Your club’s youth academy is poor? It hasn’t produced a useful player in years? You want to fix it? Just pretend it’s good.
Say you and I go to a pub. We have a few drinks and we start talking about football. Football talk being what it is, there is nothing more exciting than talking about the stars of tomorrow. It is not interesting to you and me that Messi is the best player in the world. We know he is, talking about it bores us. Instead we start talking about quality youngsters. If I tell you there is a talented young player and he comes from Boca Juniors’ academy you will ask if he is anything like Riquelme, Tevez or Gago. If I tell you a player comes from Barcelona’s academy you will ask if he is the new Messi, Iniesta, Xavi or Bojan. If I tell you a player comes from Liverpool’s academy you will instantly dismiss him.
Building a youth academy’s reputation is vital and probably the most important part of developing a well functioning factory of footballers. When the car you’re driving is produced in a proven, well respected factory, a BMW perhaps, you automatically assume its quality. It is the same with football academies. At a club like Barcelona, Sporting or Boca there is a lot of excitement about any young prospect that is around the first team squad because of their recent young players.
Young players are being dismissed on the basis of a lack of good players coming out of the academy in the past 10 years. People are automatically assuming that the new young player is not very good because the young players before him weren’t good either. One player making it opens the door for another player. Two players making it opens the door for the third player. By the time the fourth player is about to get the chance the doors are wide open and he is already being given the benefit of the doubt and he automatically brings excitement without people knowing how good a player he actually is.
It’s an evil circle though. You won’t give the benefit of the doubt to a player coming from an unsuccessful academy but you can’t change the reputation of the academy without one or two players showing that the academy works.
In the long run, for the benefit of the academy, it might be a good idea to give a couple of players a genuine chance to establish themselves in the squad. Use them as rabbits in a long distance race. They may not turn out to be great players a couple of years from now but it may reverse the trend at a failing academy. They may show other young, perhaps more talented players, that it is possible to make it. Just one successful young player can make all the difference. Just look at Mario Ballotelli at Inter. A club that hasn’t been famous in a long time for having a good youth setup gave a debut to Balotelli two years ago. The excitement builds up and by the time Santon emerged everybody at Inter were excited about him. “Wait, did he come from the same youth team as Balotelli? He must be quite good then”. Indeed he was, but he also entered the scene with full backing from the fans and pundits.
Usually one or two young players making it at a club invites a flood of other players emerging. Examples of this are the Liverpool youth teams in early to mid 1990’s, West Ham’s successful youth teams, Barcelona’s long run of success in this department etc. Man Utd’s case is rather interesting as well. After producing the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and the Neville brothers in pretty much one go, Man Utd saw the emergence of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, which in turn inspired the emergence of Jonny Evans. Now, you can’t tell me that players such as Brown, O’Shea and Evans would have ever made it had they not been a part of a previously successful academy. You can’t tell me that there is not a defender or two at a “failed” academy, like Liverpool’s, as good as those 3 Man Utd players were at the same age. So what’s going on? Why do O’Shea and Evans get the benefit of the doubt but not one young Liverpool defender does? Could it be that Alex Ferguson, having previously seen what his academy can produce, is more inclined to give a young player a break than Rafa Benitez, who doesn’t have any precedent of his youth system churning out a good, young player?
Sometimes it’s not even about making the young players feel more confident about their chances of making the first team. Sometimes it’s about the supporters instead. Building a feeling among them that when a young player is about to get the chance that he might actually be quite good and not instantly dismissed. It’s about giving supporters a few previous “positive cases” which gives them confidence for future youngsters coming through. This positive climate, in turn, gives the emerging youngster a far more comfortable platform to perform. While the pressure of being the next big thing might be a heavy burden for a youngster, at the same time all of them want to be recognised and portrayed as extraordinary talented players. Even when their talent doesn’t warrant it.
A lot of fans around Europe are crying for their club’s youth system to produce a home grown player good enough to play for the first team. They’re asking how a system that employs so many coaches and spends so much money can’t produce a player once in a while. With every barren year the confidence in the academy fails and it automatically belittles the whole organization. Hence the product that comes out of it is belittled as well, long before it’s actually assessed. Heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get the chance to be assessed because it’s either automatically dismissed or dismissed very quickly.
Having great coaches is only a small part of having a successful academy. A club can pick and choose the coaches for its academy but they’re not likely to create a much different outcome on that account. If this was the case then every club would just send a few people to copy everything a successful youth system does and that would be it. Job done. If that was the case then Ajax’s academy would produce top class players every year. Surely they’re not doing things differently on the training ground all of a sudden. Ajax is in fact a perfect example of the importance of having confidence in an academy. After many years of producing great players the club allowed the academy to ruin it’s reputation by dismissing the players that started emerging in the late 1990’s. A couple of years went by, Ajax started investing in older players from the outside and the reputation of the finest academy in the world kept declining. It has reached a point where nobody expects Ajax to produce a great player any time soon. This, at the most successful academy of all time? This, at Ajax’s academy?
Ajax let their momentum of producing young players expire and it is crucial that this doesn’t happen. There is nothing that benefits a line of any production as the momentum of successful production. Barcelona is an example of this. They give a player or two a chance every season. They come into the team with the full backing of everybody at Barcelona and they do well enough so that the next couple of players in line can get their chance the following season. Of course not every young player turns out to be the next world superstar. Some of them don’t even properly make it at Barcelona. However, they still do well enough and sometimes even better than their ability would suggest by riding the good feel of it all. This alone is worthy of another try and this is why young players are constantly being given a chance.
Building the reputation of a youth academy is a tricky project. Is it worth giving a few talented players the chance, which could harm the first team in the short run, in order to open doors for superior young players being given the benefit of the doubt in the future? You decide.