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The Way Forward

Michael Owen · 

It has been a Summer of managerial change in The Premier League with many of the hottest seats in the business changing hands but it was the recent dismissal of England Under 21's manager, Stuart Pearce, that has filled the news lately. England U21's limped tamely out of another major tournament, as did the U20s, and everyone is having their say on the state of our National game.  Of course, the obvious excuse is to say we were missing some of our best young players because they were with the Senior Squad. This was certainly the case but it’s worrying that our Senior Team apparently needs them so much that our young National teams have to suffer in such a way.  It's a pretty obvious observation to make but if our Senior Team had sufficient strength in depth I wouldn't be writing this blog. Excuses aside, the truth is that we’re falling short of the level expected at present and I’m concerned about the future of all our National teams.

Society has changed and will continue to do so. No longer do you drive past a park and see it rammed full of kids of all ages having a kickabout using jumpers as goalposts. Some schools even ban the use of balls at break time, thus robbing kids of practicing essential skills like balance, timing, throwing, kicking, catching etc. Our youth of today have other things to occupy their time. Computers, social media and the like are winning the battle for a child’s preferred way of filling their spare time. The end result is that we will continue to get a shallower pool of talented players to pick from once our youngsters are ready to be coached the 'footballing essentials' in their early teens and beyond.

Football is ingrained in us, it's in our blood. We will always be a nation with a competitive football team because there are simply so many positives surrounding the structure of our game. But is everyone happy with just being competitive? I think not and I sense that is the view shared by more people than ever before, including the fans and  the FA themselves, who have arguably the most important role in all of this. Creating a structure that not only squeezes the maximum out of every player that kicks a ball in this country is one challenge but it is also essential to create an environment in which our elite players can thrive, exposing them to experiences at a young age that may be vital to them in future years.

It starts with our clubs. Get the system right in our academies and there is no doubt we will bear the fruit in the future. The FA and Premier League have put in place a new structure which allows clubs of Category A status far more access to coach an academy player. Kids of 12 and over are basically in full time training, skipping school hours to train with their clubs. I have to say, it smacks to me of a 'more is better' stance and I don't like the structure. Call me old fashioned but something just doesn't feel or look right when you are training and on the pitch next to you are kids who have barely learnt how to tie their boots, training longer hours than you when all their mates are in school. It is becoming a survival of the fittest. These kids are doing twice as much training as full time professionals and I know there is concern among football club medics regarding trends of injuries occurring due to the stresses placed on such immature bodies.

This system obviously filters right through an academy and it's at the final stage where I have most concerns. Fifteen years ago, there was a smooth transition through to the first team should you be good enough. There are countless examples of that. If you were good enough, it was the academy through to the youth team, on to the reserves and then into the first team. There wasn't much wastage, everyone that you thought would make it did so and each step was a new challenge. Despite the same steps being in place today, there is one vital difference and that is reserve team football. To be frank, I would question its merits these days as it would appear that it teaches you nothing more than you would learn from playing in the youth team. In fact, they are basically youth team matches. When I played for the reserves as a 17 year old, I played with Jan Molby, Mark Wright, Steve Harkness, Mark Kennedy, Michael Thomas and many more. These were players who, at the time, weren't in the first team’s starting eleven so had to play in the reserves. The likes of myself, Jamie Carragher, David Thompson and Steven Gerrard would make up the team and you quickly learnt how the game is really played. In my opinion the step up from youth/reserve teams into the first team is now far too big at the top clubs and unless a player goes out on loan to gain experience and bridge the gap, players who make the transition from academy to first team will be few and far between. The result is players going stale between the ages of 18 to 21 and consequently a huge pool of talent filters out of the game. Put simply, you have all the big clubs doing their best to sign up all the best young players into their academies but then they are understandably reluctant to put them in the first team at the expense of a seasoned professional who the club will have paid a great deal of money for.

I'm not sure there is much wrong with the old system. Yes, tweak it here and there but letting a kid go to school, have a kick about in the yard and return home to train after school doesn't seem too wrong to me. After all, the reality is that only a tiny percentage will make the grade and despite clubs taking extra measures to ensure their kids' education isn't compromised, you can’t help but think a normal education would be more beneficial. Banning kids from playing for their local teams is one thing but preventing them from playing for their school team seems pretty drastic. Don't get me wrong, I can see why these changes have been brought in but I believe there is a lot to be said for exposing youngsters to playing at different standards, with different people and on different types of pitches.

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom as there is still so much to be proud of within our game. The FA do a fantastic job at every level and it's only when you visit different countries as I have recently, that you appreciate the structure that we have in place. Our National Football Centre, St George’s Park is something to be immensely proud of as it doesn't only cater for the needs of our football teams but it also plays a pivotal role in improving the standards of areas that support our great game, namely improving the standard of refereeing and coaching. However, we must make sure that every element of our structure is fit for purpose and will ultimately be to the benefit of our National team.

Rather than professing to have all the answers myself, I would like to hear from you, the real fans who turn up week in and week out, about what you see as the main issues and also how you would go about improving the current setup with the ultimate aim of improving our National teams at every level.

Below are some of the issues that I believe contribute to the current situation and which I hope will be food for thought when making your own list of problems and solutions:

- How do young English players have a chance to develop when they invariably don't get selected for their club's first team due to the pressure on the manager to win and also to justify the high costs paid for so many experienced players?

- With kids effectively becoming "professional" at 12 years of age what is the impact on their ambition/desire and determination.

- Most club academies are full of foreign youngsters and is this beneficial to our own young players?

- The opportunities for home-grown talent to progress through the ranks and play senior first team football at the highest level are surely limited as a consequence of the influx of foreign players.

- Given that clubs will try and sign as many talented youngsters as they can and then discard those who may be late developers etc.,  is this actually detrimental to producing a large number of decent players who may progress to the top level given more time? The process of being discarded at an early age could well demoralise the youngster and effectively turn him away from the game before he has had chance to show his true potential.

- Many school kids who are the best at school sports are held in high regard by their fellow pupils which in turn gives them a confidence and desire to succeed. Going back to school as a "failed" academy player is more likely to knock confidence and supress any genuine talent that they may have.

- We have to accept that considerably fewer kids are playing in local parks etc as video games now allow them to become great players and managers (albeit virtual) online without even leaving their home! How do we go about increasing the number of kids playing locally and for real?

- Due to financial constraints, many of the lower league clubs are struggling to meet mandatory levels of facilities and staff required under the Elite Player Performance Plan regulations brought in 2011 which in turn means less funding being available and consequently less academies at the lower levels of English football. In my opinion, these are the places where youngsters who develop later are given the opportunity to flourish and also where the step up from youth/reserve team to the first team is more akin to the old days.

I have decided to use Sportlobster for this blog as it’s a social network dedicated to sport. My hope is that this will stimulate a much more passionate debate and ensure that the fans voice is heard. I also think that the 140 character limit on Twitter would mean lots of bullet points rather than a proper debate. On Sportlobster all your comments will show under this article which means we will all be able to follow the debate as it progresses.

I hope you’ll take the time to express your views and between us we can maybe give the appropriate governing bodies ideas for improving the future of our wonderful sport.

Mountmayor ·

I am very glad to have read through this great article. I am a Nigerian but a big fan of English football. English football at the national level has been my major concern. I think what is needed to be done is to go back to the drawing board just as Spain did. I could remember vividly that English football was rated higher than Spanish football. Let there be a rule for the so called big clubs for the minimum number of young English national players they should feature in their first team.

christy.malyan ·

Hey Michael Owen, I think you've gone about this in a great way by using Sportlobster btw. I have to disagree with your analysis that video games are affecting the national game, every country in Europe has a population of children brought up on Playstations and Xbox's and it hasn't affected the likes of Spain, Germany or Italy so far.

christy.malyan ·

Hey Michael Owen, I think you've gone about this in a great way by using Sportlobster btw. I have to disagree with your analysis that video games are affecting the national game, every country in Europe has a population of children brought up on Playstations and Xbox's and it hasn't affected the likes of Spain, Germany or Italy so far.

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