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Football Puts Too Many Obstacles in Paths of Youngsters

Football Puts Too Many Obstacles in Paths of Youngsters

Monday, 27 November, 2017 - 07:15
Manchester City’s Phil Foden with his Golden Ball trophy from the Under-17s World Cup before the match with Arsenal at the start of November. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

No offence intended, but I doubt I was alone, when José Mourinho took the job two summers ago, in wondering whether one of the more remarkable records in the business – the one that tells us a former youth-team player has been included in Manchester United’s match-day squad in every game since 1937 – would be one of the casualties.

Mourinho also seemed to sense it, judging by the way he came armed to his first press conference with a notebook featuring a list of names, colour-coded in red, blue and green, to nail “the lie” that he was somehow averse to bringing through players from academies.

Some list it was, too. Mourinho had scribbled 49 names into his notebook and was so determined to make his point he followed that up with an email where the number had gone up to 55. It was just a pity, perhaps, on closer inspection that he appeared to think Arjen Robben, Mikel John Obi, Lassana Diara, Marko Arnautovic, Raphaël Varane and Kurt Zouma were eligible – for no other reason, it seemed, than that they played for him when they were under the age of 21.

At the risk of being pedantic, Robben had made more than 100 appearances for Groningen and PSV Eindhoven, winning 10 caps for Holland and starring in Euro 2004, before Mourinho signed him for Chelsea. Carlos Alberto was also included despite playing 43 times for Fluminense and winning four Brazil caps before linking up with Mourinho at Porto. Mario Balotelli was also on the list, one of many who had made their debuts elsewhere, and when it came to the legitimate choices it turned out that 10 of the players Mourinho had cited had played fewer than 10 minutes on his watch. Only 11 of the original 49 had played 90 minutes or more and three – John Swift, Sam Hutchinson and Anthony Grant – had managed one minute each. How, Mourinho was asked, had people developed this unfair impression of him. “One lie, repeated many times,” he explained. Robert De Niro would have been proud of the acting from the top table.

It was a nice try – classic José – but perhaps those of us who doubted him might have to admit now that he is proving us wrong. Mourinho has been in the job for almost 18 months now and United’s record, stretching all the way back to Tom Manley and Jackie Wassall playing in a 1-0 defeat to Fulham in October 1937, is still intact.

Nobody else gets near and, judging by Mourinho’s comments in the last few days, that run is never going to be broken while he is in charge. “I feel it is a way to keep a certain identity of the club. To keep that identity means, basically, we should bring a new player from the academy every season. I don’t want to be the one that breaks that and I think the next United manager – it doesn’t matter when he comes – should also try not to break it.”

The manager who does, to quote one United executive, will probably be “run out of the city” and it is pleasing to hear Mourinho talk that way because, whatever your position might be when it comes to his football club, it is an incredible record to maintain.

It also made me wonder whether the people in charge at Old Trafford might ever be bold enough to formalise it as a part of the club’s statutes – “the United rule”, or something along those lines – to safeguard it in the future, too. True, perhaps it is not necessary if there is an unwritten rule that every manager should keep to the same anyway, but equally, why not make it official? It would be the first of its kind – and it would fit neatly with how United like to project themselves, as a club that nurture more young players than anywhere else.

On a similar theme, wouldn’t it be good if the Premier League might one day consider introducing a rule whereby every club did the same? Not every manager, perhaps, would embrace the idea and nobody wants a situation where a young substitute is on the bench purely for the sake of it, with absolutely zero chance of playing. But think about the good it would do, too, in these times when the biggest problem for some outstanding young talents is what is known as “the pathway” – the last part of the journey to make that jump from the various age levels into the first-team squad.

At the other Old Trafford, home of Lancashire County Cricket Club, I was at a dinner last week where Phil Foden of Manchester City was collecting a prize for being the rising star of 2017. Foden also brought the Golden Ball, the award he won as the outstanding player of the Under-17s World Cup, and to see him on stage was a reminder of his age. His tie wasn’t quite done right, he was wearing trainers with his suit and he had a request that brought an “aah” from his audience. “Can I thank my mum and dad?” he asked.

Nobody should expect him, at 17, to be a regular for a club with City’s ambitions. Not yet, anyway. But when a few of us had the chance to speak to Gareth Southgate after Brazil’s visit to Wembley the following night the England manager made the point that Foden’s biggest problem will be navigating a way past everyone else at City. Pep Guardiola already has David Silva, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gündogan and Kevin De Bruyne to operate just behind Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus. Next season Alexis Sánchez could be added to the mix, Patrick Roberts might be back from his loan at Celtic and Aleix García likewise from Girona. Foden might be supremely talented but, with that kind of competition, don’t just assume it is going to be a seamless rise.

Not just Foden, either. All the time we hear stories about talented youngsters being nurtured by the leading Premier League clubs only to be held back at the last juncture. Just look at the number of brilliant talents developed by Chelsea who tend to hit a jam when it comes to the first team. Could something be done to make that pathway a clearer route? How much of an appetite is there among the clubs to help the next generation? Or is this something that concerns Southgate, and those who care about the England team, more than it does the clubs themselves?

It is certainly worth floating if the clubs at the top of English football are serious about promoting their own. Everybody likes to see a talented young footballer come through the ranks but that process is difficult, to say the least, when those clubs have the money to buy in ready-made first-team players. It isn’t easy for the managers either, when they are under pressure for instant results, but Mourinho certainly sounded like he, for one, was happy to go this way.

The game against Newcastle United was number 3,887 on an 80-year run for Manchester United that started in the year of the first 999 call, the birth of Robert Charlton (Bobby, to his friends) and Neville Chamberlain becoming prime minister. The next best is Everton, who have done the same for 21 years, but the rest are a long way behind and it is not easy to know sometimes whether they particularly care.

FA in a spin when it comes to the truth

After everything that came out during the Mark Sampson affair, how dismal that the Football Association was still incapable of offering a credible version of the truth when it came to the latest investigation about the England Women’s regime.

Unfortunately, while the FA’s chairman, Greg Clarke, promises to rebuild trust, the evidence suggests his organisation is still going in for the same kind of half‑truths and evasion judging by the statement announcing the resignation of Lee Kendall, the goalkeeping coach.

Kendall had admitted it was true, as alleged by Eni Aluko, that he used to speak to her, a player of Nigerian descent, with a fake Caribbean accent. The FA’s investigation lasted four weeks and concluded with a recommendation that he needed to go on a diversity course. Unlike Sampson, Kendall admitted that he had done what he was accused of.

That, however, was skilfully kept out of the statement in which the FA announced it had concluded no action was necessary. In fact, anyone reading that statement would have been entitled to think Kendall was completely exonerated and the allegations had been thrown out. “We wish him well for the future,” it concluded – and, yet again, like a conjuror waving a wand, the FA had presented a version of events that was wilfully designed to keep us from knowing the facts. It was afterwards the FA had to admit the truth was something completely different.

We should be used to it by now, I suppose, and it hardly comes as a surprise when, over time, it becomes apparent the FA uses more spin than Muttiah Muralitharan. Yet the latest mangling of the truth is particularly lamentable at a time when many of us might have hoped – more fool us – that the FA had learned a thing or two from the Sampson case. Clearly not.

“We have lost the trust of the public,” Clarke said in his speech to the FA council. Yes, and it will remain lost as long as the relevant people have the same relationship with the truth as Uri Geller used to have with his cutlery.

Jack’s all right but Sunderland aren’t

Chris Coleman’s reasons for choosing Sunderland might not automatically be clear when the club have become renowned as a managerial wasteland and a team that were relegated from the Premier League last season, finishing bottom, have been in freefall ever since.

Yet don’t underestimate the size of Sunderland, when the club had the seventh-highest gate in the top division last season and are still the joint sixth most successful team, level with Chelsea, when it comes to the number of league titles.

The problem is the last one was won in 1936, whereas the lack of thinking at the modern club can probably be summed up by the fact Jack Rodwell is earning £60,000 a week at the bottom of the Championship because when he signed his contract nobody thought it worthwhile to insert a relegation clause.

Rodwell – who has started one league game and recently played at centre-half in the Checkatrade Trophy – might yet become the best‑paid player in League One and, as long as Sunderland’s owner, Ellis Short, and the club’s other executives are capable of that kind of shortsighted thinking, it is going to be difficult for Coleman to flourish at a club where so many others have failed.

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