Rebuilding England

Academy issues frustrating Baggies

October 9, 2013
By David Instone

Saido BerahinoPA PhotosWest Brom's Saido Berahino celebrates his goal against Manchester United.

Saido Berahino has not only given West Bromwich Albion fans a smattering of memorable early-season goals and some extra interest in England under-21 fixtures.

More significant than those highlights, substantial though they have been, he has raised hopes that his first professional club might at last be improving the one area in which they have failed to deliver during a decade and a bit of considerable achievement.

Albion have gone from winning four promotions in nine seasons to finishing in the Premier League's top ten in each of the last two and, since their trolley dash of a transfer deadline day early last month, to hinting at another top-half placing this time. But there are interesting subplots -- some would say worrying ones -- to this story of progression.

Berahino, 20, signed his first professional contract with the Baggies in 2011 -- but the new rules that govern academies in England might not allow the club to keep a player of similar talent right through to the first team.

It is well documented that, in their recent past, the Baggies have fielded teams made up of 11 different nationalities. And that full-back Billy Jones was the only Englishman to score for them throughout 2012-13. What is perhaps less obvious to the game at large is that they also frequently put out sides without a single home-grown player.

As easy on the eye as they have been, they are doing it with a reliance on hired labour. They are certainly doing it without the fruits of a bountiful nursery. All of which adds fuel to the fire smouldering around England's perceived failure to develop enough quality young players.

This isn't an attack on academy boss Mark Harrison or anyone else in the current Hawthorns regime. The paucity of talent coming off the production line is a chronic problem and one that's underlined by goings-on just over the garden fence.

While Albion have come up with nothing -- actually, they have sent James Chambers, Adam Chambers, Jared Hodgkiss and Lloyd Dyer into the wider world but that rather underlines the point rather than contradicting it -- their neighbours on both sides have been developing players nicely.

In the last decade and a half, Wolves, while admittedly lagging well behind their sworn enemies at first-team level, have produced Robbie Keane, Lee Naylor, Matt Murray, Elliott Bennett, Keith Andrews and Mark Davies. And Aston Villa have been as prolific as usual, as evidenced by the emergence of Gabby Agbonlahor, Marc Albrighton, Gary Cahill, Ciaran Clark and sundry others.

But now comes Berahino, a refugee from the civil war in Burundi who pitched up in this country at the age of 10 with his mother, brother and sisters. Boing-boinging Baggies have one of their own to savour at last -- one so local that he was picked up from Birmingham boys club Phoenix United.

The talented forward has already struck a gem of a winner at Manchester United, hit a hat-trick in the Capital One Cup, shone against Arsenal in League and cup and netted twice to give Gareth Southgate some early momentum with the England under-21s. Not too shoddy considering he's on a reported £890 a week.

His startling impact will presumably have left Jeremy Peace viewing the academy system in a more favourable light. Albion's prudent chairman voiced the opinion in the summer that it was hardly worth clubs like his spending millions on their wannabees if, as happened with Isaiah Brown, top cats like Chelsea come along and skim off the cream.

Isaiah Brown
GettyImagesIsaiah Brown is becoming hot property throughout England.

Last spring, Brown became the Premier League's second-youngest player ever but has swapped the prospect of meaningful first-team football for the … well, you can guess what most appealed about Stamford Bridge. But it probably wasn't the likelihood of displacing Frank Lampard, Ramires, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Oscar and Willian at Chelsea any time soon.

Peace is hopping mad that Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) regulations leave clubs vulnerable to predators and is demanding change, with Liverpool's signing of Brown's club colleague, the 14-year-old Yan Dhanda, already having got his dander up. He will find support from across the patch, where Arsenal's swoop for Villa's England under-17 international Dan Crowley caused similar consternation.

With the wider interests of the game in mind -- in other words the England national team -- we can but hope that Peace, this most astute of businessmen, was speaking out of short-term exasperation rather than with genuine long-term intent when he suggested in the summer he might withdraw funding from Albion's academy.

Our football needs more Berahinhos right now -- the currently injured George Thorne is another believed to have a chance of making it -- and a retraction of operations like this at the lower end would fly in the face of the decision to carry out work on a £1.3 million academy hub redevelopment last season in order to achieve EPPP Category One status.

The irony to all this of course is that Dan Ashworth, the very man who spearheaded Albion's impressive global pursuit of affordable Premier League talent, is now bedded in as part of Roy Hodgson's suffering England regime. Ashworth wouldn't lose any sleep at all if he heard that his successor Richard Garlick was more the nurturing kind.

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