England has produced some of the biggest and best names in football over the decades, and the sport is still ingrained in our culture. Our kids love to play, whether in a kick-about on the park with dad, a friendly match with mates and the classic jumpers for goalposts, or in the school system. Supposedly we have a network of eagle-eyed scouts looking out for the best and the brightest, ready to sign them up and give them the coaching they need to turn professional and maybe make it to the top. So why isn’t it working?
Through the net
Of course, some young players are coming through, but many more are slipping through the net. Our current academy system is extremely wasteful, with children being signed up as young as five, but the majority being dropped before they turn 18. As a result, we have a premier league that is massively reliant on foreign players, partly because in an extremely competitive and fast-moving game, managers would rather sign established, proven talent from abroad than investing the time and money to nurture budding talent that’s right on their doorstep.
Winning at any cost
One problem relates to something touched upon above: kids like playing football because it’s fun. However, as soon as they’re plucked from the playgrounds by English talent scouts they’re put into extremely competitive matches on full-size pitches, where winning counts, not enjoying yourself- or even learning and developing skills.
This too-early emphasis on winning means that clubs and academies focus on bigger, stronger kids, who are usually that way just because they’re a few months older. The smaller, younger children, who may be just as talented or better than their larger peers, are more frequently dropped because they’re not making a winning contribution from day one.
Against the odds
In Spain, youth football is taught in five-aside groups with the emphasis on having fun and learning skills. As a result, Spain produces nimble team players like Andres Iniesta, who just wouldn’t have been given a chance to develop under the English system.
We’ll never know just how many great players fell by the wayside: we can only look at the rare example of those who came through against the odds, like Jaime Vardy, whose 11 game scoring record is mentioned by 888sport in an article on premier league facts. Vardy was let go by Sheffield Wednesday aged 16 for being too small and persevered in non-league football before he was picked up by Leicester City and allowed to show his true talent.
Quality not quantity
English youth players also receive far fewer hours of dedicated coaching than their European counterparts and even lose out compared to other English kids training in other sports. The reason? Not enough coaches. Where Germany has 35,000+ UEFA qualified coaches and Spain has over 24,000, England has just 2770.
English football has to focus on quality, not quantity, giving its best young players the coaching and guidance they deserve. At U16 level, it shouldn’t be all about winning matches, but about training for the future, and nurturing natural talent. Only in that way will England invest in its footballing future.