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who took part
in the 2010 FIFA World Cup fnal
in Johannesburg, 10 played for, or
had recently left, English clubs. Not
one, however, had been developed
by the English system. Remarkably,
exactly half of those involved in the
match had been through the youth
development systems of just two
clubs; Ajax and Barcelona.
Tis, I believe, says a great deal
about how our player development
systems compare with those of our
European neighbours.
Prior to taking up my role at Leeds
United in March of this year, I spent
10 months travelling Europe studying
youth academies in all of the major
leagues, in an efort to fnd out what
constitutes ‘best practice’. Seeing how
things are done overseas at frst hand
confrmed some things that I had
already suspected, but also opened
my eyes to some things that I hadn’t
previously been aware of.
Let’s start with money. Recent
fgures suggest that the average youth
development budget, as a percentage
of gross turnover, is between seven
and 15 per cent. Barcelona, Europe’s
top producer of elite young players
invest the most in youth development,
with €16m going into their academy
at La Masia. Te 20 clubs in the
Barclays Premier League spend less
than £40m per season (in total) on
their academies.
It’s not just about money, though,
it’s also about ambition. Many of
the clubs that I visited tasked their
academies with producing a set
percentage of frst-team squad players.
What’s more, many of these clubs
employ sporting or technical directors,
who therefore bring the subject of
youth development up to board level.
It’s no coincidence that the clubs
which consistently bring talent
through from their academies to their
frst teams (Barcelona, Bayern Munich
and Ajax, for example) all have a
‘club way’, an identity that is almost
tangible and can be described by all.
Tese clubs also promote a consistent
playing style at all age levels and many
use ‘big name’ former players to coach
their young talent; for example, Ajax’s
U13s and U14s are coached by Frank
De Boer and Dennis Bergkamp, while
Roy Makaay does a similar job with
the U15s at Feyenoord. Tese former
superstars are given an opportunity
to develop their coaching skills, while
the young players get to learn from
fantastic role models.
While local recruitment is always a
priority, all of the clubs I researched
also recruited internationally (with
most showing an especially strong
interest in African talent). When
these clubs identify and recruit from
outside their area, they provide local
accommodation and schooling.
All players, whether recruited
locally or from overseas, can avail
of fexible schooling arrangements.
Tis fexibility has been enjoyed
for many years by the foreign
clubs, but is only recently being
exploited by clubs in England
through the ‘gifted and talented’
initiative and the new academy
schools programme. Although some
Chris Sulley believes that English clubs could learn a lot
from their European counterparts, including...
Consistency is key
Barcelona’s success is the fruit of a 20-year commitment
to youth development. The most successful clubs and/
or associations have had the same person in charge of
youth development for between 13 and 30 years.
See the big picture
Other European countries appear to take a more
‘joined up’ approach to their academy systems than we
do. Many of the national youth sides take selections of
players several times over the year for training weeks.
This approach serves to facilitate the ‘best working with
the best’, a proven method for developing elite players.
Focus on the long-term
European organisations focus on development,
above and beyond results, striving to create the best
‘development environment’ for cultivating talent.
Less haste, less waste
Data suggests that it takes longer to gain the skills
necessary to reach the top level than we tend to allow.
Many European clubs keep players in their system until
their early 20s; we release players at 18 or 19.
Develop problem solvers
Most European academies emphasise possession. The
criteria for identifying talent therefore centres around
ball handling and decision making, as opposed to size
and strength which we tend to focus on in England.