Noel Blake

01 Apr 2011


England U19s coach Noel Blake on the need for a change in attitude to youth development

The make-up of the German squad in last year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa was no shock to those of us who have an interest in the development of young players. Five products of Bayern Munich’s youth set-up – Holger Badsturber, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Toni Kloos and Thomas Müller – all played their part as Germany came within a whisker of reaching yet another final.

Bayern like to give their youngsters the opportunity to play in their first team, but then so do many of their rivals. The number of players aged 21 and under playing in the Bundesliga has more than doubled in the past ten years (from 32 to 76) as German clubs take a greater interest in their home-grown talent, giving them the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do before looking to sign a foreign player. This policy doesn’t just make financial sense, it also has clear sporting benefits for both clubs and country.

So why is it that many clubs in the Barclays Premier League are not prepared to follow the Bundesliga’s example and give more youngsters a chance to break through?

There are, of course, a number of reasons for this, but I believe that the Barclays Premier League’s financial reward structure (where the prize money increases significantly for each position in the table) is a major factor. Some years ago, if a club wasn’t in relegation trouble, couldn’t get into Europe or wasn’t chasing a title towards the end of the season, the management would take the opportunity to have a look at a few of their younger players. Now that every point is so important, this is no longer the case, which means that most clubs miss out on a great opportunity to assess the future generation of home-grown talent.

With so many of the top-flight clubs now reluctant to give youth a chance, many talented players have to drop down to the lower leagues to launch their careers. If clubs are reluctant to ‘blood’ young players, then they will find it difficult to attract youth players to the club in the long term.

But the problem isn’t only with the clubs. Young players (along with their parents and agents) must also take some responsibility. Managers constantly question the attitude, application and dedication of today’s young players. Too many like the idea of being a footballer – and the money, glamour and status that goes with it – but they don’t really have the application to earn it. Players should get back to playing the game because they love it, not because of the potential trappings. They have to change the negative views that so many respected managers and coaches have of them.

The likes of Jack Rodwell, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere are now appearing regularly in the Barclays Premier League. These players were given the opportunity because they have the right attitude, dedication and application to go with their undoubted talent.

And there are encouraging signs that things may be changing. Earlier this season I watched the derby between two of my former clubs, Birmingham City and Aston Villa. There were nine players on the pitch who had graduated from the academies (seven from Villa and two from Birmingham). These young men didn’t just have talent, they also had clubs and managers who believed in them. They’re not alone either; the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers and Everton have also demonstrated a willingness to give young players an opportunity at senior level. We now need more top-flight clubs to follow that trend.

The shortage of young English players playing in first teams should be a concern for all of us in the game, and unless we try to do something about it we will continue to see the likes of Germany and Spain flourishing at all international levels at our expense. It’s no use burying our heads in the sand and saying that the players are not good enough unless we give them the opportunity to prove otherwise.

I genuinely believe that there are some real young talent in this country, but they have to earn the right to showcase their talent, while clubs need to give them the stage on which they can flourish.