The Premier League’s decision to ratify sweeping changes to how academies are run bodes well both for Manchester United and the production of talent in England. The so-called Elite Development Plan will make two principal changes to academy rules, enabling boys between 10 and 18 years-of-age to be coached for up to 10,000 hours, and scraping the antiquated ’90 minute rule’ altogether. Additional changes to how young players play and train are expected as English football attempts to bridge the gap between talent development here and elsewhere.
Indeed, these are changes that Sir Alex Ferguson has called for not only this season but over the past decade as the Premier League academy system has failed to produce a talent pool that could take the England national team to a tournament win.
Closer to home, United’s failure to produce local talent in the raw numbers or quality of the early 1990s has prompted something of a rethink, leading the club to search ever farther overseas.
The Elite Development Plan changes, which come into force for the 2012/13 season, replace outmoded current thinking that restricts coaching to just 2,000 hours over the 10-18 age-group, and 3,760 hours to 21. Proponents of the much-discussed ‘10,000 hours rule’ – a thesis that states elite sportsmen are born of at least 10,000 hours of focused practice – have long derided the English system.
It has taken a long time but England’s failure at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Barcelona’s growth to European domination over the past three years prompted a review of youth coaching. Barcelona’s youngsters resident at La Masia, for example, can expect to receive at least 8,000 hours coaching before they turn 18; it is a system born of Johan Cruyff’s remodelling of Barça’s approach in the early 1990s.
“We’ve got an opportunity now where, once, there might have been some resistance to change,” argues Gareth Southgate, the FA’s head of elite development.
“What the World Cup did, and the success Barça have had, is give a greater awareness of what is going on in Europe. There is a desire for change. We’ve had Paul Scholes come through who technically would have been able to play in that Barça team because his quality of touch, pass appreciation, ability to play one-touch and manipulate the ball was up there with them. But would we have produced lots of players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi? I suspect not.”
Meanwhile, the much-hated 90 minute rule will disappear, enabling clubs to recruit academy players from anywhere in England. Presently clubs, including United, are allowed only to sign youngsters if they are within a 90 minute drive from the home ground; 60 minutes for under-14s.
The rule, designed to protect smaller clubs from larger predators, has failed on two principal counts. First, it has encouraged the growing recruitment of players from overseas. Second, talented youngsters from the regions risk falling through the gaps at poorly funded low-ranked clubs.
The FA and Premier League are yet to publish a formula for compensation, ensuring that the country’s smaller clubs receive adequate indemnity for the investment placed in youth development but it will surely come. While few England internationals begin life at clubs below the Premier League the transfer system remains an important source of funding for the football pyramid.
Further changes sponsored by Southgate will change how youngsters play, with the former Middlesborough manager keen to eliminate mandated full-pitch 11-a-side games for under-13s that promote physicality over technique.
For United the changes will enable a well-funded academy with some of the finest facilities of any club, anywhere, to maximise the pool of talent available to Ferguson and his successors.
No longer will Ferguson need to complain that “we are only allowed to coach for an hour and a half [each week]. Barcelona can coach every hour of the day if they want and that’s the great advantage they have got. You can see their philosophy through that.”
“It’s a fantastic philosophy and we hope that, in years to come, we have more time with young players, to teach them the basics, the technical ability and to have the confidence to take the ball all the time. We’re good at that, but we’re not as good as Barcelona at this moment in time.”
While scraping the 90-minute rule is unlikely to distract United from a much more globalised outlook to youth development than in the 1990s, it will enable the Reds to scour the country for the best talent.
However, neither change will allow United to immediately bridge to gap to La Masia, which has produced in Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi the three finest players on the planet, according to last year’s FIFA poll.
Indeed, substantive changes in the talent pool either at United or England more widely will not take place for more than a decade. England under-21s insipid performances at this summer’s European Championships suggests the national team is unlikely to turn a corner any time soon.
Meanwhile, United will continue to assign scouts to every part of the globe.