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Elite football academies: Breeding grounds for success or investment pools?

Rosie Tudball

After many of the England World Cup squad came from Football League academies, are the Premier League academies producing enough top flight players? 

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The World Cup squad included players trained outside the Premier League ©Антон Зайцев

Making it as a professional footballer in England is one of the biggest aspirations of the youth of today. From the outside looking in, it’s an easy life, getting a high salary and playing football every day, it’s self-explanatory as to why so many youngsters aim to become the best. However, nothing in life is that easy, and when it comes to young males attempting to make it in football it’s becoming almost an impossible dream. By becoming part of some of the countries best club’s academies comes a huge cheque and in many cases an individual’s financial status can change in a second as they put pen to paper on a contract.

Professional contracts at any level of football are like gold dust and take endless amount of hard work and dedication to get into the position of signing one. So many youngsters today would count themselves lucky to even be looked at by a professional club, as academy life is though of as the gateway to a life in the spotlight of the highest level of football.

It’s unsurprising that so many young people dedicate hours to progress on their journey to achieving a spot in an academy. In today’s game, you don’t need to look far to see why young people are so inspired, as many of the World’s greatest players have come from an academy set-up. The most notable name is of course Lionel Messi, who joined one of the world’s most prestigious academies aged 13. Barcelona’s La Masia academy has produced some of the club’s, and the world’s, best players. Messi came through the ranks of La Masia, nine years after joining, the Argentine became the first graduate to win the Ballon d’Or aged just 22. Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique are two more notable graduates from La Masia, an academy that is living proof of the benefits that academy life can have on an aspiring player.

While Barcelona’s academy is something that every young player looks up to, England also produces some fantastic talent from its academies. Current Premier League players including Marcus Rashford, Alex Iwobi, James Ward-Prowse and of course Harry Kane came from their current club’s academy.

It’s not all rosy in England however, as the number of academy graduates playing in the Premier League is depleting. For one, an alarming statistic showed that the chances of a youngster playing organised football as a child becoming a professional Premier League player is 0.012%. There are many reasons as to why this is happening, I’ve highlighted three that could suggest the main culprits. Money, money and trust.

Firstly, clubs have extraordinary amounts of money and with this money, tend to look for already established players from around the world, rather than looking at developing their own. This isn’t a criticism however, as football today is all about the present, rather than future. A primary reason for this is of course the globalised nature of the Premier League, players from other countries attract attention to the league, increasing television revenue and global popularity. An example of this would be the affect that Mo Salah’s arrival in the league has had on Egypt’s following of English football. Recruiting international already-established talent is the route that the league is familiar with. Clubs, owners and fans want immediate success which isn’t a sin, but also isn’t promising to our academies.

Secondly, are young players getting too much too soon? Academy contracts guarantee lucrative wage packets, making it as a young player is only a bit about talent, the majority being about mentality and desire. Once a young player has secured an academy contract, does it become more difficult to motivate a millionaire that is under the age of 21? When you look at the academies of the top clubs, there are almost always some names that are rarely recognised, it could be argued that academy life makes things too comfortable for young players, leaving you to question whether they’re cut out for stardom. It’s not perhaps the fact that academy quality has gone down, but whether club’s are raising their youngsters correctly, keeping them out of the loop of first team football certainly doesn’t help.

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Marcus Rashford is one of the recent success stories of a Premier League academy ©Кирилл Венедиктов

This leads to the final point, trust, are managers finding it difficult to trust young players? It’s fantastic that there are stable leagues for youngsters to develop in, however, the level from youth football to first team Premier League football is difficult to even make a link between. It’s an entirely different game, not just physically but mentally for young players, who sometimes seem to struggle under the pressure when they are called into action during the season. Not many are given this opportunity, which is where the issue comes from, as some don’t even train with the first team. It seems nowadays that young players have one shot, if they don’t perform in their first premier league appearance then sometimes it’s assumed that they won’t be seen again.

The direct academy route however is not always the only way to becoming a professional. Only five members of England’s 22-man World Cup squad came from the ‘elite’ academies from the top division. The remaining 18 spent time in lower leagues, or working their way from semi-professional environments all the way up to representing their country in the World Cup, and of course playing in the Premier League.

Saying this, there are many options for young players, going on loan is one that in some circumstances can work for the best. Chelsea academy member Ruben Loftus-Cheek had a successful loan spell at Crystal Palace last season. The loan seemed to come at exactly the right time for the talented midfielder, who at 22-years-old, is starting to grow into his game and turn heads. Arguably the most important head that Loftus-Cheek turned was that of Gareth Southgate, who rewarded the Englishman’s impressive form with a place in the 2018 World Cup squad. The World Cup really showcased the country, and the world to the potential of Loftus-Cheek, and also raised question marks towards Chelsea’s academy, who had failed to integrate a player of his talent around the first team squad.

Chelsea’s academy is one of the best in the country, however one of the most criticised also. The club are renowned for sending their youngsters on loan across Europe and rarely chasing up on their progress. It’s rare to see an academy graduate from Chelsea, which is a strange thing considering the recent on-going success of their academy sides in English tournaments. While the club celebrate the achievements of the academy, why aren’t we seeing these talents being on the fringe of the first team, or even getting a chance? Showcasing academy talent and potential is one thing, but excelling their careers is another, and a lack of responsibility that not just Chelsea are culprits of.

It tends to be the top teams’ academies that are in more cases failing to allow young players to break into the first team, however this isn’t always a bad thing for the player.

Manchester City had one of the countries hottest prospects in their ranks back in 2017, as English forward Jadon Sancho began to glisten in Premier League’s academy league. Questions were asked as to whether Sancho would get a shot in City’s team, however, they took to long to invest their trust in the then 17-year-old, as he was snatched by Borussia Dortmund and taken to Germany for a lesson in how to integrate youngsters amongst the company of world stars. In October 2017, he made his Bundesliga debut for Dortmund, and in April 2018 scored his first professional goal, along with collecting two assists, setting up Marco Reus. Sancho is an example of what can happen when young players are given trust and the correct advice.

Premier League clubs will continue to invest elsewhere rather then look towards their academies, the demanding and competitive nature of the league makes it difficult to do otherwise, however, it would be refreshing every now and then to see a top club introduce a young player. Manchester United took a chance when they gave 18-year-old Marcus Rashford his Premier League debut in 2016, he scored twice that day against Arsenal, and while he still continues to sit on the fence between being a substitute and a starter, he is a player that can be counted on, despite his age.

Taking a chance can make or break a player or a manager in football, whether it be a youngster trialling for an academy, or a manager willing to showcase a talent in the first team, this chance needs to be taken to keep academy hopes alive and kicking in England.

Rosie Tudball

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