In his book ‘You’ll win nothing with kids’, Jim White manages his son’s football team, but he also explores the problems of grass roots football in Britain.
At Newcastle, the fans’ forum and the state of the Academy have raised some interesting questions about the state of the club as a whole. Given our record in the transfer windows over the last few seasons, it’s a mystery as to from where our next gem will emerge.
The English lower leagues? Inflated prices.
France? Don’t start.
The Netherlands? Wijnaldum might have a couple of decent mates.
And thinking about it is hurting my head, because it means thinking about what type of players you really want for the future, versus the players you need, now, in the next must win match.
A team of home grown talent
The problem is, while everyone would like players who have immersed themselves in the club, there are excellent examples of players who were brought in who just ‘got’ the club. Malcom Macdonald. Robert Lee. Les Ferdinand. They were instant heroes, for their understanding of our club as well as their talent, and that is a sound return on a huge investment.
And the home grown argument doesn’t mean that kids actually support the team they play for, particularly now that the net for potential stars of the future is cast far and wide, and particularly now that clubs can wave huge bags of loot in the faces of folk in their early twenties.
The lads at work who support Sunderland didn’t feel betrayed by Jack Colback in terms of his footballing talent; they felt betrayed because of the investment their academy had made in him. They felt that it was a bit of a kick in the teeth, although I’m presuming it was a kick with his left foot, because no one seems to have ever suggested he use his right.
Which brings me to sunny point number two:
Give the kids somewhere to play
Now, this is where the issue of investment becomes more extravagant, but perhaps more permanent. It seems that development of our academy facilities was put on hold because of last season’s relegation battle. And despite the club apparently not discussing the ‘R’ word, and plans apparently with the architect for the facility, there is still schedule for work to begin on the new facilities.
White talks about facilities in his book, gaining advice after a visit to the Manchester United Carrington training ground. Facilities are not such a problem at Manchester United. Or Barcelona. While we don’t have the mounds of cash down the back of the club crested plush sofas that these two clubs have, we do have something the Big Boys have: a supply of kids who would probably love to play for us, given the chance.
However, it isn’t just the kids who need to be convinced of the intentions of the club; it’s the parents. And if your young ‘un was good enough that a couple, or maybe even a few clubs were interested, where would you prefer them to go?
Somewhere that will develop their talent and who appear to believe in the importance of bringing through the youth; or a club who have had plans on hold/in development/let’s see if we’re here next year?
There’s a risk everywhere, but some clubs must have an easier time of convincing parents of a future? And I put the likes of Chelsea in this bracket of uncertainty; they don’t bring through kids, either. But then they don’t have much problem, for a myriad of reasons, of attracting proven players.
Does the academy matter?
There are lots of opinions as to whether or not the results of youth matches actually matter. I can see the points of these varying opinions, and they all hold water; the first team are what we care about most, and if the under 18s lose, so what if we survive and, heaven’s above, thrive?
And maybe winning shouldn’t really be the be-all and end-all at youth level; experimenting with the talents and abilities of young players in this less stressful situation could open up new opportunities for the player, and hopefully, the club.
At Barcelona, players in every position are taught to pass and move, to feel confident on the ball, and confidence in your team-mates. I’m not sure we have that in our first team. That’s not a criticism; it’s an observation.
From the bottom up
But winning is a mentality. Confidence breeds more confidence, and with this comes the belief that even when things go Viduka shaped, they can be turned around. This is the confidence that our first team have lost.
Lots of the Academy players will have found football at school level fairly easy and looked world class against the other kids. Feeling like you can take on the world is one of the best things about being young. And feeling like you can offer a word of advice and experience is one of the best things about, err… the twilight of your career.
So what is the solution? Well, we need to make the club somewhere that both young and more experienced players really want to be. The Premier League seems like a good start. We also need to provide facilities that show our intentions throughout the club. No one wants to be messed about.
And to do this, we need a policy and infrastructure that doesn’t just see spending money as a red mark on a spreadsheet. If we develop good players, the first team will get better. And if we sell them, well, there might well be another gem. You’ll win nothing with kids. But you’ll win nothing with average adults, either.
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