By Paul Gardner
Those of you who are bewildered by the proliferation of soccer academies might want to take a look at a book published recently in England -- "Every Boy's Dream" by Chris Green (A&C Black, London). There is a great deal of intriguing material in its pages as Green wends his journalistic way through the successes and failures, the joys and despairs of the youth development system in England.
System, you will feel after reading the book, is quite the wrong word. This is now surely a full-blown industry. And it has spread its wings far beyond mere soccer. Development of young players must now pay serious attention to education, and even to lifestyle.
Most people see this as a step in the right direction. Until fairly recently, soccer in England -- and elsewhere -- showed little interest in the non-soccer education of their young players. If the players failed to make it, they were cast out to fend for themselves, with no qualifications whatever to prepare them for the job market.
The man largely responsible for the change of attitude in England is Howard Wilkinson, a former pro player and first division coach, who also carries a B.Ed qualification as a teacher. In 1997 he took over as the head of the Technical Department at the English Football Association in 1997, and quickly issued a remarkable document called "A Charter For Quality." Remarkable for the breadth of its vision, but also remarkable for the massive confidence with which it called upon England's pro clubs to set up top-class training facilities for youngsters, and to ensure that the boys also received serious academic training.
This was the birth of the academy system in England. By now, all Premier League clubs have well-financed academies (each spends on average $3 million a year running them) while most of the other pro clubs (there are 72 of them in three divisions below the EPL) have Centers of Excellence.
Wilkinson's charter was a direct response to a widespread feeling in England that the country was nowhere near pulling its weight when it came to producing world-class players. Youth development in England was seen as a haphazard affair, lagging behind the solidly and professionally organized programs in other European countries.
Wilkinson took up the call for reform -- and he did so by giving the pro clubs what they had long demanded: that they be given an almost total monopoly in the youth development area. Until the charter, pro clubs had not been permitted to train players below the age of 14. Because of this, schools soccer (run by the English Schools Football Association) had been the arena in which most young players started their development. Wilkinson drastically changed that, saying that clubs would now be allowed to take in players as young as 9. But this was not just permission -- this was a demand from the FA that all clubs that ran an academy must operate at every age level between 9 and 21.
The requirement meant a great reduction in the importance of schools soccer, of course; it was already under attack by new educational theories that disapproved of competitive sports, anyway. Green's book tells the tale of the growth of the academy system -- which faced, right from the start, an insoluble problem that everyone knew about -- a problem that everyone involved in youth soccer in this country, and anywhere else, is familiar with.
Namely: that failure is by far the most common result of training young boys to be soccer players. Green says that of the boys who sign contracts at age 18, only 1 in 6 remains in the pro sport longer than three years. It is the staggeringly high rate of failure among the estimated 10,000 boys who attend the academies and the centers of excellence that causes so many headaches. Not that England is an exception -- there is no reason to doubt that figures are similar everywhere.
So many rejects, of course, accounts for the sport's newfound interest in education, in the importance of providing the young hopefuls with "something to fall back on." This is an age when the callous attitude of yesteryear is no longer acceptable.
The academies now work on elaborate "exit strategies" -- designed to let the kids down lightly when they have to be told they're no longer considered good enough. Yearly "exit trials" are staged for rejected boys, in the hope that other clubs will pick them up (or that U.S. colleges will come forward with a scholarship).
Whether soccer academies are really qualified to oversee, or even provide, academic education is another matter. But they already do it to the extent that parents seem to be choosing an academy for their son on the basis of education, as much as on soccer prospects.
With so much failure built into the system, how on earth does one judge whether it's working or not? No one in Green's book -- and he has spoken with a great many people involved in youth soccer, including players and parents -- can answer the question. Of course, where there are spectacular failures, then the kids or the parents have horror stories to tell. But each of these 10,000 boys is surely entitled to believe that he has been selected -- maybe as young as age 9 -- to be one of the elite players in the English game. Very, very few of them will ever come anywhere near that dream. Only about 1 per cent will make it. Just 100 boys.
There is much talk in Green's book of "quality coaching," or simply "better coaching." No one -- none of the many coaches interviewed, nor Green himself, attempts to define what the terms mean. With the coming of the academies, pro clubs in England were granted their demands to gain full control of youth development. Are they doing a good job?
Many coaches profess themselves satisfied; Huw Jennings, who runs Fulham's academy, believes that "the skill levels, the ball mastery, balance reception and flexibility of our young players is better that it has ever been."
Yet Trevor Brooking, head of football development at the FA states "for a country of some 60 million people we are not producing ... players at the top level with the necessary skills . . ."
Even Wilkinson, the architect of the now dominant academy system, admits "I am starting to lose hope ..." because of the way in which internal soccer politics -- mainly, three-way tug-of-wars between the FA, the EPL and the football league, have repeatedly sabotaged attempts at continuing reform.
[Howard Wilkinson will be a featured clinician at next year's NSCAA Convention in Philadelphia, January 13-17]