Love of money is at the root of all evil for promising young players in England
Some fathers of talented footballing offspring retire when their sons reach 15, receiving contracts worth up to £10,000 a week.
The father does not even need the son’s largesse as certain agents discreetly put parents on the payroll, provide them with cars or generous expenses simply for looking after the “asset”.
English kids can be cash cows for parents, some of whom are dazzled by the money and do not always make decisions in the player’s best long-term interests.
The same disease can afflict friends. One reasonably celebrated English prospect has just asked for a Range Rover even though he cannot drive; it is for a member of his “entourage”. Are these friends helping this teenager, who has the potential to represent England, to be the best professional he can be? Is there too much “Hollywood” inhibiting England’s future stars, turning contenders into pretenders?
For all the criticism, many elements of the Premier League Academy system are commendable and constructive, particularly the increased contact time with better-paid, better-qualified coaches. The technical levels of many of those emerging from the system is adequate. What is patently wrong is the culture; money distracts, not only some of the players, but those around them, kith and kin. Responsibility is shirked.
Many of the parents are marvellous, making huge sacrifices, endlessly driving their sons to training and games, consoling and encouraging, and urging them to pick the right agent and the right club. Don’t chase the money. Hunt the opportunity, seize it, and the revenue will flow inexorably.
Many English youngsters and their parents are a credit to the game. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have intelligent parents – their fathers were respectively ex-pro and ex-RAF – who took a judicious approach to their careers. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott themselves take responsibility on and off the pitch. They care about their professions.
Others can lose their edge at the first contract, becoming the latest members of the “too much, too young” culture. At the weekend, Brendan Rodgers made more sense about player-development travails in a few well-chosen words than the Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, did in his 82-page commission report.
Dyke suggested B teams as the main solution to address the shortage of English players in the Premier League, a huge problem for the national team manager, Roy Hodgson. Rodgers questioned the hunger of some involved in the luxury academy system.
“When you reward young players too quickly, you give them too much and too early, then that will be their downfall,’’ said the Liverpool manager. “It’s a big problem with British players. The reward is no longer there and they lose their hunger. Their mind comes off where their focus should be, which is football. Our young players get carried away, then they wonder why their careers fall away.’’
Stories of teenagers being given multi-million-pound contracts before their first-team debuts are legion. During an FA Youth Cup tie last season, one defender taunted the opposing striker with, “I’m on 30k a week”. He is nowhere near the first team.
Clubs fear losing a starlet to a rival if they do not pay up, or if they pursue the sensible option of making the deal performance-related. During tense contract negotiations, one academy teenager brazenly informed the first-team manager of a North West club, a noted figure in the game, that unless the club met his demands he was off to a London club. He was 16 at the time and his career has since been wasted.
Under Premier League rules, parents of academy players have to sign an agreement to “not approach or permit any other person to approach any other club during the currency of this registration except as allowed under the rules governing academies” but it happens.
Money does not shout in football. It screams and many parents follow the siren’s lure.
Germany’s World Cup success has intensified English deliberations about how to deepen the talent pool. Joachim Löw was able to call upon strong characters, individuals who would not melt in the crucible of the toughest competition. Germany’s education system helps; their young players spend more time in academia than their English counterparts.
They grow as people so that when the major challenges come their way, as in Brazil, they do not flinch. England’s players, almost programmed not to take responsibility, go into their shells in tournaments. English kids have money; Germany’s have money – and medals.
The Premier League disputes frequent claims that its well-funded academy system fails to produce responsibility-takers. In signing up to the code of conduct, aspiring professionals agree to “follow a lifestyle appropriate to development – spending leisure time positively; eating, drinking, relaxing and sleeping sensibly … behave with self-discipline”. Not all do.
One gifted English teenager enjoys forays into fast-food establishments. It is unprofessional but who is advising him? Increased player movement can mean that the old pro of the dressing room, the senior statesman prepared to give wise counsel to a youngster, is less prevalent.
When Steven Gerrard endured an angry period in his early Liverpool days, leaping into tackles and getting sent off, Gary McAllister had a quiet word. Gerrard listened, learnt and showed more subtlety in his ball-winning duties.
English football needs to stop mollycoddling these kids. The media is partly culpable, often being too gushing, building them up, lauding style over substance. The FA is guilty. On England duty, players face the press accompanied by an FA babysitter.
The FA argues that this minder practice is at the clubs’ request to protect their player but they have to be treated as adults. If that means dealing with occasional awkward questions then it is character-building. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott handle any inquisitions adeptly. They take responsibility and that is why the Arsenal pair are central to England’s future hopes.
Players and their parents have to take more responsibility. The captain of Manchester City, Vincent Kompany, argues that young English players need to go abroad at 18 or 19 if they find the pathway blocked, becoming better people as well as well better players.
All at Chelsea will be hoping that Josh McEachran develops during his loan period at Vitesse Arnhem, announced yesterday. Given a chance by Carlo Ancelotti in 2010, and a handsome hike in wages, McEachran never really seized the opportunity. Wilfried Zaha is another potential thoroughbred who has not trained on. Unless the culture changes, England will remain the land of wasted opportunity.