Southgate may have put his faith in youth, but the route to the top has never been harder
GARETH SOUTHGATE may have put the accent on youth in his England squad – but the pathway from academy to Premier League football has never been harder.
Only 30 per cent of players in Premier League squads are qualified to play for England,.
The system for cultivating promising youngsters and turning them into top-flight stars has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years – and not always for the better.
Growing up, my generation would practise on concrete in the back streets, using garage doors or the health centre walls as goals, and taking on the older boys in the neighbourhood taught me to be humble.
But above all, I had a hunger to succeed – a real desire nurtured by playing with my mates for fun.
So when I joined Manchester United’s Class of ‘92 as a £29.50-aweek apprentice, I didn’t mind cleaning the showers, sweeping dressing-room floors and polishing first-team players’ boots because it kept me grounded.
And when Sir Alex Ferguson released me, because I wasn’t at the same standard as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt or the Neville brothers, I was not too proud to drop down a couple of levels and reboot my career at Crewe.
But academy life has changed beyond all recognition now. Where my parents were just happy for me to follow my dream of playing football, families and agents are usually involved these days.
And instead of working their way to the top, many of them want the glamour NOW – money talks, and clubs are prepared to pay over the odds to make sure they land the best young talent.
For me, that’s not necessarily a great environment for developing young players on the pitch. They feel like they have arrived in the big time – but it’s a real Catch 22 for clubs.
Tim Sherwood (left), who was Blackburn Rovers’ captain when they won the title in 1995, said on my Saturday Morning Savage show last weekend that he
would not have made it to the top of the Premier League if he had been starting out today. How many 18-yearolds at Premier League clubs get the bus to work every morning?
How many of them have ever cleaned the toilets, or washed their own training kit?
How many of them would be able to bounce back if they were rejected at 16, 17 or 18 by their club and the only alternatives were in League Two or at nonleague level? At the top end, the pathway from academy to first team has never been more difficult for home-grown youngsters.
Some of them may be on £10,000 a week or more after being handed their first professional contracts, but that financial security makes them believe that they are closer to the first team than they really are.
Southgate’s latest England squad may have a pronounced accent on youth, with the likes of Phil Foden (below) and Jadon Sancho gaining valuable exposure to the Under-21 and senior international set-up, but how many 18-year-olds are regular starters in the Premier League this season?
Foden is a great prospect, but is he going to get in Manchester City’s starting XI ahead of Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, David Silva and Bernardo Silva?
With every club in the top flight guaranteed at least £100million of TV cash, every 25-man squad has a contingent of big-money signings, mainly imports.
Owners and chairmen prefer to buy in talent as investments against relegation at one end of the table, or to attain European football at the top end. The path to first-team action is not just blocked by expensive signings on the pitch and on the bench – there are £50,000-a-week players sitting in the stands as well.
When there’s £100m a year riding on survival, managers are reluctant to gamble by throwing kids into the side.
You’ve got to have a lad as exciting as Wayne Rooney, back in 2002 at Everton, to play him every week.
And when you do find a young jewel, like Marcus Rashford at Manchester United, we have to give them a chance to learn their craft and not be too critical of them as they strive for consistency.
The average age of starters in the Premier League is going up. It’s getting harder for youngsters to break into first teams.
Consider these two frightening facts:
Less than one per cent of players who are registered, in any age bracket, at football clubs go on to make their debut at professional level.
And 75 per cent of those who sign as professionals are no longer in the game by the time they are 21.
For youngsters at the crossroads, it has never been more important to be wellprepared for the outcome.
And the academy system needs to produce kids who are humble, grounded and equipped to survive at all levels from the Premier League to the National League.
I fear that is not the case.
Tim Sherwood said he would not have made it to the top of the Premier League if he had been starting out today. Is Phil Foden going to get into Manchester City’s starting team ahead of De Bruyne, Fernandinho, David Silva and Bernardo Silva?