South­gate may have put his faith in youth, but the route to the top has never been harder

Daily Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - ROBBIE SAVAGE -

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?

Hardly any.

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?

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