Give youth its fling

More than 50 years ago, at Stamford Bridge, after Manchester United's so called Busby Babes had beaten Chelsea, I asked the United manager, Matt Busby, about his policy of giving youth its fling.


West Ham has Michael Carrick, a midfielder, seen as among the best in the Premiership. Clubs such as West Ham United, over many years, and now Liverpool, seem perfectly able to bring through a far higher percentage of their youngsters into the playing XI, says the author. -- Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

More than 50 years ago, at Stamford Bridge, after Manchester United's so called Busby Babes had beaten Chelsea, I asked the United manager, Matt Busby, about his policy of giving youth its fling. His answer was succinct and significant. "If you don't put them in," he replied, "you can't know what you've got."

Fair enough. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. And the charge against Arsenal and their French manager Arsene Wenger now is that youth is not given its fling at all, that the Gunners' youth scheme looks more and more like a vastly expensive black hole, down which young talents disappear.

The Gunners won the FA youth Cup both in 2000 and 2001, but you would hardly have known it from their present and recent first teams. Indeed, at a recent meeting of the Arsenal shareholders, concerns about it were expressed to Wenger, and this is what he said: "We have to expect that an academy (the grandiose name these days for youth schemes) is expensive to run. We fight all over Europe for the best kids. You don't know how much time I spend in Europe trying to get the best players to the club. I have a vision for this club. I want it to be one of the biggest five clubs in the world. We fight very hard for that, but we have to accept when you have an academy, the percentage of success all over the world in the top, top clubs is inferior to one per cent. That means we work 99% of the time for different clubs."

Frankly the logical corollary of this would surely be not to have a youth scheme at all, yet other clubs such as West Ham United, over many years, and now Liverpool seem perfectly able to bring through a far higher percentage of their youngsters than a mere1%. In bygone times West Ham's so called academy of arts and sciences, under the able and progressive tutelage of the manager, Rob Greenwood, supplied no fewer than three fine home grown, essential, players to the England team which won the 1966 World Cup: the skipper Bobby Moore, voted the best player of the tournament, Geoff Hurst, scorer of a hat-trick in the Final, and the deep lying, right footed left flanker Martin Peters who was described by the England manager, Alf Ramsey, as being ten years ahead of his time.

More recently, Hammers have brought through such young stars as Joe Cole, the clever, inventive midfielder who has been sold to Chelsea, and Michael Carrick, midfielder in a somewhat different mould, seen as among the best in the Premiership. And what of Liverpool?

Their so called academy, under the able command of Steve Heighway, once their flying, Irish international outside left, has nurtured, above all, the glorious talents of Michael Owen, a star in the World Cup finals at 18, and a force in the finals in Japan in 2002 even though not fully fit. In midfield there is another local product in Steve Gerrard, a splendid all round player, who wins the ball well, brings in strongly out of defence, and is adept in launching Owen with his long passes. Jamie Carragher is a defender who has done well in the first team, though a shocking foul has put him out of much of the game this season.

It has to be said that in the past, Liverpool were not always as quick to promote local talent. I recall especially the case of little, blond Sammy Lee, now one of the coaches to the England team. Almost every time one went up to see a match at Anfield one was told of the talents of this teenaged midfielder, and waited year after year to see him a regular in the top team. Instead Liverpool kept him waiting endlessly in the wings, and when he did at last break into their top team, you could see the effect it had had on him. There was no doubt about his abilities, but he lacked the swaggering confidence of the great playmaking midfielders, the kind possessed by Paul Gascoigne. There was what one might almost call a deferential aspect about his play, as though he were somehow respecting his elders and betters. Though he played quite often for England, he never seemed able to take hold of a game as one had wished and hoped. He had simply been waiting, so to speak, too long in the wings.

In Steve Gerrard, Liverpool has a splendid all-round player. -- Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

In this context it was interesting to see what one of that Arsenal youth scheme, Steve Sidwell, now flourishing in midfield with Reading in the Nationwide Division I, had to say about what happened to him and to others at Highbury. Twice a Youth Cup winners, now an England Under-21 player, he joined the Gunners, believe it or not, as a 10-year-old, preferring them to his local South East London Club, Crystal Palace. Does familiarity breed contempt, you wonder? Does a youngster who has been with the same club so long tend to be regarded as part of the furniture?

"It's a shame for the Arsenal fans who are willing the young lads to be given an opportunity," says Sidwell, who was eventually sent out on loan to Brentford the West London club in Division 2 of the Nationwide, where he flourished, was then lent to Brighton, was highly regarded there by that excellent manager Steve Coppell, but sold by Arsenal to Reading in midseason, last campaign.

"You don't win the Youth Cup by being mugs," pursued Sidwell, "but nobody really got a sniff of the first team. It's hard for people to understand the pressure Arsene is under, because he has to win every match. But I think even he'd hold his hands up and say he should have given some of us a chance. Last season, I thought I'd be given a chance in the Worthington (League) Cup against Sunderland. I sat on the bench. We lost 3-2 and the manager brought on a defender and not me. The next day I said I want to go on loan."

Yet under the aegis of George Graham, Arsenal launched those three fine black players Roojy Rocastle, Paul Davis and Michael Thomas, winning the Championship with them. Obviously not all those youth cup-winning players would have made the cut, but Jay Bothroyd, who quarrelled with the club, joined Coventry City and spoke bitterly about his lack of opportunity at Highbury, is now flourishing as a striker in the ever difficult Serie `A' in Italy with Perugia. And this season I've seen the little winger Jermaine Pennant dazzle on loan to Watford, only for Arsenal to take him back and lend him to Leeds.

Meanwhile, as Sidwell says, Wenger keeps faith with dud players like German Stefan Malz, Latvian Igor Stepanovs and Greek Tavlaridis, who keep youngsters even out of the reserve team. Not to mention the �2.1 million disaster of a centre back Pascal Cygan, who Wenger has kept while selling centreback Matthew Upson to Birmingham. He's now an England international!