Bridging The Gap – From Youth To First Team

Resident question King Tom Bates takes a look at making the grade.

With the English FA announcing it would be investing a record £260 million into grassroots back in 2015, £48 million of which to go directly into ensuring better training and playing facilities; it makes you wonder, after another unsuccessful performance from the National Team in France in 2016, does the future look bright for England?
The likes of Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and Eric Dier have been a breath of fresh air for the National Team. Even players who have not yet been called up to England’s First Team such as Tom Davies, Jordan Pickford and Demarai Gray have shown heaps of potential following appearances for their respective Premier League sides when given the opportunity. Which begs the question, is it just a case of the talent being there, it’s just that the opportunities are few and far between?

With the combined investment of around £3 billion from BT Sport and Sky Sports from 2013-2016, Premier League sides now receive on average £60 million more from their share of TV rights. This money inevitably gets invested into bringing new talent into the club, but nowadays Premier League Teams tend to look abroad for a variety of reasons.
One of the main reasons is of course financially. English talent seems to draw a premium on top of the players price tag based on their ability or potential. Take a look at the transfers of players such as Raheem Sterling to Manchester City, who commanded a staggering reported fee of £49 million at the age of 20. A very talented player that’s for sure, but when compared to another young prospect such as Ousmane Dembele, who reportedly cost a mere €15 million (£13 million approximately); the difference in cost is astounding.

Understandably with the squad registration rules requiring a minimum of 8 home grown players, the top quality English players will be sought after by all the top English clubs, however you could also argue that they in turn also have the best training facilities at first team and at youth team levels.
After all, Manchester City spent £200 million on their new Etihad Campus complex and Chelsea have reached the final of the FA Youth Cup 7 out of the last 10 years winning 5 of them, along with winning 2 of the last 3 UEFA Youth Leagues. Which brings us back to opportunities.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a prime example of a player who has succeeded at youth level impressing many who follow the youth teams and young players of the Premier League. But during his 3 year spell of being part of the First Team has made only 22 appearances for Chelsea, 16 of them as a substitute (totaling less than 600 minutes of playing time).
Surprisingly he is yet to be loaned out, and at the age of 21, you’d think that he would have been loaned out to grant some consistent playing time and experience. It’s all well and good having the talent and potential to be a great footballer and training with the first team but it is another thing going out and gaining actual match experience.

Another reason for Premier League teams looking abroad could simply be the lack of ‘expected’ talent. With ticket prices seemingly on the increase for the inevitable future, fans’ expectations of their respective teams have risen. Many fans of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, & Tottenham are expecting their teams to compete both domestically and also in Europe.
The most short term solution which gives these teams the best chances of doing so is to go out and buy top quality players. Spending over £100 million during the summer transfer window is now seen to many fans as a minimum in order to compete, and as seen with Arsenal in recent years, if a summer of investing in youth or spending smaller sums of money is followed by a lack of trophies, fans become agitated claiming the club doesn’t have the fans interest at heart.

The result of this is a seemingly unrealistic expectation for young players to reach First Team of their respective clubs, regardless of how talented they may be. It seems more a case of fortune and luck for any young prospect who has come through the youth levels to be considered for the First Team let alone start.
Marcus Rashford is a standout example of this. If Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney were not both injured at the time, would he have been given the opportunity to start for the First Team against FC Midtjylland and Arsenal? Probably not.
Many reports have mentioned that although as talented as Rashford was, he wasn’t a ‘stand-out’ player in the youth teams. It seems that his ability to grasp the opportunity that was put in front of him and the run of games he was fortunate enough to have is one of the main reasons he is now an established and regular First Team player for Manchester United and England.

However, once these young players establish themselves and perform well for club and country, the pressure and expectation of them increased exponentially.
Rooney, when first introduced into the National Team was touted to be the ‘England’s next international superstar’ who would carry the England squad to multiple trophies for years to come.
But even after breaking the record of Sir Bobby Charlton in goals for both his country and his club and only 6 caps away from beating Peter Shiltons record for most capped England Player, many of his critics still say he’s not lived up to the expectation placed upon him at such a young age.

We can see a similar trend occurring with Dele Alli. As talented as he is, many articles say he’s good enough and almost expected to win the Ballon D’or in the future at just the age of 21. You could argue that some players thrive under pressure but there’s also a case for players who do not and this could impede their development as players.
Looking back at the surprising statistic back in 2012 of Manchester City winning the Premier League with only 2 regular English First Team players it does make you question whether Premier League teams see young English players as ‘useful’ for complying with the FA Squad Registration rules rather than potential regular First Team players and England Internationals.
Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Baker, Tammy Abraham, Harry Winks, Josh Onomah, Kasey Palmer, the list is seemingly endless of talented young English players who are just on the cusp of taking the next step up to the top level of football. Will they be given the chance? No one can be certain, but for the sake of England’s National team I for one sincerely hope they are.


Tom Bates (@FiveStarFlipps)