Imagine a secondary school for 11-18 year olds. They exam all the 11 year olds and only take the cleverest children. They do not make a commitment to teach the children until they are 18, rather they replace the children with others if they find someone else who is cleverer. In fact they have a whole national scouting network who search full-time for children who are cleverer than those they already have. Unsurprisingly in this school it is very rare for a child to be schooled from age 11 all the way to age 18. In all likelihood, at some point, the same system that welcomed the clever children when they were 11 will spit them out again before they are 18.

Leaving aside whether this kind of schooling is morally or ethically correct, here are three questions to ponder about the development of children within it:

  1. How would a child in this kind of school environment feel? Would they be scared of making mistakes, for example? Does this affect their development?
  2. What happens to those children who are pushed out to make way for the cleverer children? Is there a way back in for them, and who picks up the pieces when they are shown the door?
  3. This school system is designed to end up with the best 18 year olds possible, and hopefully a better group of 18 year olds than at other schools. Is this because they are the best at schooling children (i.e. they have developed the best coaches and teaching possible), or because they have the most extensive and expensive scouting network (i.e. they 'steal' clever children from other schools)?

Football Academies – a brief background

Most professional clubs have a programme for youth players, and this is commonly known as an Academy (or sometimes a School of Excellence). Most Premier League Academies select children from nine years of age and selection is reviewed annually. From the under-12 age group onwards, children at club Academies will typically sign for two year periods. Before age nine, clubs have pre-Academies and/or Development Centres catering for the younger age group (known as the Foundation phase).

Academies grew in importance in the late 1990s when the FA document ‘Charter for Quality’ (produced by Howard Wilkinson in 1997) overhauled youth development. This document recommended removing good, young players from representative school and youth club football and establishing academies at professional clubs.

More recently, in 2011, the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was established and agreed on by football clubs. Among several key changes to the way the Academy system works, club Academies were categorised into a tier system with Category 1 being the most important and powerful. Changes in EPPP removed geographic restrictions to scouting and recruitment of young children and meant that Category 1 clubs could seek talented youth from anywhere in the country. In addition, the clubs would have to pay only a limited compensation to the club they take the young player from.

In girls’ football, the FA run Centre of Excellences which are usually attached to a women’s team and cater for the most-promising children in u10, u12, u14 and u16 age groups. These Centres are not categorised into tiers.

Sources and related pages for further reading: 

“I watch academy games and I see humdrum stuff all the time. I don’t see anything exciting or exceptional” - Alex Ferguson

What do Academies try to do?

All Academies have a vision and objectives and usually an extensive delivery programme through which they aim to achieve their vision and objectives. Here are a few of the objectives of some of the top European academies:

  • Ajax: To have 3 players make it to the first team every 2 seasons
  • Arsenal: To produce first team players
  • Barcelona: Senior squad to consist of players from the Academy
  • Inter Milan: Two players each year from Academy to first-team selection

You will see that the main goal of club Academies is to produce their own players for the senior team. Player development is the key driver at Academies, partly because developing their own players is usually cheaper than buying in quality from elsewhere, but also because selling senior players can generate huge incomes:

  • 50% of the clubs define as an objective for the youth academy, “to create economic added value”
  • 60% of the clubs consider their youth academy as a source of income, rather than a cost

[Source: European Club Association, Report on Youth Academies, 2012]

Are Academies successful?

We need to look at the aims of the clubs as two-fold: one being the supply of first-team players from the Academy and the other being the income the Academy generates.

Looking at the first aim, some Academies are hugely more effective than others: In 2013, the clubs with the most 'home-grown' players currently starring in the first team squad were all Spanish: Athletic Bilbao (16). Barcelona and Real Sociedad (14 each). Clearly for these clubs the Academies have been a success. Yet, this is not normal. In most top English clubs, it is an increasingly rare treat for a local talent to graduate from the Academy to the first team. This is shown in the statistics on foreign players in first teams: two-thirds of players in Premier League squads are non-English.

[Sources: Daily Mail, Which Eurpean Club features the most homegrown talent? March 2013 & BBC, State of the Game finds Premier League a third English, 2014]

For the second aim - for the biggest clubs in Europe - Academies are cheap to run in comparison to the potential multi-million sales of the talents they develop. The quote below refers to the Ajax academy and highlights how a successful Academy can benefit financially from developing players like Wesley Sneijder and selling them on:

"Late one afternoon in the cafe at De Toekomst, I was talking with a coach, Patrick Landru, who works with the academy’s youngest age groups, when he asked if he could take my writing pad for a moment. I handed it over, and he put down five names, then drew a bracket to their right. Outside the bracket, he wrote, “80 million euros.” The names represented five active “Ajax educated” players, as he called them, all of whom entered the academy as children, made it through without being sent away and emerged as world-class players. Eighty million euros (or even more) is what Ajax got in return for selling the rights to the players to other professional clubs."

[Source: New York Times: How a Soccer Star is Made, 2010]

However, there is another essential aspect of reviewing the success of Academies, and it is much harder to assess: Whether they work for the children they bring in. In particular... 

... What overall impact do Academies have on the children they select?

There are several retrospective studies looking at professional footballers and at what ages they joined their club Academy. These kind of studies examine those who have 'made it' and look back at their journey. For example, we know that in the best European academies, on average a quarter of the first team squad have spent three years or more at the club Academy.

[Source: European Club Association, Report on Youth Academies, 2012]

However, there are very limited statistics and research available from longitudinal studies which take a cohort of Academy players at age 12 (for example) and follow them along their career path to find out what happens to them. It would be very interesting to know what happens to those children selected at young ages, and we could learn a lot about how the system operates and how we could improve it. We know that for a nine year old signed to an academy, the chance of making it to professional football is 1 in 200 (see statistics below). But what actually happens to the other 199 in the 200? Where do they get left, and with what consequence? What did they 'lack'? What do they go on to do?

In terms of numbers, here is what I have found out from the limited resources I have been able to find:

  • There are approximately 9000-10,000 boys attending professional club Academies and Schools of Excellence in England [Source: Telegraph, 2009Guardian, 2009]
  • Approximately 700 of these players are released each summer by their clubs. [Source: BBC, 2014]
  • Of those entering the game aged 16, two years down the line, 50% will be outside professional football. If we look at the same cohort at 21, the attrition rate is 75% or above. [Source: BBC, 2014]
  • Just 1% of players currently in the system will ultimately play football for a living.[Source: Guardian, 2009]
  • One in 200 children who sign for an Academy at age 9 will make it to professional football [Source: Guardian, 2015]

What do these statistics tell us? For me, there is an strong message in these numbers, and that message is clear: We can't predict future ability.

We can't predict future ability. We can’t predict future ability. We can’t predict future ability.

Acheivement in adult football depends on the development of so many different abilities: Of course, players need to be able to control and move themselves and a ball in a variety of ways. Although these technical skills can be very evident at primary school ages, it is absolutely possible for the best child in the primary school playground to be overtaken in the teenage years. Football players also need to rely on being physically able to perform as an adult, and this means they need to get through the teenage years of massive physical change while retaining their comparative speed, strength and co-ordination. They also need the drive, self-mindedness and motivation to live healthily, keep practising and not give in to the temptations of what may seem like a more exciting teenage party lifestyle. In addition - to perform at the very highest levels - they also need to thrive on pressure, take knockbacks, and perhaps also rely on a bit of luck too. At young ages we may see an exciting technical footballer, but how can we possibly say what they will be like as an adult?

The graph below was drawn by an experienced FA coach and describes how he perceives the relative footballing ability of the children in the team he has taken for the past 10 years. As you can see - relative to each other - there are huge changes in the children's learning, growth and performance over time. If we were to pick a child for an academy at age nine or 12 we would choose Bob, but if we were to wait till we know more about them we might think Dec or Ellie were better options. (What more might we know about them if we waited till they were aged 18 before choosing which to select?)

If we could predict what children would be able to achieve in football, then Academies would have a much more effective identification and selection process than the stats (above) tell us. All we can say about a brilliant nine year old footballer, is that they are a brilliant nine year footballer.

Even at older youth ages, it is very tricky to know what the adult player will look like. The huge attrition rates at older ages in the stats (above) tell us that the late teens and early 20s are a time of huge change. Gareth Bale is a good example of someone aged early 20s who was nearly sold on from Spurs for a relative pittance when suddenly he begun a meteoric rise to top level Champions League football.

The graphic here provides another example: Jamie Vardy.

In conclusion, it seems to me, that English academies are not successful at developing the children they select. Certainly given the huge talent pool they have to choose from, and the massive time, effort, resource and money that is spent in the academy system, the limited supply of top English players that clubs are collectively producing is evidence that the system does not work. 

This passage is taken from Chris Green's book 'Every Boy's Dream', which examines academies and what they offer for youngsters. There is an excellent interview with Chris Green at Just Football here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

I initially starting writing this blog as a resource for parents of Ministry of Football children who had been asked to come and train at development centres or academies at professional clubs. I think the take home message from the stats is that - in all likelihood - the same system that welcomes your child (and you) when they are a young, precocious, uninhibited, fearless, pre-growth-spurt boy is the same system that will break their heart (and yours) when they are told they are no longer required. I think it is best to know this in advance, and be prepared for it.

No parent I know so far has declined an offer from a professional club to come and join one of their centres. How could they really? I wouldn't either. But it helps massively to understand that the huge commitment you will make as a parent, taxi service, etc, your loyalty, and the considerable effect that has on your family life and family time, will not count for much when your child is replaced by someone bigger, stronger, cleverer or faster. Enjoy it while you can!

The perfect gift for the primary school teacher in your life

From Mark Carter, the director of Ministry of Football... a brilliant book for primary school teachers

A Year of Primary PE: 110 games to support whole child development from September to July

"This book is a must-have for every primary school. Mark’s passion for PE, grounded in experience, shines through and he offers an alternative approach that focuses on the holistic development of each learner, as well as developing physical skills. Every activity is carefully planned, tried and tested, engaging and purposeful."

- Sarah Watkins, author & teacher

Selection to academies

We had a scout come to MoF recently from a top Premier League academy. He did what scouts usually do, and sat on the side and watched. I wonder, what did he look for and what did he see? They didn’t ask any questions about the child they were there to watch, they looked for a bit and then sat chatting on the phone about something else. You may say that they know what they are looking for and have an eye for it and can tell immediately – but then why do Academies have such low retention rates of the children they recruit?

I wonder whether we know enough about what provides the best clues for predicting the future of young footballers, and whether we make best use of what we do know. To provide an example, let's consider the one and only Matt Le Tissier. (I was lucky enough to live in Southampton in the mid-90s and the effect that this legend had on the team and the town was mind-blowing).   

Here is a list of some the things that Le Tissier mentions as being important in his upbringing as a young footballer:

  1. Footall for him was not all about winning, creating things on the pitch was just as important
  2. Trying lots of sports and developing good skills in several sports
  3. Mixed-age environments, especially playing with older children
  4. Playing on his own with a ball
  5. Imaginative, adult-free play
  6. Supportive parents
  7. Interestingly, he doesn’t mention a coach till aged 16

Another similar example comes from another legend, Dennis Bergkamp, in his book Stillnesss and Speed. Bergkamp also describes numbers 1-6 on the Le Tissier list when he talks about his own upbringing. He is particularly eloquent when describing number 4 on the list, Playing on his own with a ball:

"I'm trying to picture you aged about 8, kicking a ball against this wall. What would you be thinking?

Dennis: It's not thinking, it's doing. And in doing, I find my way. I used the brickwork around the entrance to the building. You see that line of vertical bricks, like a crossbar? Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways, first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things, inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces... getting a sort of rhythm going, speeding it up, slowing it down. Sometimes I'd aim at a certain brick, or at the crossbar. Left foot, right foot, making the ball spin. Again and again. It was just fun. I was enjoying it. It interested me. Maybe other people wouldn't bother. Maybe they wouldn't find it interesting. But I was fascinated. Much later, you could give a pass in a game, and you could maybe look back and see "Oh, wait a minute, I know where that touch comes from." But as a kid you're just kicking a ball against a wall. You're not thinking of a pass. You're just enjoying the mechanics of it, the pleasure of doing it."

- Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp

Interestingly too, both Matt Le Tiss and Dennis Bergkamp are the youngest of four brothers...

Birth Order: A big influence in academy selection and talent development?

Ministry of Football is a small programme for local children. We have a register of 152 places and these are filled on a first come-first served basis. We welcome children of all abilities, including complete beginners. We do not seek out the best players from the area, or scout from other programmes. Yet in the past few years we have had four children come through the programme from beginner (or near beginner) to sign for a professional club academy.

Comparing these four children, they are different in many ways. They are different sizes and shapes, they have different abilities, they are different in personality. Certainly they are different types of footballer. But there is one thing they all have in common: They all have older siblings (and in the case of three of the four the age gap between them and their oldest sibling is more than five years).

I think Birth Order (or 'Having Older Siblings') is important when it comes to developing football talent and attracting the attention of academy scouts. Here are four reasons why: 

1. Speed and quickness

As Daniel Coyle records in The Talent Code, here are the 10 most recent 100 metre world-record holders (most recent first), together with their birth order in brackets.

1. Usain Bolt (second child of three children)
2. Safa Powell (sixth of six)
3. Justin Gatlin (fourth of four)
4. Maurice Greene (fourth of four)
5. Donovan Bailey (third of three)
6. Leroy Burrell (fourth of five)
7. Carl Lewis (third of four)
8. Leroy Burrell (fourth of five)
9. Carl Lewis (third of four)
10. Calvin Smith (sixth of eight)

Coyle says, “the sample size is small, the pattern is clear. Of the eight men of the list (Burrell & Lewis appear twice), none of them were first born, and only one was born in the first half of his family’s birth order”. Similar studies of NFL running backs has revealed a similar tendancy for over-representation of athletes with later birth order from larger families.

The reason for this trend that Coyle explains is that the younger siblings grow up having to keep up with their older brothers and sisters. They spend their childhood, right from the beginning, having to make an additional effort just to keep up, and they grow stronger and better brain-muscle pathways because of this.

[Note: There have been critics of Coyle's work on 100m athletes and birth order, one saying "at least one of the men in the list did not grow up with his siblings and another’s birth order is simply wrong", see: Excelsior Group]

2. Resilience / define winning

I believe there is a certain independence and resilience that often grows from being a younger sibling. In those important first few months and years, parents do not have as much time (or energy!) to spend on later siblings as they do with the first. The result is that younger siblings are often more independent and learn better how to cope with failure, obstacles and challenges on their own (rather than rely on parent help or encouragement).

I wonder whether there are times - especially early on in family life - when the younger sibling simply cannot win at games with their older brothers or sisters, but instead of giving up they redefine what success looks like. So for example, if playing against an older brother in tennis, the younger one will always lose. But they will still keep playing, and in the knowledge that victory on the scoreboard is beyond them (for now), they instead invent their own ways of winning.

Think of Serena and Venus Williams as youngsters, for example: There must have been times when Serena could not beat older sister Venus in games, but the experience of playing, trying and learning would have given her skills (resilience; abilty to focus on process not outcomes etc) that were very important for her long-term development.

I recall one of the MoF children who went on to an academy doing exactly this in our skill development sessions: He came to the session with the idea of flicking the ball over his own head and also over the head of an opponent. He tried to do this several times in the session, before executing it perfectly. He celebrated with a punch of the air as if he had scored a great goal. For him, he had redefined success, and invented his own game.

When I consider the four MoF academy children, they all easily focus and find flow states in football games. They are all children who can immerse themselves in an opposed activity, and regardless of score or situation - who is on their team, whether they think it's fair etc - they never complain or get distracted, they only relish the next challenge, the next tackle, the next dribble. They are present in the game, no matter what. There isn't any looking over to mum or dad for a thumbs up, it is their game, and they own it. I wonder: Has this ability to become independent from all else and focus entirely on a pitch, a ball and a space - would this have developed as easily if they had been first-born?

3. Learning from older children, and role models to follow

Expert coaches are brilliant, and can make a real difference to the development of children in football. But arguably an even better teacher is other children who are just that little bit ahead. Peer learning is very effective. This is very evident when watching children play at a skatepark for example. Skateparks are great places for child-to-child teaching, and for mixed age and ability groups working together without adults or parents. The kind of learning that happens in these environments resembles that of a large family where younger siblings learn by copying the older ones, being on teams with older ones, competing against the older ones, or asking questions or being told what to do by older ones.

Older siblings provide role models to copy and follow. Younger ones want to be like them, and want to do what they can do. Importantly, having an older sibling - especially for boys having an older brother - gives the younger sibling a sight of what life will be like in a few years time. They can see themselves in the future. I think this helps them prepare for the future, imagine what they will be able to do, become motivated to be someone, have a vision of what they want, and be ready for the challenges ahead.

Photo: Ronaldinho watching his big brother

4. Parents with more experience

At MoF we have some wonderful parents. And occassionally we also have parents who - in my opinion - take it all a bit too seriously: kick every ball for their child, win and lose every game with their child, instruct from the sidelines, and get frustrated when their child struggles or their speed of learning seems to drop off. This kind of parenting may may not be conducive to long-term, enjoyable child learning. It is more likely to put children off sport, make them unwilling to participate, and result in the development of children who can't make their own decisions in games and rely on parents to tell them what to do. In my experience, this kind of parenting is a lot more common for a first child than it is for a later sibling. (Certainly in my experience of raising my own children, I think I am getting better with time. It makes sense really, we usually improve at things we try to do, and there is no reason why parenting should be any different).

In the case-studies of the four MoF children now at academies, the parents were all very experienced parents (as they had 'been there, done that' with their older children). I think this had a very positive effect on the development of their later siblings, as they were more relaxed on the sidelines; they recognised that football was their child's opportunity to play not their (the parents) own opportunity to instruct; they were in less of a rush to win games and leagues; and they probably had a better idea of what a good football development programme looks like. Having been through child-raising before, they must have had a good understanding that learning does not happen in a straight line, and therefore less frustration around their child's highs-and-lows and more of the right kind of encouragement and support.

How can English academies help develop more and better players?

This blog finishes with a few points which I believe would make football academies better places for children to grow and learn, and would also provide senior football with more and better footballers.

1. Change aim

“Milan is a club that doesn’t only pay attention to the technical aspects of football; we really do care for the education and the growth of the kids in the Youth Sector. The philosophy of the club is that you cannot be a good player if you don’t become a decent person.”

– Fabio Grassi, Psychologist Coordinator, AC Milan Youth Sector

Rather than aim to produce players for the first team, I think academies would do much better if they instead aimed to do the absolute best for each child they select. Academies are not just a football pathway, they are a pathway for thousands of children who do not go on to play professional football. The outcomes of this pathway go much further than just football, and other exit points on the pathway need to be considered also: children may go on to play other sports, they may go on to university or further study, they may go on to start their own business, they may go on to work in football in important non-playing roles.

'Producing players for the first team' is an outcome. 'Doing the best for each child' is a process. By focusing on the process and not the outcome, the academies would need to consider much more carefully the overall needs of each child, beyond just football development. Children are not products, they are fragile, growing, impressionable individuals. They should not be discarded when they no longer fit. An academy that treats children and their families the way a great school does will create diverse, confident, skilful people and loyal supporters. They will also create competition to be there. Children can develop into brilliant adults given the right environments, and academies need to embrace variety, creativity and diffference.

Of course, one outcome of this would be that they produce more players for the first team.

[Question: How would we measure and evaluate the success of an education programme that aims to 'create better people', especially if some of those people only stay for a year or two?]

2. Select later

At the top of the page I described a school which starts selecting children at age 11 in order to end up with the best 18 year olds. However, if retention rates through from 11 to 18 are very low, then what is the logic in starting at age 11? 

Personally, I think it would be even more beneficial to wait till 14. We have already described what a huge period of change the teenage years are (remember the graph above with Bob and Dec), and waiting till age 14 would give academies a much better idea of who to select. It would also mean they had longer to work with a wider pool of talent - see next point...

3. More and wider

If we are not sure which children will make the best adult footballers, then it makes sense to widen the base of the pyramid to include as many children as possible in great learning environments. Pre-academy sessions should be open to all children in the local area, and academies should make more efforts to provide brilliant coaches to local schools and programmes for ages 5-14.

Research suggests that children need a wider developmental experience than just football in order to become the best they can be (in football and in life generally). There is no need to specialise solely on football at young ages. A wider sport playing experience can be beneficial both in terms of development of game understanding, movement skills and maintaining interest.

It would be great to see football academies join with other local providers of sport to teach together. Children at younger ages learning and enjoying several different sports may then be able to choose which to specialise in once that becomes an option later in teenage years. FC Barcelona for example is not just a football club, but also a handball club, a roller hockey club, a futsal club and a basketball club.

I talked to the manager at a premier league academy recently and he said he had a dream that the senior team of the club would be comprised solely of players from the surrounding county. I actually think this is possible, but it requires that the academy work closely and effectively with thousands of children in the local area. They would need to provide expert programmes and coaching in a variety of sports. This is in stark contrast to the current community programme which is in place there, which sends out beginner level 1 coaches to poorly-organised groups. In order to achieve the manager's dream, the academy would essentially have to change what they deliver, who delivers it, who they deliver it to, and how they deliver it. But it is possible, absolutely.

4. Keep it local

There is no need for football development at these young ages to require extensive travel. Travel time cuts into learning and playing time, and can lead to burn-out at early ages for children and parents.

Read more about this here: Playing Time in Junior Football

5. Mixed-age & mixed-ability environments

There is lots to learn of course from the examples given by Le Tissier and Bergkamp. First and foremost, in planning and preparing learning environments for our children, can we recreate the multi-age environment which younger siblings seem to enjoy, but for everyone?

The current system in education and in sport of grouping childen by age means that many children never get to be the youngest, and never have the advantages of being in that position. All children require opportunities to be the youngest, as well as the oldest, and we need to allow for those opportunities for peer teaching and learning when we plan what's best for our youngsters.

My oldest child, Max, will be four years old next week. He is in his second year at nursery, in a class formed of children from two year groups. Last year he was one of the youngest in the class and really benefited from being with older children, learning to keep up with them in movement, play and conversation. This year he is one of the oldest, helping new children settle into nursery routines and enjoying the responsibilities of showing others what to do (being very bossy in other words!). What an advantage it has been for him to play and learn with children older and younger than him! As a parent I have clearly seen the changes in his growth as a result of being the youngest and then the oldest. Sadly though, in September next year, that will all end - and for the next 14 years of schooling he will only be in a classroom with children from the same year group as him. From next year until they leave school, he and all his peers will always be in the same age position in the same sequence, the oldest always the oldest and the youngest always the youngest. How unimaginative :-(

Academies do not have to follow the structure of traditional schooling. They should be able to make their own rules. There may be ways they could better structure their learning groups so that all children often get to play and learn with older children.  This is important from very young ages I think. I am not sure how this would work in reality, but it would probably involve several different ways of grouping children (each child playing and learning in different groups throughout the week, sometimes oldest sometimes youngest - with coaches who plan ways for children to work together to replicate the family environment).

6. Adult-free play time

Play is hugely important in the development of confident, diverse and creative people. See important blog post on Play.

In terms of football development, we need to ensure that children have time to enjoy play. It is through adult-free play that children feel most able to experiment with their own ideas and to learn from each other beyond the learning agenda imposed by coaches. There is a danger in football academies that childern are 'over-coached' and this may have a detrimental affect on their ability to learn how to learn, to solve problems on their own, and to do the unorthodox on the pitch:

Here's Bergkamp again:

"So the discussion we have now is 'So how did you become a good player then?' If you look at the coaches we have now, they're so different. They all have their badges, and they are all very sympathetic and know exactly how to play football and what kid of exercise you should do and for how many minutes, and the distances between the goals, and where the cones should be where you're playing positional games... They all know exaxctly how everything should be done. Maybe that's the problem. We never had that sort of attention, so we were more self-taught...

We're in Ajax Youth, but it's like the street. And one of the coaches is supervising, but more like a referee. 'This is a goal, this is a foul...' Not at all like now. Nowadays the coach stops the game and says 'Hey guys, if you've got the ball here where do you need to be now?' and shows the player everything. For us it was much more like it was in Cruyff's time. It was really quite free for you to teach yourself. There's no shouting or military guys around anymore, but it's more strict in the football sense. Everyone is a head coach, everyone is a manager, everyone has their badges, and everything is done by the book. Is it too much? Probably. Everything is done for the kids now... How can they develop themselves if everything is done for them?

...We've got players in the first team now who've come through the Youth and are used to playing a certain style and doing certain things. And as soon as it's a bit different it's 'On no! I don't know what to do!' You see them looking at the bench to find out what they should do.

...Somehow we have to find a different way, so the players who come into the first team are creative again, can think for themselves, can make a difference, basically. Be special. Be unique. That's what we want. You can't be unique if you do the same thing as the ten other players. You have to find that uniqueness in yourself."

- Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp

For more on this: Read the excellent 'The Game' by Ken Dryden - a relevant excerpt here.

7. More research

Academies should see themselves as laboratories of learning. They have a unique position in our society as places where great football coaches, football knowledge and football children congregate to get better at what they do. Football is the national game, and should lead the way in terms of developing expertise in child sport development. I am not sure whether this happens now, and I wonder how little learning is taking place in terms of academies getting better at what they do. How many for example are really trying to do things differently?

This is happening in some places: For example, I talked to Mark Warburton at Watford Academy a few years ago about the school he helped set-up at Harefield Academy to house Watford Academy boys. It was - at the time - an interesting new approach. It was fascinating that when I asked what the key success factor was, Mark did not mention the quality of the football coaches, the facilities or the selection of the correct children, rather he said it was in the quality of the overall education (i.e. quality of teaching in academic classrooms and quality of schooling) that the boys received. Since then some other clubs have tried a similar approach of housing football children together in the same school, mostly in order to increase the number of contact hours that football coaches have to work with the children. It would be interesting to know what these Academies have learnt from doing this.

In particular, it would be great to do more research into exactly why the younger siblings seem to do better at academy selection and seem more likely to make it to professional football. How many Academies even know whether there is a birth order bias in the children they select, for example?

When it comes to birth order, I think it is perhaps more complex than that they grow and develop more quickly because they need to keep up physically with older siblings. I'm sure this has an effect, but I wonder whether the changing attitudes and experiences of the parents play a big part (as described above) - and if so, then surely there is some very useful learning to be shared with new parents.  


Essentially, what these changes aim to do is to put the focus on the needs of the children, rather than the needs of the Premier League clubs. I think somewhere along the way the needs of the children seem to have been forgotten. In reality I also think that if we focus on the needs of the children - the need for play, the need for variety in sports learning, the need for time with a ball on their own - then this will also benefit football and the development of great English footballers.

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  By Mark Carter, November 2015

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Mark Carter

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