It is a recurrent – and recurrently urgent – theme in English football. Youthful talent, Champions League-ready youngsters, junior technophiles steeped in the refinements of elite European football: where, exactly, are we going to get them from? In a football culture increasingly preoccupied with the hoarding of precious young talent, the structures in place to mine and produce these raw materials have too often proved bafflingly inadequate.
Albeit, change may be afoot. There was much fanfare last month as the Football Association unveiled its own current flagship project, the St George's Park centre, England's own version of a kind of footballing Rome, an ideal state from which good habits, rectitude and technical excellence will necessarily trickle down and out and upwards.
And something has been stirring among the clubs too. Academies have been a Premier League must-have for the last two decades, but for the first time, academy-level football is now being promoted as an elite competition in its own right. The NextGen series is currently in its second season. Styled as a kind of junior Champions League, it features 24 European under-19 teams selected according to the perceived strength of a club's youth set-up and including, among others, Internazionale (last season's champions), Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool.
The NextGen is also that rarest of things in football, a genuinely good idea. Brainchild of TV producer Justin Andrews and former city trader-turned Watford academy manager Mark Warburton, it is the first serious attempt to put into action a notion that has been floating around Europe for some time, a means of showcasing that hidden generation of gilded would-be's, will-be's and might-yet-be's that lurks within the well-stocked, but largely invisible, academy sub-structure.
"It came from an idea I had with Mark in about 2005," Andrews says. "As part of my work for [the consultancy] Inside Soccer, I spent three or four years studying the academies at top clubs. One of the things I noticed was that there wasn't really a competitive league for these academies, at least not in Europe."
Encouraged, Andrews arranged a match between Watford's academy and their counterparts at Inter. "It was a real eye opener. The level of performance, the focus we saw in the boys was something else. We spoke to Inter, Ajax and some others right away, some were harder to convince, others not so. In England, Liverpool and Manchester City really grasped the idea straight away."
It isn't hard to see why. The NextGen may or may not blossom into the junior powerhouse its organisers crave, but it is a competition that chimes happily with some of football's most onerous preoccupations: youth, looming financial fair play rules, the dysfunctional mess that is the transfer market, and the urge among bigger clubs to position themselves decisively among the gathering European elite.
It seemed fitting, with this in mind, that Tottenham Hotspur's second home fixture of the current NextGen should also be the first competitive match at the club's new £45m Hotspur Way training ground. This is not so much a training facility as a statement of aspirational intent, a brilliantly high-spec glass and steel silo crouched in the middle of dreamy green surrounds, and venue on this occasion for the visit of Wolfsburg.
If the crowd at Spurs' spiffy suburban stronghold is no more than maybe three or four hundred, this is perhaps a little misleadingly intimate in a NextGen group stage that has already drawn crowds of 9,000 to White Hart Lane for the visit of Barcelona and 8,000 for Ajax's trip to Liverpool.
It is a curious crowd too, made up mainly of families, academy kids and teenage wags-in-waiting. Here and there a figure of unexpected gravitas looms up among the diehard fans, a pair of garrulous talk radio presenters, a strolling club legend, the former Sheffield United manager, Andy Scott, and now, parting the crowd, a resplendently track-suited Younès Kaboul flanked by a retinue of cronies, flunkies and assorted Younès Kaboul-related VIPS.
Beyond this, in the outer circles, are those with a more sharp-eyed interest, football's familiar full house of hangers-on, agents and semi-detached professional lurkers, visibly warmed by proximity to further evidence of elite football's powerful currents of wealth and youth.
As the players shake hands before kick off, it is clear that Wolfsburg are a terrifyingly huge team at this level, lolloping about like a troupe of lime-shirted teenage dinosaurs, and looking not so much next gen as very much this gen. The Germans are on average a year older than their opponents, but it is Spurs, kicking off in a fashionable 4-2-3-1, who turn out to have the game's outstanding player in Alex Pritchard.
Pritchard is very easy to like: small, aristocratically upright, and with wonderful skills in both feet. These are evident almost immediately as he beats three players and is then violently scythed down 25 yards from goal. Pritchard himself places the dead ball and dinks a superb free-kick into the bottom right-hand corner.
Along with Tom Carroll, not playing against Wolfsburg, Pritchard is hotly-tipped in these parts and his performance in the first half adds an encouraging gloss to NextGen's headline puff about "the next generation of world-class players".
It is, Andrews admits, a key measure of success: "You will always get clubs like Sporting Lisbon and Ajax, who do put their players into the first team. They're mixed in with others who might start to do it more. Look at Liverpool. A player like Andre Wisdom might not have had the opportunities he's had if he hadn't done so well in NextGen."
Among this season's intake Andrews flags up the much-coveted Sergi Samper of Barcelona ("he's going to be an absolute superstar") along with Victor Fischer of Ajax. He also takes a pride-by-proxy in the emergence of Raheem Sterling, a NextGen success last year. "It is really nice to see these players do well," he says. "When Raheem scored his first goal against Reading it was just great to see. In all, there are 22 boys who have gone on to play first-team football, and the manager of Inter [Andrea Stramaccioni] got the job because of NextGen. Massimo Moratti promoted internally, which is very unusual for Italy."
If this is perhaps a claim slightly too far for NextGen it is hard to avoid the obvious link: Inter under Stramaccioni won the NextGen on 25 March last year. The following day he was made head coach.
Maybe this year it will be Pritchard's turn. Midway through the first half, still looking irresistibly swift and crafty in possession, he puts Spurs 2-0 up with another brilliant goal, this time beating a defender, pausing for a moment and curling his shot into the opposite corner with sense of seductive ease. "Lovely player … He's just a bit small," one grizzled and slightly off-message home supporter murmurs. Pritchard later has a minor shoving match with an opponent and gets booked for diving when he should have had a penalty.
In the end, the second half belongs in the main to the hulking seniors of Wolfsburg, led by their most distinctive player Kerem Bülbül, a roving attacker decked out in the No23 shirt plus terrible sculpted beard and asymmetrical haircut, who for all his knock-kneed strut turns out to be an attractively subtle and capable player, the major creative influence in the two late goals that earn Wolfsburg a draw.
As the Spurs players leave the pitch they look slightly crushed by the late turnaround. The resilience of youth is a wonderful thing however: two weeks later, in their next NextGen fixture, this same Spurs team would go on to thrash the La Masia starlets of Barcelona 4-1 at the Spanish champions' own academy ground. Shaquille Coulthirst, anonymous here but already a regular presence around the first team, scoring a perfect hat-trick (left foot, right foot header) and Pritchard getting the fourth to make it 4-0. Shaquille Coulthirst: remember the name.
Where NextGen goes from here may depend on what progress it can make in its second season. At around £5 a ticket, it is an appealingly accessible form of elite football, and timely in its youthful focus. Perhaps more crucially to its own future, it is also another source of revenue, a means of drawing a small early dividend on all that academy outlay. NextGen don't just believe the children are our future: they believe they're the present too. Both as a source of income, with TV rights already sold to Eurosport and many of the bigger clubs seeing the tournament as a secondary recruitment process, a series of pan-European trials for these gilded youngsters; and also as a precocious addition to European football's wider spectacle, a moment of early ascension for an increasingly vital, insistently present, next generation.