Doing it for the kids?

January 23, 2007
(Archive)

There is a problem in the English game, and you won't find it subject to a Panorama investigation, or an FA disciplinary panel.

GettyImagesFor every John Terry, there are five Titus Brambles.

The real dirty secret of English football is the lack of young English talent cultivated from the clubs' Academy systems. Forget 'bungs', TV replays and diving debates, if there is a crisis in the game that needs to be sorted first, this is it.

Looking down a list of Academy graduates currently playing in the Premiership makes painful reading. There are always stand-out cases: John Terry, Paul Scholes, Ledley King and Steven Gerrard spring to mind, and granted, they are exceptional talents. The trouble is, everywhere else, the next Terry or Gerrard aren't getting the opportunity to prove themselves because of an influx of continental youngsters.

Out of the 20 Premiership teams (and around 600 players), there are fewer than 50 young English players who have made the step up from Academy to first-team. Some teams have even fielded a squad without a single English presence.

The definitive side in this case is Arsenal. Having seen literally hundreds of youngsters go through the gates of Highbury (and now the Emirates) stadium over Arsene Wenger's decade in charge, they have only managed to blood a single Academy youngster into their recent first team, Ashley Cole. And even he has now swapped Arsenal's red for Chelsea's blue.

Boasting a proud history of England internationals like David Seaman and Tony Adams, only U-21 starlet Justin Hoyte is making a case for inclusion in the current Arsenal crop and has proved to be a useful utility man in defence; yet he is still way down the pecking order behind the likes of Toure, Djourou, Eboue, Clichy and Senderos.

Wenger's ability to nurture young talent is without question, having brought in players of the calibre of Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor; but when it comes to English talent, he has not excelled. Steven Sidwell, Jerome Thomas, Francis Jeffers, Richard Wright, Matthew Upson and Jermaine Pennant have all joined the ever increasing list of Lions leaving the club in recent years. Why? Because they just didn't measure up. They weren't good enough.

Yet each has gone on to forge a career for themselves in the Premiership with new clubs, some more successfully than others.

At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson has resorted to paying almost £20million a season to recruit Englishmen in the form of Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and the next in line, Owen Hargreaves (who learned his trade his Germany). But United have also brought Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville and David Beckham into the game, and gained great success from maintaining an English spine.

Still, for every John Terry across the country there are five Titus Brambles. For every Wayne Rooney, there are ten Francis Jeffers'. All quite overpriced and under-talented, it is little wonder coaches like Wenger choose to buy from abroad.

Middlesbrough and Man City boast the best England has to offer in terms of Academy numbers, but you only have to look at their respective league positions and inconsistent performances to see where the problem lies.

Look at any team-sheet on a Premiership weekend now and you'll see an over-reliance on overseas technicians. Not just at the big clubs either: Mikel Arteta at Everton, Dimitar Berbatov at Spurs and Martins at Newcastle are all key figures for their clubs, having learned their technique on the continent.

Eidur Gudjohnsen, with eight-year-old son in tow, has even expressed his amazement at the standard of Barcelona's Academy, compared to that of Chelsea. Quite simply, the bar has been raised, and England's youngsters are struggling to reach it.

So has the national team suffered as a result? Three exciting prospects for the future, Micah Richards, Stewart Downing and Gabriel Agbonlahor are all Academy graduates loyal to their current clubs, who could feature in an England shirt for the next decade - but that's about it. While there are still players like Gerrard, Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon there is hope, but re-inforcements are needed.

GettyImagesTheo Walcott: Signed for £12million from Saints.

Clubs have been forced to dig deep into their pockets to recruit the next generation of England stars. Theo Walcott cost around £12million from Southampton, Dean Ashton (a product of Crewe Alexandra) £7.25million from Norwich and Ashley Young at around £9million from Watford.

Players like Curtis Davies, Giles Barnes and David Nugent are making waves in the Championship; but when was the last time a player from outside the top flight was picked in an England squad? Andrew Johnson for Crystal Palace in 2005, if you really want to know, but it wasn't long before he was signed by Everton for £8.6million.

The fact is, these three apart, there are very few players outside the top flight who possess the technique to make the step up to international level. Are talented Englishmen such a rarity you have to pay the earth to sign them? It would seem so.

Elsewhere across Europe, clubs continue to produce youngsters with an ability that surpasses their English equivalents. The emergence of Cesc Fabregas, a snip at £500,000, saw the end of Ray Parlour's Arsenal career, Wayne Bridge has been a perennial outsider at Chelsea, behind William Gallas playing out of position at left-back, and even David Beckham found himself on the scrapheap as Ferguson eyed the emerging Cristiano Ronaldo.

Jose Mourinho seems to prefer to use Salomon Kalou or Arjen Robben rather than Shaun Wright-Phillips (odd, considering the £21million fee he commanded). Kieran Richardson and Wes Brown are being kept on the bench at Man Utd thanks to Ronaldo and Nemanja Vidic, and even England striker Peter Crouch is struggling for games this season at Liverpool because of Dirk Kuyt.

Not good omens for the future of England's national team, although the entertainment that these players bring to the Premiership goes some way to repairing the damage. Who can honestly say they'd rather see Kieran Richardson in United's midfield, rather than Cristiano Ronaldo? Francis Jeffers in place of Thierry Henry? I think not.

Yet we pay a price for having such talented foreign players in the league. Crowds may be on the up, TV deals through the roof, but if English players can't even compete against our continental cousins for squad places, how will they manage when the next European championships or World Cup rolls around?

Even with a dreadful record from the spot, England can only hope it goes to penalties, at least you can't teach that.


  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter