Why aren’t young British footballers living up to their billings?

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A series of early international tournament exits in the last year have placed question marks over the quality of English footballers. Unsurprisingly, the finger of blame has yet again been pointed at the system responsible for developing young players. Zarif Rasul investigates the English youth development system.

THE diminutive young Nigerian Olarenwaju Kayode skips down the left-hand side of England’s box, and whips a superb ball across the face of Jack Butland’s goal. The ball eludes almost everyone and lands at the grateful feet of Edafe Egbedi, who duly smashes home. Fifty-two minutes gone, and Nigeria lead England 1-0 at the Centenario de Armenia stadium in their FIFA Under-20 World Cup 2011 last-sixteen clash.

Despite the valiant attempts of Blackpool winger Matt Phillips, Nigeria hold onto their advantage for the remaining 38 minutes and dump England out of the tournament. England coach Brian Eastick bemoans the failure of clubs to release eligible players, but admits that his side’s performances in Colombia, which failed to see them score a single goal in four outings, are indicative of failure.

The Under-20s were not the only group of young Lions to follow in the underwhelming footsteps of the senior side. Seven weeks earlier, and less than a year after England’s 4-1 humbling at the hands of Germany in South Africa, Stuart Pearce’s highly-touted Under-21 side left Denmark having failed to make it out of the group stage of the European Under-21 Championship.

This recent run of ignominious international tournament exits has sparked another witch-hunt to find the scapegoat responsible for England’s failures. And yet again, critics have been quick to point to the perceived technical inadequacies of English players and flaws within the youth development system.

Overplayed and under-coached

The current system, which has been in place since 1998, is drawn from Howard Wilkinson’s landmark 1997 report Charter for Quality. As Technical Director at the FA, Wilkinson was commissioned to undertake a comprehensive review of the existing youth development structure at the time. This review laid the foundations for the Charter.

During the 1990s, concerns had developed over the amount of coaching contact time and playing time young footballers were engaged in. Wilkinson says that dealing with these problems was a key priority.

“Youth development in professional clubs was confined to the then Centres of Excellence. Some of them would be very lucky to get to a Centre of Excellence [for coaching] for about an hour and a half a week.

“The best players at 15 years old, would be playing over 100 games a season because as well as being registered with, say, Tranmere Rovers’ Centre of Excellence, or Liverpool’s Centre of Excellence, they would also be playing for their school, their district, their county and the national team.”

Playing too many competitive matches was seen to be detrimental to the development of young footballers.

Ben Marskell, an ex-professional footballer who enjoyed spells with Brentford and Luton in the 1990s, was forced into early retirement due to a series of recurring injuries. As a youth player Ben trained with Chelsea and Aston Villa, and was considered one of the best defenders in the country. Now running his own soccer school in West London, he describes the rigorous playing schedule that elite youth players often had to adhere to.

“Sometimes, I would have to play three matches a day. I’d go from one pitch to the next – because when you’re a good player, everyone wants a piece of you, and you just get stretched and pulled each way,” he explained.

He believes that overplaying as a teenager eventually caught up with him and forced him to retire early.

“Overuse injuries made me stop. It wasn’t one injury that finished me, it was an accumulation of injuries. I would probably be playing at the top level now if I hadn’t had those injuries.”

A Charter for Quality

Wilkinson’s report, which he wrote soon after he joined the FA, revolutionised the youth development landscape and gave birth to Academies.

“The Charter for Quality was about creating more and more effective coaching time, and more quality practice and quality playing time,” he said.

“And to do that we had to get rid of the FA rule that allowed schools priority over talented footballers. Academies were the vehicle to deliver those principles.”

Having looked at several continental models, including successful methods employed by Dutch giants Ajax, Wilkinson also sought to lower the age at which clubs worked with players.

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