Howard Wilkinson, the architect of English football’s modern youth development programme, has called for the system to be reviewed and overhauled, accusing the top clubs of failing in their “moral responsibility” to give young players opportunities. Wilkinson, who as the Football Association’s technical director in 1997 designed the current system, in which 12,000 boys are being trained by clubs from the age of eight, said he recognises that the very high release rate causes mental health difficulties to some, which can endure for years.
“What is needed is a serious reasoned review and a commitment from the whole game to commit to the implementation of recommendations which are designed to give these boys a morally deserved crack of the whip,” Wilkinson said. “Change has to come from the top.”
Wilkinson was responding to the Guardian’s report that highlighted depression and other mental health problems suffered by young men in academies, and particularly after they are released. One 2012 academic study of scholars, the smaller elite groups taken on full-time into clubs’ academies aged 16 to 18, found that 99% did not progress to have professional football careers.
Premier League and Football League clubs recruit dozens of young boys locally and nationally, many running development centres even for five- and six-year-olds, yet first-team managers often have little commitment to playing them, clubs preferring instead to sign ready-made overseas stars. Wilkinson cited as exceptions Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton, whose youth development systems are run by the former senior FA coaches John McDermott and Les Reed respectively, and operate more of a policy than most clubs to field young English players.
“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,” said Wilkinson, who published his blueprint for the system, the FA’s Charter for Quality, 20 years ago this month.
“The facilities of academies are second to none; the ingredients are fantastic. One huge problem is the lack of opportunity. 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. For me, football also has that same responsibility. Lack of opportunity is a very serious problem, which can affect the boy long term and is already affecting the senior England team.”
Referring to the hundreds of boys released every year, Wilkinson said: “These are young people and many are not getting what they have been promised and a number naturally feel genuinely let down. They are adolescents, some can and do become depressed.
“There clearly isn’t the commitment to playing the players. The fault just isn’t taking too many boys in; it’s clubs not really committing to giving them the opportunity.”
Wilkinson’s charter, which gave professional clubs unprecedented involvement with children from very young ages, aimed to improve the quality of youth coaching, facilities and development, and prevent boys being overplayed by their schools and clubs. A year earlier an England team whose players had come through the old schools system, and mostly started senior careers at lower-division and non-league clubs, reached the semi-final of the 1996 European Championship. No full England team since the academy system was introduced have reached a similar stage of any international tournament and Wilkinson argues that the current manager, Gareth Southgate, lacks sufficient players for a strong squad.
“Research shows that to have a successful national team, a country needs a group of around 50 players with high‑level, including latter-round Champions League, experience, capable of playing in the team. England does not have that number of players who have been given the opportunity to go on and develop.”
In 2012 the Premier League drove through a series of improvements to Wilkinson’s blueprint, the Elite Player Performance Plan, and has persistently rejected arguments that its clubs’ reliance on overseas stars has undermined the England team. The former FA chairman Greg Dyke held a review into the issue, vowing to investigate whether the lack of opportunities for English players is partly because of top clubs being owned by overseas investors who have too little commitment to the national team. His review ultimately failed even to mention that proposition and its recommendation for a new lower division in which Premier League clubs could play B teams was widely ridiculed and later dropped.
Wilkinson said a thorough review is needed. “It seems the FA and leagues are choosing to ignore the facts; do people care about a strong England team? People [at the FA and leagues] should care; their success has come off the back of the English game, its history and heritage. Germany has shown that World Cups and Champions League success can be achieved through looking after their own.”
The Guardian Sport