspects of the Premier League prohibit the development of young players; some managers are fighting every game to keep their jobs – the likes of Slaven Bilic, for example, who is the latest casualty – and thus they will never take risks on young players. In his first game in charge of West Ham, he started youngster Reece Oxford away at the Emirates, and won 2-0. Oxford became the club’s youngest ever player in that game, too. Now, Oxford is out on loan and Bilic was reliant on the likes of Jose Fonte at the heart of the defence, a 33 year-old. Nobody could blame Bilic for this, but the difference is clear between him and the braver managers who are more secure in their jobs. Nobody questions Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to pick Harry Winks regularly for Spurs now, but when he first came into the team a couple of years back Winks was sub-standard. He certainly didn’t look as talented as Chelsea’s Reuben Loftus-Cheek, a muscular, dominating midfielder in a totally different mould. Everyone involved in youth football knew of Loftus-Cheek’s talent, yet today he’s on loan at Crystal Palace while Harry Winks has just played a vital role in the defeat of Real Madrid at Wembley. This parallel demonstrates what can be achieved when youngsters are given a chance: not just one, but a string of appearances, and are injected with belief and trust from their manager.
Loftus-Cheek is, to be brutally honest, symptomatic of a far greater problem in the youth system: Chelsea football club. Just this summer, the likes of Nathan Ake, Nathaniel Chalobah, Loftus Cheek, Dominic Solanke and Tammy Abraham left the club in search of regular football elsewhere, and Chelsea losing players of this calibre illustrates the lack of a first-team pathway. Such players are evidently good enough for international football: Abraham has earned his first senior call-up after impressing, despite playing in a stale and unimaginative Swansea side.
Antonio Conte is not a manager famed for bringing through younger players, and it means some of the top English talent isn’t given a chance. Chelsea’s relationship with Vitesse Arnhem means that some youngsters are shipped off to Holland, almost never to be seen again. This fate has befallen the American Matt Miazga, Charlie Colcott, Mukhtar Ali and Mason Mount, and that was just over the summer. Chelsea have around 30 players currently out on loan, and with no clear pathway it seems increasingly unlikely any of these players will ever play at Stamford Bridge. Potential turns to wasted talent, and this is a detriment to the national team as a whole.
“CHELSEA’S RETICENCE TO FIELD YOUNGSTERS IS UNDERSTANDABLE”
Yet Chelsea’s reticence to field youngsters is understandable. Roman Abramovich’s record of keeping faith in his appointments is dismal, so why would Conte, who is facing a crisis at Stamford Bridge, risk fielding a youngster who could make a fatal error?
Chelsea’s example is most pertinent, but their failure to carve out a discernible proxy from the youth set-up to first-team is indicative of a wider problem affecting the Premier League. Only the very secure can afford to take a chance on England’s young lions and Mauricio Pochettino is the only very secure manager in the top flight.
The national side owes a large debt to Pochettino, and Daniel Levy for trusting the Argentinian, but such arrears will only increase as the ruthlessly profit-driven nature of the league continues to dictate.
And so, while we should celebrate the success of the youth setup, keep expectations low – especially regarding anyone currently on Chelsea’s books – and don’t expect big things from the national senior side for at least another few years.