Elite Youth Soccer Problems In England

The English Premier League is a remarkable success story. By the late 1980s, English soccer lay in the doldrums--stadiums were crumbling, attendances were down, and the success of other European leagues drew players away from England. Top clubs reacted to the problem by forming a breakaway league able to negotiate better television deals and sponsorship contracts for itself. In 1992, the Premier League formed, new money poured in, and a monster was born.

The EPL--as it is known in the United States--has the largest global television audience of any league in the world. Any league, that is, in any sport, anywhere on Earth. The EPL contains eight of the top twenty richest clubs in world soccer, has some of the most successful teams in European competitions, and provides a home for many of the world’s great players, like Andriy Shevchenko, Thierry Henry and Steven Gerrard.

Yet all is not well with English soccer. Despite the success of the EPL, English fans are left with a nagging concern, a concern that has formed the basis of untold hours of television punditry and mile upon mile of column inches. It is this: though the list of stellar names playing in the EPL is long, the fans are disturbed by how few of those names are English.

The skill of foreign players contributes greatly to the success of the EPL, but the concern of fans is justified because fewer English stars mean a poorer England team. By comparison to the success of club teams in the EPL, the English national team has under-performed for many years, winning nothing since the World Cup in 1966. England’s failure in prestigious tournaments has been a painful experience for many, made worse by seeing the prize go to rivals like Germany and France.

Consequently, experts from the Football Association (FA)--the governing body of English soccer--have scrutinized the English soccer system over the past ten years. The FA’s technical bodies have tried to understand why the best young English players do not perform to the standard of the best young players in other leading European countries--notably France, Spain, and Italy. With a constricted supply of elite young players, the England team is unlikely to improve.

The results of the FA’s investigation are summarised in a key document titled the Charter for Quality. The charter sets out a number of areas in which the English youth system has under-performed by comparison to similar systems abroad, and where it can, it suggests methods of improvement. This article explores six of those areas, each one containing useful information for those who also seek improvements in U.S. soccer.

Solution #1--More Practice, Fewer Games

First, the charter states that young gifted players in England are exposed to too much competitive soccer and too little practice time. Because insufficient time is spent on practicing soccer techniques--from basic ball control and passing, to more sophisticated concepts like tactical formation--competitive matches are a negative influence rather than a positive one on player development. Without enough attention given to correction, a player’s faults become further ingrained the more competitive matches he or she plays, making the corrective process harder and less likely to succeed.

The exaggerated emphasis on competitive matches in English soccer stems from a variety of causes that elite youth development in the United States would do well to avoid. Standout causes are long seasons spent in large leagues with too many teams, an archaic belief that practice has limited use because it bores young players and it is inferior to real competition and a commitment to a style of play that emphasises physical power and a high incident count, only found in competitive matches.

To encourage greater practice time, the FA took a positive step by restructuring its Academy Leagues, the competitive environment for the elite youth teams of professional clubs. By increasing the number of leagues at all age levels, the FA reduced the number of teams playing in any one league to ten, thereby reducing the length of the competitive season. Further, the FA made games played within the under-sixteen age group non-competitive. With no trophies to win, the FA is hopeful that coaches will begin to focus less on winning matches and more on improving individual ability.

Solution #2--Improved Youth Coaching

The second important issue identified in the Charter of Quality draws attention to the fact that youth coaching in England has not kept pace with improving standards of coaching elsewhere in Europe. The cause of the demise can be summarised in one word: insularity. English soccer once provided the world with the best model for coaching young players, but it has stuck to that model for too long. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, England failed to learn from new and exciting coaching techniques developed in other, more progressive countries; one can only assume it was a failure born of arrogance.

The EPL has brought hope upon the coaching horizon since transforming English soccer at the top level in the 1990s. As well as attracting star players, the EPL has attracted outstanding foreign coaches, such as Arsene Wenger from France, Jose Mourinho from Portugal and Rafael Benitez from Spain. The coaching techniques they brought benefited many of the English players, players who were products of England’s moribund youth system. Former England captain Tony Adams said his manager, Arsene Wenger, “added years” to his career through changes to dietary and training routines.

However, insularity has remained a divisive issue since formation of the EPL, albeit insularity of a different kind. Clubs have been slow to share new knowledge with their own youth coaches, and with coaches of teams unable to pay the wages of top foreign experts. Soccer clubs are disparate entities; they show great variance in financial resources, training ethos and commitment to youth development. Across-the-board improvement in day-to-day coaching of elite young players is still a work in progress.

U.S. soccer will benefit from studying the mistakes made by England’s coaching system, just as much as it will benefit from studying the success of systems in France, Spain or Italy. For example, based on flaws in the English system, U.S. soccer knows it must continue to embrace foreign influence on coaching practices, no matter how successful its domestic teams become in the future. Furthermore, when coaching practices work here as well as they do abroad, U.S. soccer must ensure that those practices are disseminated widely. By doing so, the United States will continue to develop home grown soccer stars.

Solution #3—Development of The Whole Person, Not Just The Athlete

The third problem highlighted by the FA’s Charter of Quality concerns the isolation of technical development from players’ overall education and social welfare. A rounded education will benefit any young player who faces the possibility of missing out at the professional level--most do--and such education is the traditional “something to fall back on.”

However, soccer clubs have cared little about players who do not make the grade, and they have viewed a player’s safety net as being his or her responsibility. Their view is mistaken because an investment made in the education and welfare of young players will benefit clubs in the long run, as well as benefiting English soccer as a whole. The FA rightly views the underdeveloped role of soccer clubs in education as an important issue to tackle.

Socially balanced and educated players who have missed out on a professional playing career form an excellent target-intake group for coaching. English soccer has seen too many players with a good grounding in the demands of soccer drift out of the sport into other--often poorly paid--occupations, because those players had little information about, or were simply not bright enough to succeed in, alternative employment routes in soccer.

Investment in education and social welfare will also benefit those players who do make the grade, and the clubs that employ them, because a balanced individual is more likely to steer clear of the pitfalls that accompany instant stardom. George Best, Paul Gascoigne and Rodney Marsh each possessed a brilliant soccer brain, the best of their generation in England, but each ruined his career through poor decision-making and worse, alcoholism. All three players have publicly stated that with better smarts, they would not have made the mistakes they did. It is the duty of all soccer teams, in England, in the United States and elsewhere, to provide young players with those smarts.

Solution #4--Improved Parental Communication

The fourth problem highlighted by the FA’s Charter of Quality is closely tied to the third because it stresses the need for improvement in communication among a young player’s club, family and school. Good communication helps to create the best supportive environment for a young player’s career and personal development. If one holds the need for education as a self-evident truth, then the need for good communication must surely follow.

Solutions #5-6--Improved Training Facilities and Medical Care

For brevity, the final two key issues--the fifth and sixth--will be outlined simply. The fifth concerns the state of training facilities available to young players, and the sixth concerns the state of players’ medical care. While vast improvements have been made to both areas at the adult professional level, at youth level there has been under-investment and consequently stagnation. Much greater financial investment, followed by better knowledge sharing, will be required to properly address this imbalance.

U.S. sport in general maintains a high standard of investment in training facilities and medical care for elite young sports men and women, and so it is likely the United States has little to learn from the improvement process required of English soccer. The issue that U.S. soccer faces is extending to soccer the finances and medical knowledge available to the elite youth of more established team sports. If MLS soccer stadiums are anything to go by, developing dedicated--and not borrowed--soccer facilities will be the first step to take.

The Charter for Quality is a necessary reference for anyone analysing faults in elite youth development in England. With better maintenance of the successes England achieved during the first half of the last century, the Charter for Quality would not have become such required reading. Only a reinvigorated Premier League has given England the chance to regain its standing as a hotbed for young elite talent. As soccer grows in the United States, the tough lessons learned by England should be duly noted.

Jamie Gletherow, a.k.a. Chopper, is a freelance writer, outdoor enthusiast, native Londoner and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jamie.gletherow@gmail.com.