Is it time to re-evaluate FIFA’s youth system?
The recent move of Stuart Armstrong from Southampton to Celtic hit the headlines for unusual reasons. As part of the £7 million deal, Dyce Boys Club received an unexpected six-figure windfall as compensation for the role they played in developing him during his teenage years at the club.
It is money that has left Dyce treasurer Len Nicol “in a sense of shock,” and that, in itself, is a signal that all is not entirely as it should be in the Scottish youth system. This is a view shared by outspoken journalist and broadcaster Jim Spence, who feels that stories like this should not be so exceptional and that it is time to re-evaluate the youth system and return the boys’ clubs to the central position they used to enjoy in developing future players for both the national team Scotland’s professional teams.
What has changed?
Today, boys clubs like Dyce do not have anything like the strength and influence that they had 30 years ago. The path to professional football used to be via school teams, boys clubs, the Boys Brigade and often, a combination of all three. Today, however, the professional system has reduced their relevance.
Boys are tempted away in their early teens, or even younger, by the lure of a professional career with a big team. Like spinning the reels in an online casino, it looks like a tempting path to fame and fortune. But while casino goers can evaluate the options through a comparison site like Casinopedia and make an informed choice on the best path to success, most youth footballers have the odds stacked against them from the start.
As Jim Spence put it, the professional clubs: “Hoover up their talent like an industrial fish factory operation.” He argues that due to the surplus of players, they will sign practically anyone, and the vast majority will be cast aside, left with: “broken hearts and shattered dreams.”
Despite the hyperbole, Spence has a point. The number of players who drop out from professional football compared to those who go on to careers like that of Stuart Armstrong is eye-watering, and the comparison with hitting the jackpot on a slot machine is not as fanciful as you might think.
Who really benefits?
A professional youth system is all about developing future talent. The question is, for whom? The old “S” system that preceded the current professional youth development system produced players like Paul Sturrock and David Narey, men who went on to represent a Scotland team that competed with the best on the international stage.
Scotland’s record in more recent years speaks for itself – it’s been more than 20 years since the last appearance in the final stages of either a World Cup or European Championship.
So where is the up and coming talent? The fact is that there are currently more than 30 Scottish clubs with 20 players in each of the five age groups. That makes more than 3,000 so-called “elite” players. However, only a handful will go on to be professional footballers.
Spence argues that returning to a system whereby youngsters can play with their friends in a less pressurised setting gives talent a chance to shine through, particularly among the later bloomers, and it is logic that is difficult to fault.