ENGLAND’S under-20 team have just won a World Cup, no mean feat in this barren age for the three lions. Whether this latest batch of youngsters can go on to greater things remains to be seen – certainly it is hard for these players to make the breakthrough at the top Premier clubs. Young talent has to be nurtured, otherwise the game in Britain – with all its TV broadcasting riches – will continue to be merely a collection of hired guns from all over the world, to the detriment of the national team.
Some managers are reluctant to give youth its chance, and given the short-term nature of their roles, it’s no surprise, but clubs should be insisting on a policy that looks beyond the next two seasons. The question is, can non-league play a role in this?
In the 1930s, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur set-up arrangements with non-league football teams to act as nursery clubs. Margate linked-up with the Gunners and Northfleet formed an association with the Spurs. Other clubs, such as Luton Town, used local junior outfits like Biggleswade Town to give their players a run-out.
Such arrangements are less common today, and certainly less formal, but in today’s environment, nursery clubs could also represent the salvation of the non-league game.
Football League clubs could use their local non-league neighbours to develop and trial young talent. The senior club’s youth system could blend into the non-league club and act as the players’ first taste of genuine competitive football. Very few non-league clubs have truly productive youth systems although many operate “academies” that, sadly, catapult very few players into first team football, even at a relatively low level.
The argument has always been, “if they’re any good, they are picked up at a very young age by league clubs”. So, if the products of these schemes are never going to come through to the required standard, why not access the players from a higher level that are worth looking at?
A nursery system could then allow the “primary” nursery club to further farm-out players lower down the ladder, playing junior football rather than chasing a lost cause. Too many youngsters are lost to the game because they have nowhere to go when they realise they are not going to make it, and frankly, very few will.
It’s not a new concept, by any means. In the 1970s and 1980s, Luton Town often farmed-out young talent to – amongst others, Hitchin – in order to blood them in senior football. Micky Small was one such player and he had a very successful career. Similarly, when Luton released youngsters from their books, Hitchin benefitted. That was fine when the Kenilworth Road club was riding high, but when the Hatters declined, so too did the quality of those not making the grade with the club. In other words, those now released were scarcely better than the average non-league player.
It’s hard to imagine that sort of arrangement working anymore, chiefly because of the vast rewards of being a professional footballer compared to the past. Also, very few youngsters – many of whom have been immersed in the game, and the game only, since they were in their early teens – have made contingency plans for not being “a professional footballer”, and therefore strive to earn more money than non-league clubs can realistically afford. The money they secure from non-league becomes too important.
That’s why linking up at junior and youth level is the best way for the nursery club concept to work – surely some are doing this already? At the very highest level this could manifest itself in the form of a network that branches out from the top club and moves down through the pyramid. The senior club could also help the non-league clubs around them in playing pre-season or even intra-season friendlies on their doorstep, thus spreading the love and the money. More neighbourly than a pre-season tour to Malaysia, is it not?
Some might argue that this will create a more transient non-league game, but it’s already there, I’m afraid. Some clubs change personnel by more than 50% each season and a lot of squads rely heavily on the loan system. It’s already transient. The importany thing is that in any structure, the non-league clubs have to retain their identity.
This is not rocket science, indeed it is a practice that seems to work across Continental Europe. But then the whole approach to football outside the top layers in these countries is much different – a more centralised model with most clubs playing in municipal stadiums. There’s a greater sense of reality about it, something which is alien to some segments of football.
This article first appeared in the Non-League Paper on June 18, 2017