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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 09:35 GMT
Football factory or money pit?
By Matt Slater

In November 2004, five months into his new job at Anfield, Rafa Benitez watched an inexperienced Liverpool side, packed with talent from the club's academy in Kirkby, knock holders Middlesbrough out of the Carling Cup.

Rafael Benitez
The academy system is not working and that is worrying - there will be long-term effects

Rafael Benitez
Two goals from Neil Mellor won the match but it was the all-round contribution of the youngsters - Mellor, Richie Partridge, Darren Potter, Stephen Warnock, John Welsh, Zak Whitbread and French prospect Florent Sinama Pongolle - that won praise from their Spanish manager that night.

Fast forward to December 2006, however, and Benitez is telling all and sundry that the academy is failing him and failing English football.

"You must improve the English academy system because it is simply not working," he moaned.

One month later and the reason for Rafa's rant became apparent - a humiliating 6-3 home defeat by a side not too dissimilar to Arsenal's under-18s revealed just how bare Liverpool's cupboard had become, particularly compared to the bulging shelves in Arsene Wenger's cosmopolitan pantry.

Within a few weeks the story had come full circle: Liverpool's long-standing academy boss, Steve Heighway, had announced that he would retire in May and the last of those seven youngsters that played Boro had left the club.

606: DEBATE
MS
So what went wrong with Liverpool's highway to the first team's Melwood base? How did a club that has spent almost 3m a year on perhaps the country's best-appointed football factory misplace the formula that once produced Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Steve McManaman and Michael Owen?

The simple answer is that there is no simple answer - ask 10 different people involved in youth development and you get 10 different answers, one for each of the Liverpool academy's perfectly tended grass pitches.

And that is perhaps why the ongoing review of the academy system has been going on so long.

The Football Association, Football League and Premier League have been discussing how best to improve youth development, and how to pay for it, since the summer. The wait for the white smoke of success from Soho Square's chimney continues.

Steven Gerrard
Liverpool's youth set-up has produced little since Gerrard in 1998
In the meantime, most Premier League clubs continue to look abroad for quick fixes and less risky medium-term investments, while pundits wonder where England's next crop of international stars are going to learn their trade.

Only 19 of the 54 players (35%) that came to top-flight clubs during the recent transfer window were English. And it is not uncommon now for only a third of the men on display during a Premiership weekend to be eligible for the national team. That's just 80 players, hardly the broadest of bases on which to construct your pyramid of excellence.

But a conveyor belt on the blink is not just Liverpool's problem. Only two of Chelsea's current first-year apprentices come from their academy and there are not too many recent additions to the Manchester United academy's roll of honour.

That said, the general mood in the academies is rosier than Benitez's comments would suggest, and the Spaniard, to be fair, would have been better served directing his frustrations at Kirkby. After all, Gerard Houllier, the man Benitez replaced, also clashed with Heighway over the academy's productivity.

And as Howard Wilkinson, the man who got the academy ball rolling, put it, what does Benitez know about English academies other than Liverpool's?

"Benitez's time in England and his experiences with the academy system are confined to Liverpool," said the former FA technical director, who wrote the book on academies back in 1997 with his Charter for Quality.

(Academies) don't work - it's like trawling for whales with a sardine net

Chris Roberts
Torquay United chairman
"He would be highly proficient to speak about what goes on there. But I find it difficult to imagine he would be able to speak on behalf of the rest of the country. Youth development here has improved and is continuing to improve."

Putting aside the indignation of a proud Yorkshireman defending his work, there is a lot of truth in everything Wilkinson said.

But Benitez's views are echoed elsewhere, and sometimes in the most unexpected corners.

It is no surprise to hear Wenger berate Uefa for attempting to enforce home-grown quotas, or even Jose Mourinho say Chelsea's reserves would be better off competing in the Football League, but it is more of a shock when the chairman of Torquay United comes to Benitez's defence.

"My predecessor at Plainmoor scrapped (the centre of excellence) but I would have done the same," said Chris Roberts, who took over at the Devon club last October.

Steve Heighway and Liverpool's 2006 FA Youth Cup winners
Heighway's U18s won the FA Youth Cup last year but is that enough?
"They cost a fortune and 95% of the kids don't make it. They're just cast aside.

"It doesn't work at all - for the clubs or the kids. It's like trawling for whales with a sardine net. There is no social or moral consideration."

Roberts' answer is to create partnerships with local colleges. The club provides some coaching and access to a decent groundsman and physio, and the colleges' very best players are given a trial.

This is definitely cheaper than Liverpool's full-fat approach, but will it help the Gulls out of their immediate plight? They are currently five points from safety at the foot of League Two.

Simon Clifford, who founded the successful Brazilian Soccer Schools and Socatots coaching franchises, is another outspoken critic.

"The Charter for Quality is probably the biggest reason we're not producing the players we should. They should rip it up," said Clifford, who lasted less than a year at Southampton after being brought in by Sir Clive Woodward - another football outsider with a sympathetic ear for new methods.

We are producing more technical, more athletic, more intelligent footballers - I am very optimistic

Huw Jennings
Premier League academy boss
Clifford's problems with the perceived wisdom are numerous - out-dated coaching methods, too much focus on competition too young, not enough time spent on skills and many, many more - but can be condensed into one central tenet: our young players are not playing nearly enough of the right type of football.

Most coaches would agree with the quantity issue - access to the players still at school is a huge issue for all academies - and many would agree on the quality point too - many advocate Clifford's 'more touches, less matches' approach, for example - but the vast majority are of the view that the Charter for Quality needs updating, not shredding.

Jim Cassell, the director of Manchester City's vibrant academy, is convinced that there is not much wrong with the current system, which is, after all, only in its ninth year.

And Huw Jennings, the Premier League's youth development manager and former boss of Southampton's academy, is another in the "small tweaks" camp. As is Graham Hawkins, Jennings's counterpart at the Football League.

Where all three agree with Clifford is on the ability of English footballers to meet the challenge of playing in a "world league" like the Premiership.

Clifford is adamant that the best foreign players are "manufactured" and sees no reason why English youngsters cannot match their athleticism and skills, given the right amount of good coaching. Jennings largely concurs and believes it is already happening.

Liverpool's academy at Kirkby
Liverpool's Kirkby academy: Talent incubator or expensive PR exercise?
"The real issue now is what happens between 18 and 21," said Jennings. "We need to make sure we get the structure right for them to flourish.

"Currently, some go on loan, some play in the reserves and some find their paths blocked for whatever reason. That's a massive conundrum for us.

"I think this is what the likes of Benitez are frustrated about. They see the massive potential of our academy structure, which drew on the experience of others in Europe, but they are seeing some of that labour lost because of players failing to break through.

"But we are producing more technical, more athletic, more intelligent footballers. I am very optimistic about the future."

Given the arrival of American tycoons George Gillett and Tom Hicks at Anfield, Benitez is probably optimistic about the future too.

Whether that future includes a liberal helping of home-grown locals in the first team is anybody's guess. But the fact that he has just brought in six new players, four of them teenagers and none of them English, suggests not.



SEE ALSO
Stability 'key' to youth success
08 Feb 07 |  Football
Crewe boss voices academy fears
08 Feb 07 |  Football
The academy graduate
05 Feb 07 |  Get Involved
Liverpool 3-6 Arsenal
09 Jan 07 |  League Cup
Reds cling on to win FA Youth Cup
21 Apr 06 |  Football
Coach Clifford leaves Southampton
15 Nov 05 |  Southampton
Benitez impressed by Reds youth
10 Nov 04 |  League Cup


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