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June 2021

If the home grown project is failing, has the Academy system has failed too?

By Tony Attwood

The current youth academy system for English football was designed in 1997 by Howard Wilkinson, the man who took Leeds United from the lower reaches of the second division to be the final winners of the old First Division, using an interesting squad complete with Vinnie Jones.

Now in an era when both Manchester City and Liverpool are banned from signing academy players he says the system needs changing, because Premier League clubs don’t give youngsters enough opportunities.

Much to their credit, the Guardian newspaper has been focusing on the perfidious nature of the Academy system run by some clubs that seems to result in very high rates of mental health problems among teenage boys suffer as a result of rejection.

Indeed the paper reports on a study of 16 to 18 year olds in academies which found that 99% did not progress to have professional football careers.

This is a problem, and one that needs to be compared both with other sports and indeed the arts, where a vast number of young people attempt to find work as actors, musicians, visual artists, dancers etc and never make it.  From what is known about the arts, the mental health issues there are much lower, simply because the expectations are handled in a different way.  I regret I’ve never seen a report on how other sports deal with bringing young talent through.

We can see the problem with the current Wilkinson stance however when he says that, “Current youth coaches in England are as good or better than anywhere in the world: they are highly qualified, overworked and underpaid, highly committed, experts.”  What he doesn’t say is the point that Untold has made time and again; we have far, far fewer trained coaches per head of population that any other country in the western world – quite probably in the entire football playing world.

Instead of facing that issue – which lays the problem firmly at the door of the FA he suggests instead that “clubs prefer to sign ready-made overseas stars,” instead of youngsters.  But he says, Tottenham Hotspur is an exception.

And yet as the nationally available figures for Tottenham show, they only have four “home-grown” players in their 25 man squad compared with other teams that often have twice that number.

Of course Tottenham might well have a plethora of under 21s who are home grown and going to make it big in football in the years to come, and I will fully admit I don’t know enough about Tottenham’s team to make a judgement on that.  But that has not been my point: I’ve been looking at the number of players who make the over 21s, and don’t fall by the wayside before that, because that gives us a benchmark.

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Arsenal’s current 25 list contains eight players who one way or another have come through Arsenal’s youth system, and that doesn’t include Holding, who was brought in as a young third division player and has raced up through the club to break into the first team.   Those other eight are Akpom, Bellerin, Coquelin, Iliev, Macey, Ramsey, Walcott, and Wilshere.  And lurking beneath as we have seen this season we have Maitland-Niles,  Nelson, Willock, McGuane, Dasilva, Gilmour.   And that’s not including the players out on loan or currently injured.

Of course many fall by the wayside, but there is only a limited number of players who can be taken through.  So if the rest of these young players are not making it elsewhere then the blame must be with a) the selection process that brings the youngsters in, in the first place and b) the way in which lower league clubs, and presumably clubs overseas, don’t pick up these players who have been trained at top clubs.

So the whole myth about Academies and not giving players opportunities, and preferring foreigners continues.   Look at countries that have done well internationally: the smaller countries have their young players playing overseas to develop their learning and understanding.  Very few English youngsters want to do that – often because of their profound reluctance to speak a foreign language.  In which case there is only one place to find the blame: in the schools’ language departments.

Indeed when Wilkinson says, “If you send your child to a school, you expect the school to give them every opportunity to develop their talent. It is their moral responsibility,” this is nonsense.  Talent in teenage years is associated with sports and the arts primarily, occasionally with maths.  And what UK schools is he thinking about when he says they develop talent?  Yes we do have secondary schools that specialise in sport, drama, music, art etc.  But their success rate in developing this talent?  Having spent much of my life working in the arts, my experience is that the number is small.

Basically this endless mantra that it is the clubs who refuse to give young English players the chance is not based on any fact, and is an endless insult to managers of clubs in England.

The former FA chairman Greg Dyke did apparently (according to the Guardian) “investigate whether the lack of opportunities for English players is partly due to top clubs being owned by overseas investors who have too little commitment to the national team.”  And apparently the review (which I regret to say I must have missed), “failed even to mention that proposition”.

Wilkinson maintains his “say it don’t think about proving it” approach.  One of his statements is, “It seems the FA and leagues are choosing to ignore the facts,” without giving any evidence to this effect.

Does Wilkinson seriously think that all the young men from the Netherlands who combined to make their country’s team one of the best in the world, actually played all their football in the Netherlands?  Of course they didn’t.  They played in England, in Germany, in Spain, in France.   Does Wilkinson think that the Belgian side that has in recent years risen far above expectations, all played all their football in the Belgian league?

Does Wilkinson seriously think that Aberdeen, Aston Villa, Cardiff, Udinese, Grasshoppers, and AEK are Icelandic teams?  Seemingly so since those are the clubs that the complete midfield of the Iceland team in the world cup qualifiers play for.

Personally I don’t care much about international football, but I would care a lot if through this mindless statement of utterly unproven and unprovable notions about the need to have nationalistic rules about how many English players you have to have in a PL squad football laws in the UK were changed.  It wouldn’t make the England team any better, but it would reduce the quality of the Premier League.

And we do have to be careful, because once Britain leaves the EU, it will become perfectly legal to create nationalistic rules restricting who League clubs can sign.  And that’s what we will get if the Wilkinsons of the world get their way.

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10 comments to If the home grown project is failing, has the Academy system has failed too?

  • Laos gooner

    Thank you for that, I started reading the Guardian article with the Wilkinson quotes but could not keep going til the end. I was left wondering about facts or supportive statistics. I thought there might be quotes from others in the game. Sadly it looks more the work of a broke scribbler trying to survive the interlull rather than a piece of journalism. There was so much possible and then so little content in the article. I’m sure the payment was very handsome.

  • Nitram

    Who were the foreigners in the English football league holding back the Brits in the previous 4 decades ?

    I mean, the trophies were rolling in back then weren’t they.

  • Andrew Crawshaw


    For me the real problem lies in the transition between U18 football and first team. Very few players are capable of making the transition in one step and the current intermediate competition, the U23 PL2 in the case of Arsenal, really isn’t ft for purpose.

    The players at this level are all paid professionals and need to be playing competitively week in week out which doesn’t happen. The Football League,who control football below the elite PL stage are unwilling to allow PL second teams to field teams in say the first or second division and it is not possible for the PL clubs to take over teams already playing at that level. The top Spanish Clubs all have established junior teams in their lower leagues enabling their youngsters to get the right degree of playing experience to promote their development.

    Any loan system can’t work in the same way as the loaning club have very little influence over the amount of game time that the loanee will actually receive. This is particularly true when there is a managerial change at the loan club (as Cohen Bramall is now finding out)

    It also seems that it isn’t possible for Premier League Clubs to buy a team in another European League to provide the relevant learning experiences (although Chelsea seem to have come close to this with their agreement).

    A final thought – Arsenal have 13 scholars each year. With a senior squad of 25 who probably stay on average for 6 years there is a requirement for, on average, 4 new players a year at least one or two of which will need to be established high cost players. The production line is therefore always going to produce more players than the Club can possibly use,even if the players are capable of playing in the positions that are. Needed for the first team squad.

    For the other members of the academy the alternative will be to join a lower league team which will probably have a very different style of football which our youngsters may well not be suited for or for them to go overseas with attendant language issues..

  • Nitram


    10/10/2017 at 3:51 pm

    It’s similar to this notion that we are rubbish because we ‘lack leaders’.

    Who do they mean by that do you think?

    Leaders such as:

    Adams, Butcher, Gerrard, Lampard, Robson, Campbell, Ferdinand, Pearce, Terry, Scholes, Neville, Keown etc. etc. etc.

    And they lead us to WHAT exactly?

  • Gord

    That Duh of Football (Chris Waddle)

    felt that the problem with England is that there are too many coaches. Because of this, all English players are too predictable and become uncreative. That this is a failing of academies.

    I think Chris Waddle just likes to hear himself talk. I don’t think a lack of creativity necessarily follows from having coaches at academies. Yes, if all the coaches at academies are from the same school of thought, then they could be predictable. But really, for this to be the huge problem he seems to think, not only do they all have to be from the same school of thought, but the knowledge they are teaching must be severely limited. It’s one thing to be predictably choosing between two actions, and quite another to be predictably choosing between 2000 actions.

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin

    I think the Premier League academy schools project in England in general and at Arsenal in particular is on course succeeding and not failing but needing a structural adjustment to make it more succeeding.

    The language barrier that is being said discouraged academy school graduates in the PL academy schools from going abroad outside the UK to ply their trades after graduating can be overcome by introducing 3 additional languages of French, Spanish and Germany introduce into the schools curriculum as additional subjects taught and learn at the schools. And the pupils made to choose 1 of Spanish or Germany to make it compulsory 3 languages learned at the schools including the 8 core subjects of: English Language, French, General Mathematics, General Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Economics and football education to total (10) subjects that will become compulsory subjects to be learned at the schools by the pupils who come in into the schools at the age of 12 years and will graduate after 6 years studies at the schools. And for those who have been at the schools from the age of 5 to do and finish their primary school education at the schools to get their first school leaving certificates and later continue reading at the schools if they remain at the schools to read for their secondary school education and pass their subjects at GCE “O” Level result with not less than the grades required to gain placement into the teteiry institutions to further in their education. But for those who join the academy schools after attaining the age of 12 years from outside the UK and are not English and can’t speak English, a special program of studies that will include teaching them English, French and and one of Spanish or Germany if they’ve not already know them should be put in place at the schools to teach them when they are signed in by the PL clubs. Have I said something useful?

  • Jax

    Laos gooner
    Your “broke scribbler”: David Conn.
    Conn has been named sports news reporter of the year three times, in 2004, 2009 and 2013, by the Sports Journalists Association, and has been named Football Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters Federation three times, in 2002, 2005 and 2009. In December 2013 he was named Sports Journalist of the Year in the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards. The judges said: “He delves beyond the glitzy veneer of modern football to hold the game’s gilded elite to account.”[2]’
    Of course, you probably;y wouldn’t get to hear of such things would you!

  • Brickfields Gunners

    I like to think that each persons opinions and perceptions are unique to that person , and is end product of the sum of his genetics , intelligence,acquired knowledge, available or presented facts,bias and mental make up. And probably hormones too.
    Thus someone praising the achievements of his own countryman chosen by a group of his peers , would not register an iota with others not of the same ilk. Since the arts was brought up , let us take for example the BAFTAs .Does anyone here know (or bothered at all !) at who were this years winners? Were they held at all ?

    The reason I asked was that someone sent me the following psychological test.
    I think that I may have failed rather miserably as none of the given answers even entered my brain. My first (and only !) response was , “OMG !”

    Come to think of it, I may need the advice of our own OMG here to evaluate my response . Don , am I normal or do I need help ?

    In the meantime , why don’t the rest of you try it yourselves , and inform us of your own response ?

    WARNING – Please refrain from eating ,drinking, driving or operation heavy machinery as you take the test .

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Sorry…operating heavy ..