The top clubs continue to nurture precocious young talent, but too few English teenagers are being given the chance to develop

Shortly before the kick-off at Chelsea last week, it was proudly announced that their youth team had beaten Charlton that morning to make it seven wins out of seven this season. Good news for England’s future? Not exactly. Chelsea’s academy is almost as cosmopolitan as their first team and, worryingly, they are not alone.
There is growing concern at the Football Association that youth development at top level is following the same path as the Premiership, with an influx of non-English players working against the best interests of the national team. Craig Simmonds, the FA’s player development adviser, said: “We’ve lost the plot when it comes to finding an edge for young English players.”

Forty years ago there were just 10 foreigners plying their trade with the then Football League’s 92 clubs, of whom five were South African. Today, in the Premiership alone, there are more than 100 playing each weekend. Twenty years ago Arsenal had 14 youth team products playing first-team football, including Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Michael Thomas, Graham Rix, Paul Davis, David Rocastle and Paul Merson, all of whom won caps for England. Last Saturday they had one Englishman, Justin Hoyte, in the 16-strong squad they took to Charlton. The trend at senior level is well known, with 51 countries represented in the Premiership, but much more disturbing is the recruitment of overseas players for academies that were set up to improve the quality of England’s stars of the future.

The Chelsea under-18s, who top their league with a 100% record, are reliant for goals on Miroslav Stoch, of Slovakia, Ben Sahar of Israel and the Dane Morten Nielsen, who are supplied from the wing by Tomi Saarlema, of Finland, and from midfield by Spain’s Sergio Tejera.

Arsenal, meanwhile, have regularly featured Vito Mannone (Italy), Vincent van den Berg and Nacer Barazite (both Holland), Peggy Lokando (DR Congo), Wojciech Szczesny (Poland) and the inevitable Frenchmen, Armand Traore and Carl Parisio. For the time being, at least, these two Europhile clubs are exceptions rather than the rule, and England’s future is well-served by Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United and Manchester City, among others, but the fact remains that academies were brought in to replace the FA’s national school, at Lilleshall, which closed in 1999, and they are benefiting other countries as well as England. The old school of excellence, as it was widely known, produced English alumni of the calibre of Michael Owen, Ashley Cole, Sol Campell, Graeme Le Saux, Joe Cole, Alan Smith and Jermain Defoe.

The academies have different, club-orientated priorities, so Arsenal have groomed Cesc Fabregas for Spain, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie for Holland, Jeremie Aliadiere for France and Johan Djourou for Ivory Coast, and Chelsea did Germany a huge favour with Robert Huth. The effect of this is to swell the ranks of overseas imports who are playing in English football, but not available for England, and a survey comparing the major leagues in European football has provided the FA with food for thought.

On the opening day of the season, 47% of the players used in the Premiership were English, with another 8% coming from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The other 45% were foreign. By contrast, Italy’s Serie A continues to be dominated by Italians. For the world champions, the percentage is 74-26 in favour of home-grown players, while in France it is 66-34. In Spain, 62% of La Liga’s playing strength is Spanish, and only in Germany are the natives the minority. In the Bundesliga, just 46% of players are German. Last weekend, only six of the Premiership’s 20 clubs selected 16-man squads in which half the players, or more, were English. They were Sheffield United, Watford, Middlesbrough, West Ham, Portsmouth and Tottenham. At the other end of the scale, Blackburn had three. Fortunately for the future of the England team, most Premiership clubs are still prepared to nurture their own talent through the academies, rather than cherry-pick reinforcements from abroad.

Pride of place goes to Middlesbrough, where Steve McClaren, in his Premiership farewell prior to taking charge of England, ended last season with 11 academy products on the pitch against Fulham. All 11 were born within a 30-mile radius of the Riverside. Last week, eight of the 16 players on duty at Bramall Lane were products of their academy. Martin O’Neill’s Villa provide another shining example. At Chelsea last Saturday, five of the players who earned a 1-1 draw had come through from the academy, including their goalscorer, Gabriel Agbonlahor, who made his first appearance in the England Under-21 squad on Friday, and Liam Ridgewell, who distinguished himself at centre-half. It is of “fancy that” interest that six of the Villa players who won the FA Youth Cup five seasons ago have gone on to play for the first team, while of the Everton under-18s they beat in May 2002, only Wayne Rooney has made it.

The club that likes to style itself as The Academy deserves honourable mention. West Ham have long had a tradition for producing their own players, and until last week, when they lost at Norwich, they were pushing Chelsea hard at the top of the Under-18 Academies’ Group A, with 13 Englishmen in a squad of 16. Tony Carr, their academy director, explained: “It depends on what your club is about and the resources you have. At Chelsea and Arsenal, their young players’ route into the first team is harder because of the standard of those teams. To get a chance will be harder because they buy a ready-made international to fill their needs. They are less patient waiting for a young player to come through. West Ham, and others like us, have to produce our own because we cannot compete at the very top for the big-money signings. We would not say no to a good foreign player, but it is not our policy to put a lot of scouting into finding them. We don’t feel at this point that we have to go to Europe for players for our youth team. We would rather go with local talent, and English talent, if possible.”

Of the situation in general, Simmonds said: “The game has gone global, players are going to continue to migrate from around the world and the youth programme in England is influenced by that trend. It is a question of whether it is beginning to mirror the adult game. If you look across all the divisions, I would say no, but in the Premiership the standard required is now of the highest class. Our boys are going through a very good development process, but at the biggest clubs they are starting to meet foreign players coming in at younger ages. We’re delivering a service, but we’re not really giving English players an edge, and I’m not sure how we’re going to do that. It’s a problem maybe Steve (McClaren will have to consider, how he can advance the development of young English players.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Joe Lovejoy, Times Online