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From Diamond Lights to diamonds in the rough

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Matt Slater | 08:00 UK time, Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Glenn Hoddle was a couple of months short of his 18th birthday when he came on as a substitute for Tottenham in a 2-2 draw against Norwich City in August 1975. It was a low-key debut for a player who was already the talk of the Spurs training ground.

Six months later, the rest of English football would see what the likes of Martin Chivers and Bill Nicholson had spotted almost immediately when the 18-year-old made his first league start against Stoke City, beating England goalkeeper Peter Shilton with a long-range shot that would help Spurs to a 2-1 win.

Like Duncan Edwards before and Wayne Rooney after, Hoddle was old enough because he was good enough. There is, of course, a flipside to the prodigy: the late bloomer, the unpromising teen the scouts missed or the apprentice who was told to try a different trade.

I'll let the pedants decide if Hoddle's interest in unearthing the next Stuart Pearce/Neville Southall/Tony Galvin is ironic or just mildly interesting, but the fact remains that one of English football's most fully-formed talents is now dedicated to helping those deemed not good enough at an age he was already a hero.

I went to see the former Spurs, Monaco and Chelsea star, now 52, at the University of Warwick last week. He was there to oversee a three-day trial for places at the Glenn Hoddle Academy, a finishing school for young pros released by their clubs but still desperate to make the grade.

I took my boots but soon realised I was 20 years too late and that's ignoring the gaps in my CV...Ian Wright might have been "discovered" playing non-league but it was not the West End League's Sunday AM, Div II. So I stuck to reporting, and here's my TV effort:

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The 10 lads trying out were all nearly-men at leading clubs - each of them the product of years of coaching in British football's academy system. They were very good but deemed not quite good enough.

What they had now was another crack of the whip: a shot at Hoddle's last-chance saloon, a scholarship worth up to £50,000 in time, effort and tuition.

What Hoddle had was a problem: three days to spot something in a player that the player's club hadn't seen after five or six years.

There was also more at stake than just professional pride in his ability to pick a player. Having raised £4m to open the academy in Jerez, Spain, two years ago, he needs to prove it works as a business.

To do that he has to return his graduates to the professional ranks, earning development fees and slices of future transfer fees for his trouble. The evidence so far suggests this will be a tough trick to pull off but not impossible.

Glenn Hoddle in action for Spurs in 1978

The first batch of 30 players has been through the academy with almost half returning to professional football. By ordinary academy standards, where wastage rates are more like 85%, this would be a healthy return, but most of these "successes" are at Jerez Industrial, a local team that has just been relegated to Spain's fourth tier.

And unlike the club academies that supply him, Hoddle does not have the revenues of a parent club to sustain him. So the pressure was on the former England manager too.

As luck would have it, there was a match against a Crewe Alexandra XI scheduled for the day I was at Warwick Uni. Not only would this be the most important element of the selection process it would also pit Hoddle's hopefuls against one of English football's most prolific talent factories.

And my day got even better when Crewe's collection of academy players and trialists was led off the bus by Dario Gradi, now in his third stint as Crewe boss but still as utterly obsessed with player development at 68 as he was when he took his first coaching job with Chelsea in 1971.

Ask almost any fan in the country about Crewe and you will probably get an answer that includes David Platt and Danny Murphy. The small Cheshire club has an alumni list that most Premier League sides would be proud of and Gradi deserves a lot of the credit.

His academy costs £2m a year to run, a massive investment for a League Two club with gates of 4,000 this season, but Gradi told me the cost was worth it as Crewe could produce better players than the players rejected by the region's big sides.

I also sensed he would probably call it a day if the club cut back on its youth system and deprived him of the thrill of finding another Platt, Dean Ashton or, in more recent seasons, Nicky Maynard.

Luke Varney and Nicky Maynard celebrate a Crewe win in 2006Crewe products Luke Varney and Nicky Maynard have brought the club more than £4m in transfer fees

Talking to Gradi, Hoddle and the rest of the coaches (experienced pros like Dave Beasant and Nigel Spackman) during the match was an education. We all think we can spot a footballer but these guys saw things in five minutes that I was still struggling to pick up as the final whistle blew.

Hoddle spoke about players who had the ability and courage to make the positive pass: keepball is better than defending but football is about scoring goals, to do that you have to move forward. He pointed out midfielders who could receive the ball when marked but still give themselves options. He looked for defenders who were already moving when a ball was flicked on, and attackers who could beat them to it.

He also talked about clubs being forced to make assessments on players too early because of external pressures like the tyranny of the league table, and was passionate about the difference practising in southern Spain's more conducive climate could make.

The Italian-born Gradi, no kick-and-rush merchant, had an interesting take on this point. He thinks it is a mistake to try to produce Brazilian or Spanish-style players in this country because our climate and short winter days will not allow it. Gianluca Vialli made a similar point in his book "The Italian Job".

A more suitable template, for Gradi, would be the kind of players the Dutch and Germans have been producing for years: tough, hard-running footballers with sound techniques and steady temperaments.

There is, of course, no reason to suspect that we are not producing these kinds of players now. Improving results at age-group level for England, Scotland and Wales would suggest we are at least producing a few.

If the real problem is finding first-team opportunities for those players, as both Gradi and Hoddle say it is, perhaps more British footballers will have to think about the Jerez Industrials of this world. After all, not everybody is ready for the big-time at 18 and there is more than one route to a career in football.

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  • Comment number 1.

    It all seems a worthwhile cause but if a slice of future transfer fees is one of the main funds from which the academy can continue the higher fees may not come along until these players are 25-30 so another 8-10 years.

    Is there any likelihood of his academy opening in England, I hear South Africa is the next choice?

  • Comment number 2.

    Excellent article Matt. It's good to see that young players are still being given the chance to prove themselves. Charlie Austin at Swindon Town shows that there are plenty of lads that can make the grade, they just need a bit of luck, and to given a chance.

  • Comment number 3.

    I read a while back he got someone signed up at one of the big Spanish clubs didn't he?

  • Comment number 4.

    I defiantly agree about players having to think about different routes into football, look at Kenny Pavey for an example. He has never played league football in England but by going abroad he is now in the AIK side that did the double in Sweden last year so he will be in next season's Champions League.

    Kris Thackray is also doing the same as the Geordie boy is learning the game in Italy, he made his first start in Serie B last weekend for his loan side Ancona (he is owned by Reggina).

    Also a few English players are going the route of US colleges which is a little bit closer to Hoddle's thinking down to them finishing at the earliest of 21. Going through that system you have Andy Iro at Columbus Crew who have had the best league record both seasons the big defender has been there and competed in the North American Champions League. Korede Aiyegbusi has joined Kansas City this season after doing four years in college.

    It's not just players going into the MLS via the later US college development. Former West Brom keeper Matt Jones went to America to study and now plays for Santa Clara who are pushing for promotion to the top tier of Portuguese football.

    If anyone is interested below is a great link to show all the players that are currently playing abroad, many that haven't followed the traditional academy path.

    Hoddle's Academy and many English footballers following their own path shows that life for a footballer doesn't necessarily have to finish at 18 if they 'don't make it' with a big side.

  • Comment number 5.

    nice blog. everyone who has played football, even if you knew you were rubbish aslways saw 23 as the cut off (when ian wright turned professional). Good to see footballers out there getting a second shot at a professional career.
    Maybe though I will turn pro before i turn 29 and I will be the new benchmark! :)

  • Comment number 6.

    #3 I guess you would mean Ikechi Anya at Sevilla

    This year he has been playing at Sevilla Atlético (the b team) that have been playing in the same division as Jerez Industrial. Atlético just avoid relegation this year and Ikechi hasn't been playing as much since the side changed manager this year.

    Here is his wiki -

  • Comment number 7.

    Great article mate.

    With my club, York City, being in the Blue Square Premier, I've found a few players that have been plucked from club's bins have become really good, strong footballers.

    All they really needed was the opportunity. If the big clubs don't give their young prospects a chance to prove themselves, then how will they ever learn? 2 great examples below.

    Clayton Donaldson - Ditched by Hull, and given a chance at York. Played in the SPL, and now at Crewe.

    Martyn Woolford - Ditched by Doncaster, Barnsley and Bradford. Picked up by York from Frickley Athletic and now at Scunthorpe United.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hoddle was a bit of a crank when he was the England boss but you had to admire him as player.

    This cracker versus United was probably my favourite of any strike against us.

  • Comment number 9.

    Great article! I've been itching to see the GHA get some attention over since it started, I reguarly check up to see who they got at the moment, how they are getting on and where they end up. But again I think what Glenn has done is fantastic and should be the way quite frankly having more British pros who can play like the Brazilians and Spaniards is no bad thing at all! If I were ever a footballer i'd much rather play like a Spaniard in Spain than play in the Football League or whatever. Anyway you only have to look at boys like Swindon's Charlie Austin (and there's quite a few out there) to realise you don't have to start at the top to become a top can just as competently work your way up there, no doubt gaining valuable experience along the way.

  • Comment number 10.

    Good article Matt. I can't see Hoddle making this work at all. He was a skilful player but also lazy as well. He also never proved much as a manager at any level. Some great ex players just can't turn that into being excellent managers or coaches and Hoddle is just one in a long list.

    It's good to read other comments by people who say that English players are now moving abroad to find clubs. I always find it strange that hardly any British players play abroad in other leagues.

    Some of the academy players from the big clubs think that they have already made it when they are bench warmers and act like a big star instead of keeping their heads down and training harder. David Bentley is just one example of a player from a good academy under achieving with the potential he has.

  • Comment number 11.

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

  • Comment number 12.

    Good read, that was extremely interesting.

  • Comment number 13.

    But isn't "earning development fees and slices of future transfer fees" a form of third-party ownership?

  • Comment number 14.

    #1 I would think that an English academy would be unlikely as getting them out of the country is a factor that helps them work.

    Now I'm not saying this will apply to all the players but I'm sure it will some; that their careers have 'stalled' down to outside distractions. Taking them to Spain takes them away from friends and home comforts so all of a player's focus is on football.

  • Comment number 15.

    As the title to the blog is Diamond Lights and the comments discussion about English players going abroad below is a link to an amazing profile a friend of mine did on Chris Waddle's years at Olympique Marseille

    Although he was obviously an already established player in England he really took his game to another level in France, getting to the European Cup final and being a game away from winning the Ballon d'Or.

    To show the extent of his legacy in France last weekend fans of Marseille on their official website voted Waddle into the club's dream team of the 110 year history of the club. Chris got 78% of the vote for right wing and in second place with 12% was Franck Ribery! That shows the impact he had in the three years he was at Marseille.

  • Comment number 16.

    Kevin Moran was 21 I think when he made his first team debut, and came in from playing Gaelic football ( nothing like English footy) after going to Uni.
    I think it's nuts how early some of these guys start, I don't see how at 16 some people think you shouldn't be able to do something with a ball that you can do at 28... I know it takes skill, but it's not like a level of maturity is needed in the skill only in the decision making, and some of the mature footballers never learn that anyway.

  • Comment number 17.

    Good article Matt. I can't see Hoddle making this work at all. He was a skilful player but also lazy as well. He also never proved much as a manager at any level. Some great ex players just can't turn that into being excellent managers or coaches and Hoddle is just one in a long list.


    I see your point here but managing a club side is very different to player developement on a youth basis. There are some excellent youth coaches who you rarely hear of but have trained some of the best players at any given time. Eric Black at Man Utd is a good example of that.

    Hoddle was languid in style, lazy to some but he was so talented that it only hindered him when it came to England selection and our obsession with hard work and strength.

    I think his ethos and ideas in football terms can only benefit younger players and to succeed in other leagues you need qualities aside from physical superiority and industry.

  • Comment number 18.

    The comment above that suggests bentley was a super academy player and hasnt fulfilled that.

    a ten year premiership career at the top level sure plenty of academy players would settle for that

  • Comment number 19.

    Glenn Hoddle's eye for talent must have considerably improved since 1998 then, when he didn't pick Matt Le Tissier for the '98 World Cup squad.

    As far as I can recall, Hoddle arranged an England B game vs Russia to run the rule over some of the undecided players. Fat Matt scored a hat-trick, all of them absolute belters, and our Glenn still didn't pick him. In fact, he left before the end of the game and didn't even see Le Tiss' hat-trick goal!

  • Comment number 20.

    #18. It's Bentley's attitude that I question. He has shown that it is poor over the years rating himself above the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and also thinking he was above playing for England U21 in the Championship because he was too tired or would be too tired for the next season!! It just shows you what the bloke is like.

    Also he would not be a regular in the Spurs team if Lennon was not injured. How can a footballer be out late at night get drunk and then drive home and have an accident. He is now banned from driving because of that. It shows a lack of respect for his team, manager and fans. You don't tend to see this in the young foreign players that come over here. They seem to be more professional.

  • Comment number 21.

    Firstly, Matt - Great article.

    As a supporter of a club that has a fantastic academy, I do feel that there are far too many clubs (especially some of the large ones in London) who treat other clubs with disdain and disrespect when it comes to players under 18.

    There is too much focus on players being so young, before you know it - once a player has even had a first team kick of the ball, he is being touted by agents and having unrealistic dreams put in thier heads. I have seen it in the last 5 years happen to 2 players from my club, only for thier careers to stall and in the case of one, only now has he managed to find success by playing week-in, week-out.

    What happened in January when several "big" clubs offered paltry sums of money for players, in the tens of thousands, for young players, is disgusting. This "raping" of teams lower down the pyramid should be outlawed. Sadly the FA does nothing to stop it and in fact rules in favour of the "bigger" club. This is wrong.

    What Hoddle is doing is very good, it gives some players a chance but the list that another poster put on here about English players abroad is also a good indicator that young players can go abroad to ply thier trade. I think that too many people look down on other leagues with disrespect, especially in England. This country is not the be-all and end-all of football and for some of these young players, then they should go abroad to find work.

    It works both ways with EU migration, so I would like to see more of our young players go abroad, maybe learn a new language and settle into a new way of life, it would broaden thier horizons and maybe give a future route into the game back here - at whatever level.

    Many other countries do it, so English players should do the same. We may gain more good English players coming through/back into the game here, if the pool of opportunity took in Europe as well.

  • Comment number 22.

    ??? Brown (Big Blonde)centre back for Fulham late 70/early 80s i think turned pro at 25
    Andy Hessentalier turned pro at 26 ish for Watford but made hes name at Gillingham including manager




  • Comment number 23.

    So what exactly is wrong with going the Ian Wright route and dropping down the leagues to prove yourself? Plenty of players do and I'd hazard a guess that they get more development playing real games than any of these lads will.

    All this is doing is taking money and players away from our clubs in the lower leagues and eventually moving it out to whoever is funding these camps. As a business model it could work, but is it really that good for the game?

  • Comment number 24.

    Ian Wright started at the Bottom

    IAN WRIGHT first Ten Em Bee - Lewisham team

    Greenwich Borough - 6 games(1986/7) : Kent LEAGUE (Thankfully i stopped playing in that league the previous season)

    Signed by Dulwich Hamlet - Manager Alan Smith

    Then Crystal Place with Alan Smith
    Then the ARSENAL

  • Comment number 25.

    I think Chris WADDLE come into football (after the scolarship years)late having worked in a sausage factory - played for Tow ??? Lane in the North East

  • Comment number 26.

    Great article, youth football is a very interesting topic. I think it's a great point about the climate and the fact the Dutch and Germans are similar to us in terms of climate yet they seem to have better technique than us (especially the Dutch).

    I think youth football should not concerntrate on results but on the development of players because as you said, players develop at different ages/pace.

  • Comment number 27.

    George Porter signed PRO today at Leyton Orient


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