NON-LEAGUE teams are full of players who have academy experience. Some might say that there are too many academy products and that the traditional non-league game was a mixture of former pros and youngsters. Today, many teams appear to be very young, genuine former pros (not “experience with the xxxx academy”) are in short number and players move on with even more regularity than in the past.
There is an argument that academy products appear to lack the aggression and fight that once characterised non-league football. Fitter – for sure, faster – absolutely, more focused on lifestyle and nutrition – yes. They’re also leaner and more athletic.
But tackling? The non-league game, all too often, appears to lack a never-say-die challenge. That’s not the fault of players, it’s the way the game has evolved and the way they may have been schooled. Nobody should be an advocate for cynical, dirty play, the type that gave us broken legs, stud marks and ripped shirts, but occasionally, an old fashioned, clenched-fist approach would be welcome.
Consider that football fans’ heroes are invariably players who typified that style of play. Ask yourself who are the players who become proper “legends” (not the way that everyone who played for a club appears to be a legend, even if it meant less than 50 Football League appearances and a free transfer to Rotherham). Julian Dicks, Tommy Smith, Ron Harris, Norman Hunter, Terry Butcher, John Terry, Nobby Stiles etc etc.
The fan on the terrace would warm to the centre half that played-on with a blood-splattered bandage around his head. There was a non-league player – Steve Shea was his name – who continued after biting through his tongue, aided by ice and a tissue. Today, Mr Shea would not be allowed to play on, but there is not a modern-day defender who would want to. Bonkers, perhaps, but absolutely and undeniably committed!
The question is, though, just how productive are football academies and what is the success rate in terms of the number of footballers they create?
Sceptics suggest that clubs operate these schemes because of grants and public perception. Others see it as a demonstration of the club’s commitment to the community. But the statistics are quite damning. Michael Calvin revealed that of the 1.5 million youngsters playing youth football, only 180 will make it as a Premier League professional. The success rate is 0.012%.
Some clubs are better than others at bringing youngsters through. In 2017-18, Manchester United academy products playing in the Premier (not necessarily for United) amounted to 20 players playing a total of 32,000 minutes of action. Tottenham were next with 22,000 and Chelsea third with 20,000 minutes. Both Spurs and Chelsea had 11 academy products playing in the Premier.
While the top clubs certainly have the critical mass that gives them access to vast pools of academy players, some have abysmal records in actually bringing them through the ranks.
Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi is being wrapped in cotton wool at the moment as he represents the most high profile youngster to emerge from the club’s academy. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another player with aspirations but he is now 23. Until these lads came along, Chelsea had to look as far back as John Terry for a genuinely successful youth product. With the arrival of Frank Lampard and the club’s transfer ban, the fans may get a prolonged look at some of the talent that might have been farmed out to a club in the Eredivisie.
If we all accept that the current financial model being adopted by clubs is unsustainable, then youth academies should be the lifeblood of the game. At the moment, they are falling short at the top level, but basically providing resources to football lower down – but could non-league clubs not handle this rather than the big clubs? Operating on a bottom-to-top basis would mean that smaller clubs become the training grounds and nurseries and then players work towards the top. At the moment, is the model not a case of rejection by an academy and down the ladder we go? The result could mean hordes of demotivated young players, could it not?
A few years back, Michael Apted produced an ongoing series called “Seven Up”, which followed a group of children and returned to them every seven years. It started in 1964 and is due for another session this year. It would be good to do a similar project for football academy hopefuls, returning to them every couple of years to see how their football careers progress.
Of course, the current structure is unlikely to change much. Acadamies have become an industry in their own right, providing jobs and careers for those that run them. They are also an income stream in that they nurture players to be sold on, usually after multiple loan spells. They do a lot of good in many ways, but do they really do what they say on the tin? Given the relatively small number of players that come through to become top players, should academies be less top-down and more bottom-up? Mr Apted, how about that documentary?