“When his heart was lifted up, and his spirit was hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him.” Daniel 5:20, the King James Bible
“Working hard all your life is a talent.” Ryan Giggs
Greg Dyke last week issued the second instalment of his Football Association Chairman’s Commission report and there were a number of welcome developments contained within.
First of all it seemed to lay to rest the appalling, interventionist notion of creating a fifth professional tier of English football for ‘B’ teams comprising young players from the biggest English clubs. Another good development was that it set a number of important targets for the FA itself to achieve. These are as follows:
· To recruit 25 more full-time coach educators at the FA
· To increase the number of Youth Award Level 3 coaches from 800 to 3,000 and the number of Advanced Youth Award coaches from 200 to 750
· To raise the number of Pro Licence holders from around 200 to 300
· To increase the number of coaches from among women and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds
· And to improve the provision of football facilities across England
All of these targets should be achieved by 2020. Although the targets themselves beg questions about exactly what Sir Trevor Brooking was doing during a decade-long tenure as director of football development – a post he mercifully vacated this summer – such questions about past provision of coaching for a lost generation are now futile.
What the Commission report did tell us about the past that is of value to the future, however, was just what has been happening to the current generation of 18- to 21-year-olds unable to get a game at the clubs who hold their primary registration. Many are sent out on loan elsewhere in search of the regular football that is impossible to obtain at the clubs where they play.
The report explained: “Fewer youth players on loan gain the benefits from playing regularly than is desirable or perceived: only 42 players, one in five of the 201 Premier League players under 21 going on loan in 2013-14, started 20 or more games. 79 players started five games or less.
“We believe that without exploration of how to improve this, young elite players will continue to achieve less competitive play in the critical 18-21 period than they should. We would encourage clubs and leagues to join an open debate about the objectives and outcomes of loans for young players.”
Here the experience of those on the ground is vital, and from what they have to say it seems the problem is going to be very intractable indeed. For this problem appears not to be one that can be solved by the English game’s money. Indeed it is the effect that money itself is having on these young men that appears to be the root cause.
Last week I had the privilege of moderating a session at the ever-excellent Leaders Sport Business Summit held at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground. One of the themes that emerged from the conversation was that young players are given too much, too young.
Sean Dyche, the highly impressive manager of the Premier League’s most modestly endowed club, Burnley, was a panellist. He had guided his team into the top division last season despite their having a wage bill in the lowest quartile of Championship clubs.
He spoke strongly about success being founded on a set of values within a club, about spirit and about self-belief and also about how a team must be hungry to better itself. But what stood out was his genuine concern for the wellbeing of the players and of the game that lavishes obscene riches on young men for whom all the wealth comes much too easily.
“It’s getting confusing for the young players now,” he said. “Some of them are out-earning players who have had great careers but before they’ve even hardly kicked a ball. Because they’re all being paid on what might happen, not what is happening.
“It is affecting the young-player development programmes at a lot of the big clubs now.”
Dyche’s sentiments were echoed by his fellow panellists, the Chelsea goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, the Basel manager Paulo Sousa and even the agent Paul Stretford – who might have been excused for speaking up in favour of a practice that would be in his sector of the industry’s interest. The sentiment has begun to take hold in English football in particular.
In an interview with Chris Brady, the director of the Centre for Sports Business at the University of Salford, Ryan Giggs, English football’s most successful ever player, spoke of his concerns for those who embody the game’s future. “The problem with many young players is that they expect, and get, rewards before they have really achieved anything,” said Giggs in an interview excerpted on LeadersConsulting.com.
“In my day I was told that rewards would come as a result of consistent performances over time. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great kids out there; I just don’t think there’s the hunger in young players in enough numbers as there was 20 years ago – I don’t just think that, I know it.
“Because they’re getting the money early on and they’re getting cosseted, the hunger goes quite quickly.”
Both Dyche and Schwarzer explained how many young players at top clubs are given the opportunity in their early twenties to move clubs. At the new team they should have more opportunity to play and improve themselves as footballers. But all too often they decline, the incentive extinguished by the prospect of receiving a better salary for doing less at their current club. Indeed the FA statistics cited above show that even those who do move do not fulfil the potential of their talent. This seems to be down to these players’ arrested emotional development.
“There’s a kid at Fulham I see there and he never smiles,” said Schwarzer. “So one day I said to him, come on, look at what you’ve got – you’re playing football for a living – at least be happy about it. The kid laughed and then, as soon as he walked off, the smile disappeared and the same joyless expression came back.”
This haughtiness is never productive in any walk of life, a fact the Old Testament taught when making Pride one of the seven deadly sins. What is fatal about it in football is how it wilts the blossom of young careers. The kids seem to think that having won that seven-figure-a-year annual contract, they have won in life, although that life will have 60 years and more still to run.
Here the challenge for the FA and the clubs is one of communication, of education. Players must learn that though they may now afford to buy the latest top-spec car, the money will burn as fast as tyre rubber if their top-division careers end aged 23.
Only by winning on a daily basis will young players win in their careers. And only by fostering winners will the England team ever return to its former success. But it is not for fusty old men like me or Dyke to tell them. It will take respected players like Ryan Giggs to convey that message successfully, just as he did to Leaders Consulting.
“Winners are people who will go to the edge to make sure that you win the game; and that includes in the week as well, in training,” he said. “They would kick their teammates; they would do whatever it took. It would ruin their day if they lost a 5-a-side game; it really means that much to them.”
And those who think their talent so great that one day the rewards Giggs enjoyed will naturally come their way should pay heed to the words of the man himself: “Working hard all your life is a talent.”
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him email@example.com.