The myths surrounding home-grown football talent

IN A UPTOPIAN world, football clubs would represent the towns they come from and their players would be locally-reared, devoted to their places of birth and loyal to their clubs. The world has changed: in Victorian England that may have be the case, an age where someone from a neighbouring town would be treated much the same as refugees are viewed today by some of the more insular sections of society. 

As football evolved, local rivalries were a key feature of the game’s culture, especially when clubs most definitely had local identity.

In a weekend that includes the Merseyside derby, the Scottish “Old Firm” clash and the Milanese Derby della Maddonina, three of the most passionate of all local skirmishes, has the modern football industry diluted the meaning of such games?

The fans, of course, still revel in getting one over on their opposite numbers and this is really the last remaining essence of the “derby”. Players on both sides only appreciate the historical relevance of the games, but does it really matter to a hired hand in the Liverpool line-up if Everton win? 


The fact is, rarely have teams comprised players who have been born within a goal-kick from the club they play for. Very few successful teams have been home-grown. Professionalism, going right back to the first league champion, Preston North End has decreed that clubs search high and low for new talent. The 1889 regular “Invincibles” included just two players, Bob Holmes and Bob Howarth, who were born in Preston.

Similarly, when Sunderland were the major force in the game in the late 19th century, their squad was almost entirely Scottish (14 of 17 players). The only two Englishmen were Tom Porteus from Newcastle and John Oliver of Sunderland. Newcastle’s 1905 side that went close to winning the double was also drawn from many sources – six of their regular 11 were Scots, while only three were from Tyneside. 

Scotland played a big part in the development of professional football in England and right up until the 1970s, most successful teams included at least one Scot. Since football went global, the number of Scottish, Irish and Welsh players in English squads has declined significantly.

By the 1930s, clubs were becoming more and more ambitious in their quest for talent, employing scouts to scour the country. Generally, though, players stayed within their comfort zone, although the increased wages and glamour of London meant the dressing rooms of teams like Arsenal and Chelsea would echo to the sound of regional dialects.

The second world war depleted the stock of footballers and also put pressure on the business models of professional clubs. Some clubs decided it was time to develop young players to create a sustainable flow of talent and remove the need for transfer fees. Manchester United, a club that suffered more than most during the war, began a programme that would yield spectacular results. Under Matt Busby’s guidance, a string of outstanding young players were developed. When United won the league title in 1956 and 1957, their line-up included up to nine who had come through the club’s youth system, including the likes of Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. Tragically, most of that team, which had still to reach its peak, perished in the snow at Munich airport in February 1958.


Other clubs saw the long-term benefit of home-grown players, including Burnley, Chelsea and Leeds United. Burnley in 1960 won the league title with a team that had just one player that had cost a fee, Alex Elder. Chelsea were never quite as successful, although they were a dominant force in junior football. 

Bill Shankly’s Liverpool of 1964 and 1966 had a core of locally-born players who had come through the club’s youth set-up, including Gerry Byrne, Chris Lawler, Ronnie Moran, Jimmy Melia and Ian Callaghan. However, key man like Ron Yeats, Ian Callaghan, Willie Stevenson and Ian St. John were all signed from other clubs. Liverpool’s rivals, Everton, won the title in 1970 with a team that was around 50% drawn from their youth development and signings from northern clubs, such as Alan Ball and Gordon West (Blackpool), Howard Kendall (Preston) and Keith Newton (Blackburn).

At the same time, Leeds United, under Don Revie, were a rising force and were dependent on a group of young players who would keep the club at the top for the best part of a decade. While most of them came through the ranks at Leeds, only one, Mike O’Grady, was from Leeds although he was signed from Huddersfield Town. The only other significant signing was Sheffield United’s Mick Jones.

When the hub of Leeds’ squad aged, Liverpool took over as the dominant force in the mid-1970s and almost the entire 1980s. But this was not a squad that was built on Merseyside. The big stars in Liverpool’s side, Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan were not developed from a young age. As the Premier League emerged in 1992, the age of chequebook team-building became the defining feature of success. Not for the first time, Manchester United stumbled across a group of players from within their system that could form the nucleus of their first team for 10 years, the so-called “Class of ’92”. 

With such rare talent as Ryan Giggs, the Nevilles, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, United also had the financial clout to dominate English football for almost two decades. Arsenal also emerged as a monied club who could draw on the contacts of French coach Arsene Wenger to attract some outstanding individuals. These clubs pulled away from the rest but it is arguable the power of this duo gave birth to a new type of investor in football. Very few people have ever posed the question, but did the power of Arsenal and Manchester United create the environment that brought Roman Abramovich and Abu Dhabi to the Premier League?

Manchester United and Arsenal were soon usurped by Chelsea, whose new owner had the ability to spend large in one foul swoop. Chelsea were not only able to compete in the transfer market for the first time, but they also hired football’s most dynamic and coveted coach in José Mourinho. Chelsea’s ability to sign whoever they wished came at a cost to their youth system. John Terry was the only player to come through for over a decade and even though the club produced some strong candidates and dominated the FA Youth Cup, mostly the players developed at their training centre would become assets that were traded and loaned in the market. Chelsea, effectively, only blooded their youngsters when they had to, notably in 2019 when they received a transfer ban for one window.

The clubs are all alike, regardless of how much they preach a commitment to youth. Nobody has the patience to nurture players, managers are the world’s highest-paid temporary employees and don’t have the time to invest long term. Hence, they buy ready-made products that can give them instant results – they have no choice because clubs do not give them the benefit of the doubt.

Always buy

Look at the most recent champions in the Premier League. Liverpool’s regular squad cost transfer fees of around £ 450 million in 2019-20 and only one, Trent Alexander-Arnold, was from the city of Liverpool and developed by the club. In 2018-19, Manchester City’s main squad, costing over half a billion, had no home-grown players. Phil Foden, who came though the youth programme, made 13 Premier League appearances.

So, it is clear: champions have almost always bought success, some by spending vast sums and others by investing modestly. The modern trend is for large sums being paid for top talent to build an instant all-star side. Clubs still scout for young players, but they cast their nets far and wide, both domestically and internationally. The age of the “local” team has gone, apart from in the non-league world. And a good scouting network does not mean that young players will find their way to the club – income from player sales has become an important part of the balance sheet. Young footballers have become a trading commodity.

When the 22 players run onto the pitch at Goodison Park and Celtic Park, very few will have much affinity with the cities their clubs come from. The globalised game has given us more options in building a football team – players are transient, here today, gone tomorrow, and a club is an employer. In such an environment, the local derby has become fan versus fan. When all is said and done, players and managers come and go, but the supporters are the one constant body in modern football. 


Photo: PA

Let’s see how effective academies really are

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?


Photo: PA