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Is the price of youth football too high?

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Jim Spence | 18:51 UK time, Thursday, 6 May 2010

Can Scottish football really afford to run youth systems any longer?

As another batch of young hopefuls see their dreams shattered on being released at professional clubs, is it time to make radical changes to the way we treat our young players?

Livingston owner Gordon McDougall said this week his club are ahead of the pack when it comes to rearing their own.

Andy Halliday signed by Middlesbrough, Graham Dorrans at West Brom, Robert Snodgrass at Leeds United and James McPake at Coventry City, certainly point to Livi being highly successful in that department.

Hamilton Accies, too, have invested heavily in youth and have been rewarded for their efforts.

But are those two clubs isolated examples in a system which no longer works?

Dundee have just decided to move their under-19s to a mainly part-time set up, keeping only those boys who still have a year to run on their present deals.

Might other clubs also be pondering whether the near £200,000 per year cost of running such a set-up be better spent on the first-team?

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With young talent emerging on a haphazard and uneven basis from youth teams, might it be better to find a different way of bringing players through which is less pricey for the clubs and less costly in the damage to boys thrown on the scrapheap?

As one young player wrote in his Facebook page last week after his release from a 19s set-up: "Well what a waste of two years that was." (expletives deleted).

And he has a point; two years in which he could have been well down the road to a trade or a degree have been squandered.

I have heard of young professionals doing painting jobs at the ground and cleaning toilets. What kind of football apprenticeship is that?

Increasingly, the jump from under-19s to first-team football is seen as too great.

Boys who've sacrificed their formative years, often from the age nine or 10, foregoing nights out with pals and other normal pursuits, find themselves on the scrapheap or walking away from the game when they are released.

Some clubs are honourable and have a policy of helping released boys find a way to stay in the game at some level.

Others still think an exit policy is simply pointing to the front door, having delivered the bad news to boys who've earned buttons for two years and waving them cheerio.

Perhaps the price of youth systems is too high for all concerned.

Too high for the clubs to afford in troubled economic times and too high for the huge numbers of boys with broken dreams who don't make it.

Maybe we should go back to the future?

Stop the professional clubs taking boys on from an early age and let them play schools and Sunday football instead.

Then at, say, 17 or so, let them graduate to the Juniors where a fine generation of players once played and which still boasts teams which are better than many in our lower professional leagues.

This week I sat outside a ground where a procession of young lads hugged, shook hands and bid each other farewell after being told they were being released.

They acted like men, but in truth they are only boys and the tears of crushing disappointment would come later and in private with mums, dads and girlfriends.

Their heartbreak at not making it will pass in time: but it would be eased more quickly if they had something to fall back on like a trade or a qualification.

In a civilised world the price of our youth football has become too high.


  • Comment number 1.

    Jim, you are probably right in 'going back to the future' the old S Forms worked well and brought boys through at a sensible pace and did not make them an elitist bunch, as they seem to be with the clubs now. I do not mean the boys think that although inevitably some will. If a young lad can cut it in the Sunday and school leagues then he should be able to cut it at some level whether semi pro or pro. I think we fell in love with the Dutch Model (Ajax etc), but culture to proliferate that does not exist here. England tried it with Lillieshall and that seems to have collapsed. My own opinion is that the creativity is coached out of the boys who are taught to play a system within rigid UEFA guidelines, i.e. you need the badge. I think like most things you have either got or you have not and I appreciate there has to be some form of order on the park, but let the boys play with some freedom, if they are clever enough they will learn other aspects of the game. Having had a son at Youth Development, which has wrecked his confidence, it seems not to work. He had a good degree of skill (I would say that) and understanding and was two footed, midfield/come forward type of player they stuck him in defence and they could not see that this was not his natural position, but hardly gave him a chance in his preferred position. Therefore released as his showing was not as good.

  • Comment number 2.

    An interesting choice of topic but I think clubs should be doing more to help youth players learn trades and obtain academic qualifications as they are coming through the ranks.

  • Comment number 3.

    Being a parent who's gone through the wringer with a "talented son" there's a load of ways the youth programmes could be improved in my son called it a day at U16's he felt let down by the system although offered 2 year apprentaships at another club(s), he looked at his GCSE's (lousy results)due to dedicating himself to football, he felt he had missed his childhood and wanted to see what life was about, personally I was gutted more than him, 5 years up and down the M1 for what...He decided to go to college and is now doing his degree having got his results to go on to Uni, loving life, regular girlfriend (2nd year), playing a high standard of football and enjoying playing with a good bunch of mates, asked to go for pre season trials with Lower League teams Conf and league 2 each year, but wants to finish academic side first, "another year will make no difference" he reckons.
    The way forward with youth development is firstly cut out the nepotism within the academy set ups, and recruit from the sink estates from day one, not from nice middle class families up to U14's, then when the estate kids have more freedom and can get down without parents giving them a lift start weeding the early "Stars" out bit by bit. Rightly so as they dont have the ooomph needed to progress, and be more transparent with the parents as to the likely end result.
    Did my son benefit? yes he became extremely talented and raised the crossbar so to speak in his ability, he is enjoying life and has no regrets and at the end of the day I can only commend his decision.

  • Comment number 4.

    Jim your comment smacks of commonsense, something the SFA SPL doesn't have an abundance of. My son is currently with an SPL Youth Development Team, I have tried to be honest with him and advise him of the odds of actually getting to a senior level 19-20s is very difficult, but it then looks as if I am spoiling his dream. The only positive I can see from this is that it has kept him off the streets, he's physically fit, has some discipline and it has developed him into a mature person. He is now awaiting to see if he will be signed for the under 17s. If he isn't, he is on the scrap heap with little or no chance of getting signed by another team as they would need to offer him a contract for 1-2 years.

  • Comment number 5.

    As you rightly point out my club (livi) have a good track record of bringing through youngsters. Along with the ones you mentioned there are many others who have made the step up, Mckee at Burnley, Griffiths at Dundee, Davidson at St Johnstone. However I think the most pleasing thing is that our youth players are also encouraged to do their coaching badges at the same time.
    We have several players who would be in the U19’s for most clubs, currently playing in our first team and training the lower age groups as well.
    This at least gives our players something to fall back on if their playing career doesn’t reach the heights that we all hope.
    Whilst Livi as a club get a lot of stick for the way our former chairmen have acted and the decisions they have made, our dedication to bringing through talented young players cannot be questioned.

  • Comment number 6.

    Its not just the older boys as well, my lad was taken up at eight by Chelsea FC now at the end of the U13 age group, extended registration for two years last season and despite this it was made clear by academy that while they could not realease him due to Premier league rules, he was not longer wanted some four weeks ago and we should ask for a de-registration.

    The issue of whether he is wanted is not a major one, as he is trialing with a championship club at the moment where the environment is so much better.

    The bad taste is where my lad dedicates nearly half his life to this academy, commits four days out of seven to them and misses less than 10 training sessions in five years and it comes down to a phone call at 7pm on a thurdsay evening.

    No face to face chats with the lad, no encouragment to continue elsewhere, not even a thank you. The line was drawn at the end of that telephone call and as far as Chelsea are concerned we dont care one once about the lads potential mental/emotional condition.

    An educational/welfare officer that probably spoke to my son no more than a couple of times in five years and an acadamey where unless you are one of the 2 maybe 3 'golden boys' in an age group the fact remains you are only there to make up the numbers so those couple of lads can progress.

    So in conclusion, yes I believe acadamies are a necessity for the game, however in my experience the truth on how they percieve a lad which is simply a potential asset on legs within a business environment, should be explained to parents at the outset. We all know that 'making it' is in reality for all but a couple of lads each year highly unlikely. But the club should take the time to convey that when rejection comes we wash our hands of any responsibility and that must be addressed even more so for older lads that have had there education effected by a clubs approach to this matter.

    Bitter but not beaten, but a bad taste in the mouth never the less

  • Comment number 7.

    Players develop at different ages, and I believe players should be left until they leave school. They then have the following choices:

    6th form, College, Apprenticeships, Full Time work, or the chance to join a Professional football club.

    It is afterall, a profession, a career, a job. Someone who shows great aptitude for Numbers at the age of 11 is not offered a place within a leading accountancy firm with hope that they will become a leading partner in ten years time are they?

    Clubs are too obsessed with missing out on the next Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi. It is ridiculous. The answer is simple

    Find the player, do not try to manufacture him. Get them if they are good enough players, and then mould them into athletes that will fit into the ethos of the club.

    These youth systems have set criteria, and some of the things they have focused upon in the last 20 years are thing like: Height, physical stature, speed, strength.

    So by 11 year old playing on full size pitches with full size goals, who is going to look the best?

    The tallest, most powerful 11 year old who can run around an adult pitch for 90 mins, and hit the ball hard enough that it will go over the head of a 4ft goalkeeper.

    When your more skillful players catch up physically at the age of around 16, these guys are found wanting.

  • Comment number 8.

    This risks associated with becoming a footballer are well known. Its unfortunate to see players being told that their dream is shattered but everybody going into it that only a select few can make it and and even smaller margin make it big. Heartbreak for those that dont make it isnt a good enough reason in itself to stop the acadamies. These guys are still young and have their whole lfe ahead of them. Ok theyve lost a year or two when they could have done something else but its hardly the end of the world.

    The only justification for not having an acadamy is strictly a business one - if the costs outweigh the benefits. In theory the acadamies should be offering the best platform for aspiring young players to fulfill their potential. If the acadamy isnt producing enough players to justify the costs then evaluate on that basis but not from the point of view that a every year a crop of young guys will be let go. The gae cant accomodate every decent footballing lad who want to be a pro. Disappointment on every level is inneviteable. Your painting the picture that these acadamies are destroying youngsters lives but they are giving them a far better oportunity to realise their dream than trying to catch a scouts eye in a Sunday league game.

  • Comment number 9.

    I dont agree with the general drift of opinion here expressed by the confederacy of disappointed dads. You cant just blame the clubs; some of the comments on here make me wonder just whose dream has been shattered - boy's or dad's.

    My boy is in an academy and I have also worked with a couple of guys who were dropped late on in this process themselves and suffered that experience of disappointment and disillusionment. They were obviously unprepared for this. None of the parents in my boy's academy has, ostensibly at least, any delusions whatsoever that most boys wont make it as pros. Its incumbent on us as parents to make sure that the boys make the most of their talent but dont lose touch with that reality. You cant just blame the clubs.

    We all know that it involves a massive time commitment, from us as well as from the boys. And you'd need to be a bit dim not to notice that the club has little/no interest in creating personal relationships with parents or even the boys. Their aim is clear. To produce professional standard individuals. To that end, the success of the team is irrelevant. This is hard to understand at first as its alien to all of us brought up with the idea that it's the team that matters. Not in an academy it isn't - it's the individual talent. No doubt shedding those adjudged rightly or wrongly to be less talented could be done more sensitively but they're football-types ie a bit thick, most of them.

    So accepting those realities, what do the boys get from it? Top level coaching. For free. Status in their schools and communities. Confidence. Fitness. Playing against real pro clubs and not just kick and rush local teams in an ampitheatre of baying aggressive parents, and managed by a nepotistic numpty whose fat son plays striker - jeez blessed release! They get new friends. But most of all they get a dream and dreams don't always come true.

    Kids and parents go into this with their eyes wide open. It's a risk. You had a choice.

  • Comment number 10.

    Good blog. made a lot of good points. like how clubs are struggling to afford to train these young players in the hope of finding that one player that can make the grade.

    But the thing is clubs are under so much pressure these days. They have the debts to pay, fans to please, and a stupid league set up that makes it non-viable to train young players.

    The only way to sort this is by tearing up the league system, and building a completly new one. one that has bigger leagues so clubs have more breathing space to nurture young talent, financial regulations to stop clubs from buying there way to success by going into debt, make it more lucrative to send young players on loan to lower division teams.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    Very valid comments but I think we're stuck in our own traditions. We need to study the countries who are best at youth football and see what we can learn. Then be prepared to change our system to adapt. Here in Sweden for example there's virtually no football in schools. You play with your local club from the age of 6 and all small town and village clubs have teams in every age group, all run on a voluntary basis with some basic central funding. Even the big clubs like IFK Göteborg or Malmö FF run boys' and girls' teams at every age level from 7 upwards. Look and learn and we can look after our young players better. The talent is there.

  • Comment number 13.

    blogdubdrib is right up to a point. Boys and dads are routinely disappointed, and that's inevitable despite both knowing that rejection is almost certain sooner or later. But it may be that the two guys he refers to were unprepared because their club were not not being honest with them as they went along about how they were viewed. I found that there was not much of a relationship between, for example what the club put into the report and said to you, and how they actually acted. It's not the truth the kids can't take, it's the deceit. I understand where Tony is coming from, and I don't think clubs should be able to get away quite so lightly with treating people - boys and parents - like dirt. Of course it was a great experience for my son, though I admit I was surprised at how little individual coaching there seemed to be. And yes, Ray Powell, my son is middle class and was released at 16 (and got over it fine), but I don't think it's right to generalise about such boys lacking the oomph. They are individuals, some do, some don't. But I do suspect that some good middle class players are lost because the 'football types' blogdubdrib refers to can't cope with them.

  • Comment number 14.

    Good blog and I agree with the majority of what you are saying in the piece. I feel that it is a bit harsh on the Academies to say that they don't care about the players because, as has already been pointed out, the players are in receipt of some quality coaching and a very good lifestyle while part of the Academy set-up (within most clubs).
    I coach at an Academy and it is a really simple remit every season, make someone or find someone who is good enough and capable enough of playing professional/first team football. I know that we as a club have let players go and its not an easy decision to make, especially if a kid has been with the club a long time. Released are often players who would easily cope at other clubs and certainly at amatuer level but it is a business conveyor belt.
    By the time a player gets to the level I am coaching at, under 18/19, then they should be able to understand that it may be a case of 'no, you are not quite up to the desired standard' and although it is a disappointment, it is often the parents who find the rejection a lot harder to take. I would conceed that there are times when younger players are just there to make up the numbers for kids who have genuine talent and that any scout around the country has been gradually casting his eye over kids from a younger age but if a young player does get scouted then the system needs to be better and clubs need to be wiser about the development of the player and the ego of the parent. Some parents don't even realise how fickle they really and simply because their 'little Jimmy' doesnt play all 70 mins of a game.
    It is all about the end product for clubs and if they generate a home grown/academy player then it is a player the fans like, the club like and ultimately something that the club will keep pumping money into because it has not cost them millons on the transfer market for a player that is good enough.

  • Comment number 15.

    I am currently a lecturer at a Scottish College and over the years my College has had a number of programme partnerships with various SPL and SFL clubs and their U19 players.

    The gist of the programme is to bring in the U19 footballers typically on a Wednesday (players day off) and teach them sport and fitness related subjects to hopefully give them a little education and a possible career path should the football option not work out, as you described.

    Sadly, for the majority of the time, this is the biggest waste of any lecturers time in the entire week. This age band of player is really difficult to work with as they are generally (not all but most) full or immaturity, arrogance, laziness and a sense of superiority that means they never come to class prepared, they mess about distracting the other students and generally fritter away the chance that is given to them.

    Then they get dropped from their club as they were not half the player they thought they were, and have burned their bridges at the College. I struggle to have sympathy with the players you write of.

    I would add that the ideology of the programme is fantastic with the SFA and SPFA funding and supporting the initiative and really doing everything they possibly can to support these young players. Every so often one or two players knuckle down, submit the work, turn up at 9am and make it all worth while when they gain the units and hopefully an HNC in Sports Coaching. They are few, but it is possible and again, I believe Livi are a leading light in this for support and encouragement. These U 19 players now have SQA recognised qualifications that will look after them if their playing career goes south. It is great to see and be part of, but so rare to find a boy that realises how important education is in case football does not make them a living.

    So in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the present system, but they players themselves need to change their attitude, work on their back up plan while still a player, take the advice and support that is given to them instead of being a pre madonna footballer too big for his boots, and the current system will still look after them. There is a lot going on behind the scenes to support that age group and give them a future either within or outwith the game, but you can only lead a horse to water...

  • Comment number 16.

    this is a fascinating discussion with a range of very articulate points expressed from a variety of viewpoints. i think it in some way goes to the very heart of the footballing culture in britain, which for better or worse produces so many of our most important cultural images and role models

    the class dynamic interests me; why are so many pros from a working class background? are we wasting a vast pool of middle class talent? do the middle classes turn away in revulsion? or does they run away from the perception that commitment needs to be 100% to the game? middle class kids in their teens will tend to have other interests and other opportunities. i dont know the answer to that one.

    but i do personally think things seem to be improving thanks in part to the work of nitemair&co (sounds like the rivals to rentaGhost) but probably more to the point the media-driven requirement to at least try to appear like a half-decent half-articulate human being.

    im sure the NiteMair De-chavification Programme helps to modify the self-destructive dimness and immaturity of the "successes" of the coaching system, i've seen these man-boys close up and it's not a pretty sight. we can see via the tabloids they often end up as pretty miserable specimens of humanity. keep it up, old chap.

  • Comment number 17.

    jim spence
    a very good blog, the very first reply,comment raises an interesting point about the dutch model though, you'll know that the dutch value their youths set so much that they bank roll it to the tune over 40% and more of each clubs income,i bet senior clubs don't manage out of single figures in comparison to turnover in scotland. It's shameful.
    Just because sons and daughters don't get that elusive pro contract doesn't mean that they should throw the towel in especially these days when the standard of pro on and off the field just beggars belief.
    Maybe thats harsh but attitude's in pro football seem to differ from other pro sports, is paying players so much money the reason for that?.
    The youth set up at clubs should be being reinforced at every oppertunity. The clubs should be ear marking more cash, more time, more thought and a far better chance of realising their dreams at the expense of players salaries.

  • Comment number 18.

    A good and important point raised by Jim Spence and some useful other comments, but the debate is unlikely to go much further as clubs are not doing enough to prepare young men for their futures in life as well as football. The work done in Edinburgh by the Spartans Academy is ground breaking as they take youngsters from an early age to a development programme geared to enable them to progress onto a level where football is the focus rather than being a professional - knowing how few boys actually make it. Kids do need to be able to play with their pals at school and youth club, and the juniors and leagues like East of Scotland league are good nurseries, especially at these difficult financial times.

  • Comment number 19.

    the only way I can play that sport brings many children from financially poor background on the playing field where they can be kind-hearted and behave can win with the team spirit. the future is good for a positive adjustment for the

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 20.

    Perhaps I am lookng at this from a simplistic point of view but here goes...

    I can see little it no obsticle to these youngsters gong to college in the evening to attain further qualifications. Most clubs with a full time you set up will be in a big enough town or city to have at least one or two further learning institutes which will offer evening classes and open learning.

    I am from a fairly humble background and to support my university studies I worked four nights a week plus a Sunday. I'm not saying it would be easy and I think that clubs should strive to have links with the local education establishments! However there has to be some personal accountability.

  • Comment number 21.

    First of all we spend nowhere nere enough on grassroots, FA spent 1.5% of its income on facilities for grass roots spanish FA spent 25% of their income on grassroots. Also we have an academey system in which there is far to big an element of stringing kids along. The academys all have a huge cut off point once you are 15 years old. What happens is the academy previous to that has rougly say 2000 for a premier leauge club. At 15 they basically tell 1800 15 year olds sorry your not going to make it. Kids shouldnt have to balance their football and sporting commitments with their school life. We need more "premier league schools". I think that from 14 years kids in academys should be taken out of mainstream education and as an addtion the academeys could always offer your more mainstream GCSE's and football and coaching should become an academic qualifacation in its own right such as you can do at A2 in a very small amount of colleges now. If this was implemented wed have better academys with youngsters of a higher quality who arent dropouts having failed their exams because they were chasing a dream


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