The Gaël Kakuta affair has highlighted the flaws of a system which ruins careers but produces few results
Players at the Liverpool academy listen to their coaches but very few talents go on to represent the first team of the top clubs. Photograph: Christopher Thomond
In the aftershock of Chelsea’s sanction for signing Gaël Kakuta when the teenager was contracted to play for Lens, the most vital issue highlighted by the scandal is only slowly dawning. It is not whether Fifa should really have classed Kakuta’s agreement with Lens as a contract, or whether Chelsea’s lawyers will successfully nitpick the detail to claim a reduction of the two transfer window ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
No, the real challenge is to understand why one of England’s top football clubs, which like 40 others has spent millions of pounds developing an academy, and can sign up huge numbers of boys from a very young age, has failed to bring a local player through since 28-year-old John Terry, and scours other countries’ clubs for teenage talent.
It is 12 years since Howard Wilkinson’s FA document, Charter for Quality, overhauled youth development, removing good, young players from representative school and youth club football and establishing academies, thereby granting extraordinary power to the professional clubs. Wilkinson’s view was that professional football clubs had expertise in coaching which schoolteachers and volunteer amateur coaches did not – although the clubs then mostly recruited schoolteachers to run their academies.
Clubs’ academies – there are now 41 in the Premier and Football Leagues – were accorded the right to register 40 boys each year from as young as eight until 12. After that, youngsters are progressively shedded until, at the age of 16, 20 or so are selected as full-time “scholars”.
This, according to a new book, Every Boy’s Dream by Chris Green, which skilfully analyses the successes and deficiencies of the academy system, constitutes “recruitment of children on a massive scale”. It also institutionalises mass rejection of young people as too few of those who come through are actually given opportunities to play in clubs’ first teams.
Green, while acknowledging the investment and improvements made in the system, laments this futile recruitment of infants, finding that youth development experts themselves admit it is too young. He chronicles the disappointment, educational underachievement, even trauma, suffered by some boys who give much of their childhoods to academies only to suffer inevitable rejection at tender ages. The Premier League’s general secretary, Mike Foster, is quoted as accepting that although efforts are made – not always successfully – to break bad news sensitively, his league and its clubs do not bother to find out what happens to the youngsters who are released.
Some 10,000 boys are currently performing in top clubs’ academies and centres of excellence, and uncalculated thousands more in development squads and “shadow” development squads, run because youth directors have to be sure no child is being missed. Green gives due credit to the system’s merits: the clubs have invested abundantly and continue to spend an estimated £66m a year on staff and mostly excellent facilities. Some of the coaching is expert, many of the staff are highly professional and dedicated.
Huw Jennings, who resigned as the Premier League’s head of youth development this year to run Fulham’s academy, argues this has borne fruit: “The skill levels, ball mastery, balance and flexibility of our young players is better than ever,” he claims.
Yet while parents give family life over to ferrying boys to training three nights a week and matches on Sundays against other professional clubs’ academies many hours’ travel away, the reality is that just 1% of the trainees will ultimately play football for a living.
Even the few who survive the annual cuts and make it to a “scholarship” at 16 are likely to fall away. Research tracking academy boys is itself difficult to find but it is accepted that only a minority of boys awarded “scholarships” remain in the professional game at 21. Of those who win the golden ticket of a proper, professional contract at 18, the vast majority, Green found, are also not playing professionally at 21.
This summer, Jennings made his farewell speech to the clubs’ owners and chief executives, imploring them to give academy youngsters more opportunities. In Europe, he says, players make first-team debuts at 21-22; here they are thrown into Carling Cup games or substitute appearances at an average of 18 years and four months, and judged critically on those performances. “Players are not afforded the chance to mature,” he argues. “Reform is desperately needed for the 18-21 age group.”
There is, startlingly, broad agreement among those who actually coach that clubs should not be signing boys as young as eight because their potential cannot be reliably assessed, and too much pressure and expectation is loaded on them at pre-teen ages. Children, most youth coaches accept, should be playing all sports recreationally, with the best coaching available, to develop all-round skills. Yet because football clubs need to stock academies beginning at Under-nine level, they are scouting children at six and even younger. Green cites the desperate instance, famed in youth football circles, of a four-year-old, scampering about in a Premier League club’s development squad with a nappy clearly visible under his shorts.
Brian Jones, head of Aston Villa’s academy, is scathing. “Aston Villa spend a fortune looking at boys from six years old onwards,” he complains. “With the best will in the world I wouldn’t know if a six, seven or eight year old is going to play in the Premier League in 10 or 12 years’ time. It’s ludicrous.”
Dave Parnaby, another former schoolteacher who heads Middlesbrough’s successful academy, agrees, arguing that registration to an academy should not start until boys are 12 and at secondary school. “No one disagrees,” Parnaby asserts. “I have written to the FA and Premier League but what is being done?”
The answer, is inertia. On this most fundamental of the sport’s responsibilities, there is a vacuum of leadership and a familiar, dismal turf war between the FA, Premier and Football Leagues. Trevor Brooking, the FA’s director of football development, seethes with frustration that the FA is not permitted to monitor the quality of academies, and there is no central body, staffed with actual football experts like himself, to reform and run the system. The leagues argue they do not want the FA overseeing their clubs’ work and that Brooking should concentrate on rolling out coaching courses tailored specifically to different ages. He argues this has been done, but the FA’s Professional Game Board has failed to invest in recruiting more than a pitiful, single national coach for each of the 5-11, 12-16 and 16-plus age groups.
Jennings laments the absence of strong, national leadership. “It is football governance at its worst,” he says. “We desperately need unity of purpose but youth development is in a state of limbo.”
This, then, is the state we are in. Professional clubs, rich as oligarchs, trawling for boys their own coaches know are too young, giving scant opportunities to the few who come through, while waving their wallets to likelier lads in other countries. It is a system crying out for reform, from top to bottom.
Every Boy’s Dream, by Chris Green, is published by A & C Black, priced £9.99
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