I watched an excellent documentary this week. It was called “No Hunger in Paradise” and was made by one of my favourite sports writers and authors, Michael Calvin. It’s a subject that has interested me since my own playing days – the development of local, young footballers from the schools and clubs of their locality, and the often complete lack of success of these gifted young men in being integrated into their club’s first team, despite being trained, invested in and developed for many, many years by their local club’s academy. Whilst it was a clever, multi-layered documentary which focussed on several angles, from the Academy coaches to the National Manager, from the parents to the hardened Premier League player, and from the community coach to the rejected youngster, it could easily have been subtitled “Why don’t Academy players ever get picked to play in the first team….especially in the Premier League?”. Ultimately, despite it being a superb documentary, it was a dispiriting tale.
I don’t intend to go over the detail of the documentary here, especially as I recommend wholeheartedly that you watch it yourself, (click here to watch it) but suffice to say, it dealt with the almost scandalous failure for young British talent in professional football, to make it into the first team of top level clubs in the Premier League. Incidentally, this was no hatchet job expose, looking for the Watergate moment to bring down the professional game, no, it was a considered appreciation of the flaws in youth football development, given strength and credibility by the variety of contributors and interviewees it featured, including some of the real heavy hitters in the current professional game – Arsene Wenger, Gareth Southgate and Steven Gerrard – and even the man most football fans love to hate, Joey Barton. All had plenty to say on why they think that so many young footballers in Academy football are failed by the system. It was truly fascinating stuff.
I was particularly interested because for many years, I’ve questioned why my own club, Swansea City, have favoured the likes of Vangelis Moras, Dwight Tiendalli, Roland Lamah, Itay Shechter, Alex Pozuelo, Alvaro Vasquez, Matt Grimes, Eder and Alberto Paloschi amongst others, over any young, homegrown players that will have gone through our academy system in the time that these, frankly, failures would have been at the club. Surely Swansea must have produced youngsters just as good as these players who would have deserved a chance, especially knowing that from the moment they would have set foot on the Liberty Stadium turf, every single fan would have identified with the homegrown youngster and got behind him? So I did some digging to find out if I was mistaken, and that actually, our talented youngsters do get their chance. I wanted to find out the factual picture of local, Swansea bred youngsters and their impact on Swansea City’s seven eventful seasons in the Premier League. The results don’t make pretty reading.
As you probably know, 2017-18 is Swansea City’s seventh straight season in the Premier League. Whilst the last few seasons have been fraught, the initial period at the top level had the club hailed as a model, modern Premier League club, and the ‘Swansea Way’ quickly seeped into Premier League folklore. “Copy Swansea’s blueprint for success”, all clubs promoted to the Premier League were told, and whilst I’ve enjoyed watching and writing about that ride of success at the top level of the British game, it is clear that there was little room on that blueprint for local Swansea players.
Here are the stats.
Since the first game in the Premier League on 15 August 2011, away at Man City, up to the club’s last Premier League game against Tottenham, the Swans have played 250 Premier League games. In that time, the variety of Swansea City managers have picked 70 different players to start those games. Of those 70 players, how many do you think have been boys local to the area, players who have come through the academy ranks from local clubs and schools to at least start one Premier League game for the club? 20? 15? 10? No.
The three are Jazz Richards, Joe Allen and Ben Davies. Three players. The only three local young footballers who have been developed in the club’s academy to have walked down the Liberty Stadium tunnel to start a Premier League game. Three. That is just 4% of the 70 players who have been picked. Or put another way, 96% of players who have started a game for Swansea City in the Premier League have been transferred in to the club from elsewhere. The stats seem to suggest that you have more chance of playing a first team game in the Premier League for the Swans if you learnt your football in Malaga rather than Manselton.
But that incredibly low number of three is even more stark, if we dig in to that number a little bit further. Of those three players, Joe Allen’s appearances all came in just one season of Premier League football, the first, before he was cashed in and sold in 2012. Next was Ben Davies, who frankly only got his chance due to Neil Taylor’s horror injury, but shone incredibly brightly for two brief seasons, before he too was cashed in and moved on in 2014. Finally, the loyal Jazz Richards, whose four Premier League seasons rank him as the local boy with the longest Premier League career in the history of the club. Unfortunately though, his number of starts tell a slightly different tale, making just 11 in those four seasons. Or put another way, not being picked 141 times out of 152.
The grim picture for local talent is made complete when we realise that since Jazz’s last game in the Premier League, on 24 May 2015, not one single product of the Swansea City Academy has been picked to start a Swansea City game in the Premier League. Not one. And before people begin to shout “Oli McBurnie”, he was a product of Bradford’s youth system, before making his way to Wales as a 19 year old. So in the last three seasons of Premier League football, not a single “Swansea boy”, a lad who began his football on the local pitches and in the local schools of Swansea and the surrounding area has started a game for the club. Not one.
Going back to the documentary, I’m not actually blaming the academy or the coaches that work hard at all thriving academies like Swansea’s, whose success at U 23 level in recent years under – ironically – local products, Cameron Toshack and Gary Richards, cannot be ignored. No, like the documentary, I blame the monster that is the Premier League and all the financial pressures that come with it, which prevents first team managers from taking a chance on the inexperienced products created by the excellent work of the likes of Toshack and Richards. The Premier League is all about the instant fix, it seems the long game no longer has a place in the beautiful game.
The financial stakes in the Premier League are so high now that everybody’s decisions are distorted by the fear of failure – not only on-field football failure – but the even greater fear of off-field financial loss. Even Arsene Wenger joked that what seems like a great idea on a Friday evening of giving an academy youngster his debut the next day, is then put off until “next week” when the stakes of the game really hit home. Managers, owners, Directors of Football, they all know that they are four or five defeats from the sack and the fans predictably turning against them. That’s why clubs like Swansea sign an established, mature, experienced player like Itay Shechter to bolster their squad when required, rather than promote a raw, untried, inexperienced 18 year old. I saw every minute of Shechter’s Swansea career, and with all due respect to him as a professional in his sport, I cannot see how a fresh, energetic, enthusiastic 18 year old striker from the academy could have done any worse.
The documentary unearthed a couple of scandals too. The first was revealed by Brentford’s co-Director of football who said that he knows of many players in academies who are never, ever going to become professional footballers, but are kept on simply as practice playing and training partners for the handful that might. Of course, these players aren’t told this, they believe Premier League fame, fortune and legendary status awaits, but in reality are just sparring partners, how cruel is that? It was this state of affairs that prompted Brentford to recently close their academy.
The second scandal, equally as unpleasant, is that the top clubs stockpile the best youngsters at their clubs, knowing full well that only a tiny proportion will ever make it, but would rather do that than allow the young players to progress at smaller clubs, possibly in lower divisions. It’s like gathering as many sweets up into your arms as you can possibly manage, only intending to ever eat one or two, but just making sure nobody else can grab one. Again, the only losers here are the players.
But are the clubs solely to blame? Nope, sadly they are not.
That blame has to be shared out between parents, guardians, agents and, importantly, the players too. It was highlighted by Joey Barton in the documentary when he recounted a time that he went to speak to younger players at QPR and laid on the line in typical, Bartonesque brutal fashion, that nobody was going to take his shirt, and questioned whether any of them had the appetite to take it from him. It was clear they didn’t. Instead, they liked the “idea” of being a footballer – the expensive watch, the suntan, the sharp clothes and hair, the Mercedes. He said that even when it dawned on the players that hardly any of them would get their chance at a Premier League club, none of them would be willing to even consider taking the risk to step down, to say a Plymouth, a Torquay or an Exeter to restart their career and rise again, with infinitely more chance of first team football. Barton said the bulk refuse because they don’t want to risk being out of the spotlight. To them, it’s not about playing professional football, it’s about being attached to a Premier League football club. From what Barton was saying, it certainly appears that a 20 year old, pulling up at, say, Liverpool’s Melwood training ground in a £70k Mercedes 4×4 earning countless thousands a week, just wouldn’t see the point of swapping 100 games in Liverpool’s under 23 team and never one for the first team, for maybe 50 games in League Two for Coventry City. Madness. In my eyes, someone with 50 appearances in the Football League versus one who has never got in a first team squad let alone play – well, there’s only one who’s a “proper” footballer, and it’s not the one who opted to stay in the under 23 team.
When I reflected on the documentary, I realised that if I was a father of a son stagnating in a Premier League academy with no obvious chance of him progressing, I would choose to whisper two words in his ears. Leon Britton.
In 1998, Leon was on schoolboy forms with Arsenal, having been at the club since he was nine. Aged just 16, he was subject of a £400,000 bid by West Ham, becoming the game’s most expensive ever 16 year old, and moved across London to join the Hammers and the likes of Jermain Defoe, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand. Surely, a long Premier League career for The Hammers awaited for this incredibly gifted youngster. But it didn’t work out. Leon was never picked in the first team, and faced an uncertain future as the likes of Cole and Defoe became first team regulars and began to leave him behind.
So what did he do? Did he hang around to play out his contract, staying close to the Premier League, like the QPR youngsters Joey Barton addressed? Did he get an agent to move him slightly down the London food chain to Fulham or Crystal Palace perhaps? No. He got himself down the M4 to join a club he knew absolutely nothing about, near the very bottom few rungs of the Football League ladder of 92 and about as far away from his home as he could go. Suffice to say, that decision changed his life. Leon stepped from the top flight and all that London had to offer to sharing a flat in Swansea Marina. But, the risk he took rewarded him handsomely. Fifteen years at the club, an integral part of the astonishing rise of Swansea City, and seven years as a leading Premier League player, once compared to Xavi and Iniesta. Oh, and also the small matter of becoming a genuine club legend, and arguably Swansea City’s greatest ever player. Well, he’s the best I’ve ever seen anyway.
I guess the tragedy of all that the documentary highlighted, is that today, Saturday, mums and dads of young boys aged from just 6 or 7 up to 23 years of age, will be charging around the country to watch and support their son in his – or their (that’s another story altogether!) – dream of playing in the Premier League.
Michael Calvin’s excellent documentary exposed the folly of around 99% of these parents, which is an incredibly sad thing. Premier League clubs need to wake up to their responsibilities, offer better advice to young players and families and be more realistic about the future that really awaits their sons. Manage their expectations, it is only fair. But the players themselves need to take ownership of their futures too. A five year career wearing a Premier League tracksuit in an Under 23 squad, whilst driving around in a Porsche is not footballing success. Running out for a football league club, any football league club of the 92 available, and building a career where goals and appearances really matter, now that is success. Even if you have to put your Premier League dreams on hold for a while. You can still rise back up the ladder and achieve your Premier League dreams eventually. It can be done.
Remember, two words – Leon Britton.