“Ajax were churning out hundreds of great players. They’d be finishing school early, being bussed in and bussed home three, four, five times a week,” he said.
“In Holland they believed in boys staying at home and being bussed in, and therefore the Dutch were effectively looking at a much earlier age. They were bussing kids into Ajax at 11.”
After being appointed manager at Leeds United in 1988, Wilkinson introduced changes to the way in which young players were developed at Elland Road, changes which influenced his later work with the FA.
“When I joined Leeds they were typical of other clubs, so I outlined my ideas to the chairman to develop what I called a ‘training centre’. The idea was to increase practice time by having boys living near, and we did that at Leeds.
“By the time I left Leeds and joined the FA [in 1996], I’d seen my ideas on youth development start to take shape. Consequently, my ideas had not just been a hypothesis.”
Wilkinson’s changes at Leeds resulted in a string of high quality players, such as Ian Harte, Alan Smith and Harry Kewell, making Leeds’ first team. All three players featured in the club’s memorable run to the semi-final of the Champions League in 2001.
Academies and Centres of Excellence
Under the Charter, the Premier League and the Football League are authorised to award licences for Centres of Excellence or Academies to clubs. All but three Premier League clubs (Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Wigan Athletic) run an Academy, and 23 Football League clubs also do the same, whilst an additional 51 Premier League and Football League clubs run Centres. League Two side Hereford United were recently granted a licence to run a Centre and began their youth operation this season.
Clubs with an Academy or a Centre of Excellence can coach boys from the age of nine; before the Charter, clubs first engaged with young footballers at 14. The switch which allowed professional clubs to coach boys at younger age was key, and a point highlighted by several notable figures.
Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live, ex-England manager Glenn Hoddle described the period between the ages of six and ten as “the most important time in a child’s technical development”. Former Arsenal and Holland forward Dennis Bergkamp famously labelled the eight years to twelve years phase as “the golden period of learning”.
As the flagship product of the Charter, Academies must meet more stringent criteria than Centres. Academies are required to operate at all age levels from under nine to under 21, as well as providing a minimum amount of weekly coaching time. Those under the age of 11 must receive a minimum of three hours of coaching over two sessions, boys between 12 and 16 must receive at least five hours over the course of three sessions, whilst full-time scholars aged 16 and over must be coached for at least 12 hours per week.
On the other hand, Centres are permitted to operate at any age level, as well as being allowed to set their own weekly coaching hours. Differences also exist in the standard and quantity of facilities and staffing required, and Academies, as such, require far greater investment.
Upon reflection, Wilkinson admits that the implementation of the Charter hasn’t turned out quite as he had planned.
“I only envisaged 12 to 14 academies, but we finished up with 40, which in my humble opinion was always too many. I didn’t think the country had enough talent to support 40 high-level development centres,” he said.
“A lot of clubs and a lot of clubs’ directors would ask ‘Where’s our Rooney? Where’s our Joe Cole?’ That’s how they actually judged it. The notion that 40 academies can unearth 40 Rooneys every season is unreal – it won’t happen.
“The second thing was that there has to be adherence to rules. It’s fair to say that there wasn’t. The high standards set out in the Charter were not adhered to in some cases, in terms of numbers of coaches, the number of medical staff and education provisions and so on.”
Although the Charter successfully facilitated increased contact time, the amount of coaching time English youngsters receive still pales in comparison to the amounts received by their continental counterparts.
According to the Telegraph, young footballers in Spain enjoy 4,880 hours contact time between the ages of nine and 21, whilst this figure increases to 5,740 hours and 5,940 hours in Holland and France respectively. English players, on the other hand, receive a meagre 3,760 hours.
Domestic resistance to the idea of coaching as a serious profession is an oft-cited failing of English football. In continental countries such as Holland, a suitable coaching qualification is an essential prerequisite to coaching players at any level, including grassroots.