It seems to be accepted as fact these days that English football is irreparably broken. The Premier League has sucked up all of the cash from the lower levels and effectively killed off the grassroots game. Our biggest clubs have ceased to be steadily developed regional powers run on self-sustaining business models and English footballers rarely have a conventional career path of incremental growth and, worryingly, seem to be washed up or burned out before they reach 30 years of age.
Instead, the Premier League’s oligarch-owned superpowers hoover up the best English talent while the players are still in their mid-to-late teens, only to let them rot and squander their potential in ‘Elite Development Squads’, comfortably away from the first team football that they need in order to reach the heights in their mid-to-late twenties.
The likes of Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, all of whom spent the early parts of their careers learning the game in the lower leagues, are seen as flukes – the lucky few who bathed in pigswill and somehow ended up smelling of roses.
In reality, the three are examples to every youth teamer in the Premier League. They represent proof of what talent can achieve if it chooses to play the long game: to drop down the pyramid, stay focused and play every week instead of signing for a top-four club in the vain hope that, one day, enough first team stars might come down with the flu to allow them a spot on the bench for a Cup game.
Now, there are two important points to concede here before we go any further. Firstly and most obviously, the financial packages on offer are inevitably going to convince most youngsters to chase the Champions League dream. When any eighteen year-old is offered terms that mean he and his family will never have to work again, of course he’s going to sign the contract as quickly as possible and never look back.
Secondly, it is undeniably true that the standard of coaching is undoubtedly higher for Manchester United’s youth team than it is for, say, Rotherham United’s first team. When it comes to educating a player and preparing him for Champions League football – the standard that every young player aims to reach – there’s no comparison.
While both of those things are true, it does seem that they have taken an unjustified precedence in the minds of a generation of English youngsters. Unless a player is as ludicrously talented as Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets or Raphaël Varane, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be ready to play elite-level football before they’re 23 or 24 without getting embarrassed. There’s no substitute for first team football and the benefits of being patient while learning the ropes are numerous.
Between the ages of 20 and 22, Andrea Pirlo played 38 games for Reggina and Brescia. David Villa spent his early years playing for Sporting Gijón and Real Zaragoza and didn’t experience Champions League football until his second season with Valencia, by which time he was 24. Thiago Silva didn’t get his big European move to Milan until he too was 24, albeit partly because earlier spells with Porto and Dynamo Moscow had been curtailed by a life-threatening case of tuberculosis.
None of the above rushed their development and all reached legendary status because of their willingness to wait – to hone their skills away from the spotlight in order to make sure that, when the world’s attention was finally focused on them, they were more than ready. The last decade in English football has been a long, monotonous lesson in talent mismanagement and a sad example of youthful greed. Thankfully, the penny seems to be dropping.
The cautionary tales of players like Michael Woods, Tom Taiwo and John Bostock, all of whom moved for sizeable fees as teenagers but found their paths to first team football permanently blocked, are finally being understood. So too those of players like Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones, who played Champions League football right from the beginning but have spent their careers being used as team sport’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, doing two or three jobs per season instead of refining their talents in their preferred role.
Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert moving to Liverpool should be welcomed as a sign that English football is getting back on course – that the traditional and correct path of player development is starting to be followed logically once again. The same goes for the transfer of Tom Ince, a talented youngster who has correctly realised that his ability is going to develop best in Hull City’s first team as opposed to Internazionale’s reserves.
Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan have been brilliantly handled by Brendan Rodgers and should continue on their upward trajectory next season. Nathaniel Clyne, Jack Cork and James Ward-Prowse will come on leaps and bounds playing every week at Southampton. Ditto Jonjo Shelvey at Swansea, John Stones at Everton and Connor Wickham at Sunderland. Nick Powell, Ravel Morrison and Patrick Bamford will make loan moves and continue to play regularly. It’s all rather exciting in an understated way.
Of course, none of this means that everything that was wrong has now been fixed and that England are going to re-emerge as a force on the international scene, their players spoken of in hushed tones and their performances regarded by the rest of the world with absolute awe. It just means that we are learning how to develop talent again. It’s just a beginning and it could well lead to nothing – but it could also be the start of a successful era.