Giving youth its fling

Ajax once used to produce the finest of footballers, but, as time went by, the supply of young talent dried and the net had to be cast farther and farther away from Amsterdam. There is no magic formula, though Barcelona seems to have come closer to finding it than anybody yet; both in personnel and glittering tactics.

“If you don't put them in, you can't know what you've got.” Words which for me have rung down the years. All the way since 1952 when as a very young journalist, I asked Matt Busby, the celebrated Manchester United manager, about his renowned youth policy. Both then and for so many seasons to come, United were renowned for their successful youth policy; indeed the team were actually nicknamed “The Busby Babes.” Six years later when the horrific Munich airport crash wiped out so many of their stars, United still overflowed with prodigious, precocious talent. Among those who so cruelly and prematurely died were two regular members of the England team due to contest the coming World Cup finals in Sweden: the left back and captain Roger Byrne and the dynamic, irreplaceable left half, Duncan Edwards, whom I'd first seen playing as a 17-year-old in the finest ever under-23 international against Italy, in Bologna. Bobby Charlton, thank goodness, survived, shot somehow out of the aircraft to find himself, dazed and traumatised, still belted in his seat in an adjacent field. Scandalously, he didn't get a game in Sweden. A teenager, too, he would, of course, become one of the outstanding talents of his time.

There are those who might feel he was surpassed by George Best, like Charlton a dazzling footballer who came to Manchester United straight from school, though in Best's case, in fact, he went straight back to Belfast, seriously homesick, only soon to be persuaded to come back again. You will at once notice a contrast with so many of the players who have come spectacularly through the junior ranks at Barcelona; such a number of them have been locally born, while United, over these many years, have cast their net far and wide.

Charlton from the North East, Best from Northern Ireland. And the mighty, precocious Duncan Edwards came from far away Dudley, in the West Midlands. The crucial point being that United owed a great deal to a formidable and even, perhaps, ruthless scouting system. Jackie Milburn, a talismanic, locally born, centre forward for Newcastle United, told me that Bobby, his relative, born at nearby Washington, was all set to join the Magpies, to take a job on leaving school in the local newspaper centre at Kensley House. But it was not to be. Suddenly, to Jackie and Newcastle's astonishment and despair, Bobby had been whisked away as a 15-year-old to Old Trafford, where he would spend the rest of his coruscating career. Jackie assured me that Cissie Charlton, Bobby's mother, told him plaintively that the family had been offered GBP750, a lot of money then, which they were in no position to refuse.

By the same token, Duncan Edwards would, in the normal way of things, have signed for one of his two local clubs, either Wolves or West Bromwich Albion. But it was United for whom he signed and the poignant fact is that had he not, done so, whatever his great achievements with them, he would have been spared from the Munich air crash. In which such locally developed players as the centre half Mark Jones, the left winger David Pegg, together with Jackie Blanchflower, the accomplished Northern Ireland centre half and brother of the celebrated Danny and the cleverly creative inside forward, Liam Whelan, also died, both having been schooled at Old Trafford.

But today, in this feverish, money dominated world of top class football, it is infinitely remarkable that a club such as Barcelona can draw on the fierce patriotism of Catalonia, produce dazzling teams of splendid young players, all following a supreme pattern of technique, swift exchange and sustained flair. Players who come up through the junior teams, schooled to operate in the devastating, sometimes mesmeric, short passing mode. Yes, the best and brightest of them all, Lionel Messi, is an Argentine, but he was only 13 years old when Barca brought him to Spain, built him up, and saw him develop into the refulgent star he is today.

And when Barca so narrowly and perhaps undeservedly lost at the Emirates to an inspired Arsenal team, who was arguably the best player on the field but Cesc Fabregas, whom the Gunners lured from Barcelona at the age of 15 when he'd already learned good habits.

Arsenal's player, by contrast, was that extreme rarity at the club, a star they had themselves developed from boyhood in the shape of Jack Wilshere, the equal even of those two fine Barcelona midfield strategists, Iniesta and Xavi, whose shirts he duly collected after the game. But Wilshere, 19 years old, gloriously confident, alert and gifted, is the Arsenal exception who proved the rule.

Nor must we forget Amsterdam's Ajax who for many years seemed a shining example for football at large, for their schooling and cosseting of players from their school days; with academic schooling itself provided within the club. None more transcendently brilliant as that prince of multi-talented centre forwards, Johan Cruyff, whose mother once cleaned the club floors. Under the tutelage of Cruyff, Ajax won three European titles in a row and later a dazzling team of home grown young players beat Milan 1-0 in the Vienna final, the goal going to the precocious Patrick Kluivert, a 70th minute sub. It was a team which included the formidable de Boer brothers, Frank and Ronald, and tough little Edgar Davids. But, as time went by, the supply of young talent dried and the net had to be cast farther and farther away from Amsterdam, and one saw that even the best run youth scheme is essentially finite. No magic formula, then; though Barcelona seem to have come closer to finding it than anybody yet; both in personnel and glittering tactics.

By contrast, look at how few “native” talents Arsenal have produced over the years. Charlie George, a passionate fan, was born on their doorstep; Ashley Cole excelled, and now Jack Wilshere. A dazzling exception.