Too much too young?
The late nineties saw the emergence of football academies in place of the Youth Training (YT) scheme. Twenty years on, how has this transition benefited English football clubs and the national side?
Football academies were established in 1998, following Football Association technical director Howard Wilkinson’s Charter for Quality.
Before academies, most clubs had 'centres of excellence’ for exceptional young talents. At an international level, England provided a football education at Lilleshall Hall in Shropshire, but this facility closed a year after the introduction of academies.
During the YT era, players would embark on a two-year scheme at the age of 16, but today’s academies regularly sign boys as young as eight.
Kids are initially given annual contracts with options to extend to two years at age 12.
At 16 players become full-time and are subsequently paid £100 a week as an apprentice, and their education is the sole responsibility of the academy.
Then at 17 they sign a 'professional’ contract, which means they can start earning money, with the average wage estimated at £15-30,000.
The transition into the academy system has not been smooth. Some former players, developed in the old YT scheme, believe it is failing young prospects and ultimately the national side.
Former player and PFA Chairman, Clarke Carlisle has strong opinions as to whether English football is better served by the academy system.
“Categorically, it is worse,” he said.
“I feel progressing from the B team, to the A team to the reserve team to the first team gave you sense of respect and a sense of progression, something to aspire to along every step of the way.”
It would seem Carlisle’s biggest concern is the lack of appreciation players have for their footballing education and the detrimental effect this has on player discipline.
“The modern system has bred a generation of entitlement, who feel as though they are due all the trappings that come with being a high-quality footballer before having achieved anything.
“Some young players are at Premier League clubs earning £20-40K a week and have never played a first team game.
“Equally, the level of respect or disrespect some modern youth players afford coaching staff, peers or elders is concerning. I think it has been massively detrimental dissolving the YTS.”
The evolution to the academy system has been beneficial in some aspects, though. Comparing his footballing education to his son’s, former Sheffield United midfielder Curtis Woodhouse spoke highly of today’s system.
“Players today are looked after on a daily basis,” says Woodhouse.
“The day I signed my first big contract, that was it: out in the big wide world, left to my own devices. ‘Wow, I’ve gone from £42.50 a week to £3,000 within an hour and with no advice help or guidance’.
“When I bought my first house, and my mortgage and bills came out of my account at the end of the month, I spoke with the club as I thought somebody had hacked my account! I did not have a clue.
“I was wet behind the ears growing up in a small town, having never lived in a big city. Our TV had a meter in the back of it, 50p for 4 hours electricity.
“When life took off for me financially, I was way behind in emotional maturity.”
Woodhouse was full of praise for his son who is part of the Rotherham Academy.
“Even at 14, they have psychology meetings and are coached from a very early age what to expect if they do make it as footballers,” he said.
“I went from an apprentice to eventually £10k per month – it was mental.”
Though Woodhouse is grateful for his son’s footballing education he misses the YT scheme, insisting that players who drop to lower leagues are ill-equipped to adjust.
“They are let go at 17 and into the real world unprepared for life in the lower leagues,” he said.
“I don’t believe we are coaching the next generation to be successful. Rather, we are pampering too many egos. The world has gone soft and football is an extension of that.
“Everyone loves being offended.”
“Every young player these days gets brought up as a superstar and treated like a kings. It’s a terrible environment in which to try to bring through a professional athlete when you are always getting pats on the back.”
He speaks favourably of his personal experience as a YTS graduate and, like Carlisle, cites discipline as the missing factor in today’s academies.
“Sometimes ‘well done’ is not what’s needed,” he said. “Rather, a little structure and discipline. I’d love to see YTS schemes back and make players accountable for cleaning bibs and balls.
“I enjoyed the discipline. I had never had it in my life.”
Some footballers developed in the old system clearly feel the current regime is failing English footballers. It’s an opinion shared by journalist Neil Silver.
“The removal of the YTS has played its part in the creation of modern soulless football players,” says Silver.
“If you have to work hard at anything, ultimately you appreciate it more.
“YTS trainees cleaned toilets and boots. These things give you a grounding that makes you appreciate a hell of a lot more what you have.
“I think that, if you are a bit pampered and come up through a system where everything is on a plate for you, how desperate and passionate are you to succeed?”England is in a mess and football is an extension of that, the national team is laughable we are really poor”
Despite Wilkinson’s Charter for Quality, the last 20 years have resulted in a declining national side. Whether England’s failures are due to the de-construction of the YT scheme is unclear.
Both Carlisle and Woodhouse offer strong opinions on the nation’s declining fortunes, with particular concerns over the FA coaching badges and citing the need for drastic change.
“I think coaching badges are too expensive and the pro-licence is too elitist,” says Carlisle.
“Rather like the YTS scheme transition, we have gone from one extreme to another and need to find some middle ground.
“Someone like Lionel Messi would have been coached out of the game by the time he was 14 in England. Now, we have gone to the other extreme. Someone like John Terry will now be coached out of the game in England.”
Woodhouse echoes that sentiment, pulling no punches on the state of the national side.
“Bottom line is we are not good enough. It’s that simple,” says Woodhouse.
“England is in a mess and football is an extension of that. The national team is laughable. We are really poor.”
Where Carlisle has walked away from football, Woodhouse is still actively involved as manager of Bridlington Town in the Northern Counties East Football League.
“I’ve got a big bugbear about coaching badges. They are an absolute waste of everybody’s time,” says the former Blades midfielder.
“When England need a new manager, the FA are scratching their heads because we don’t have anyone qualified. Yet people are putting millions into the system to get their coaching badges.
“The best we can get is Gareth Southgate, Steve Bruce, Sam Allardyce and Alan Pardew. You may as well add my name to the list!
“Are we producing better coaches now (with the badges) than when we had Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, or Glenn Hoddle? Absolutely not, it’s a get-rich- quick scheme for the FA.
“There is no actual investment in grass roots, no new pitches. It’s all about making money.”
If academies are failing and the current coaching scheme is too elitist, how can the national side improve? What measures need to be taken to ensure a brighter future for English football?
As former PFA chairman, Carlisle’s opinions carry genuine gravitas.
“There is a distinct lack of individuality in English football. We are reactionary in this country,” says the former Burnley defender.
“One thing that maligns our national team is our press and our expectations.
“If we allowed an England manager to do the best with what he had, I think we could have a very successful side.
“We are too easily influenced, by the organisation of the German team, the passing ability of the Spanish team or the technical ability of the Brazilian team. We take one facet out of another team and say it should apply to us.
“Sam Allardyce could have been the best thing that ever happened to our England team because he is so pragmatic.
“He puts out the best team for what he has at his disposal. He doesn’t force square pegs into round holes.
“Someone who takes that approach to the talent pool we have will be far more successful than those who kow-tow to the Press expectation of having an identify or the fans’ expectation of having a style.”