Clubs 'care passionately' about developing homegrown players, says official in charge of increasing the flow of young talent
Ged Roddy, the Premier League's director of youth development, is being questioned on the latest wave of gloom about the fate of England's brightest young footballers and their chances of making a difference to the national side.
As if on cue, on the pitch behind him, Wolverhampton Wanderers' skilful centre-forward runs clear and neatly puts the League One side's under-16 team one up against Real Madrid. Elsewhere, Arsenal's and Everton's academy products combine commitment with the sort of close control and rat-a-tat, one-touch passing that has been long lamented as lacking from the English game.
Roddy is speaking against the backdrop of a Premier League tournament in the Warwickshire countryside that brings together the 12 best under-16 sides in the country with four from abroad against whom their progress can be measured – Real Madrid, Ajax, Real Betis and Marseille. The frisson that goes through the Spurs side when they draw Madrid in their group, amid excited chatter about Gareth Bale, is a reminder that, for all their precocious talent, these players remain children.
As well as testing them against the best of their peers, the tournament is supposed to aid their development by giving them experience of a three-day tournament away from home in an elite environment.
One year since it was put into practice, Roddy believes the investment from Premier League clubs in the controversial £340m Elite Player Performance Plan is evidence of their commitment to youth. The popular theory that the clubs do not care about producing homegrown players is a myth, he insists. "It's completely the opposite – they care passionately about it. They compete furiously. The challenge for us at the centre is to balance that competitive spirit with an element of pulling it together so that everyone can help each other," says Roddy, his enthusiasm still infectious despite the political wrangling that goes with the job.
"What we're saying is that if you assume our league is one of the best in the world, the players we produce will have to be among the best in the world. So we need the best youth coaches and the best coaching environment in the world."
While a handful of clubs are clearly scouring the globe for young talent, Roddy also points to figures that show 96% of children under 16 in the system are British, and nine in 10 of those aged 18 to 21, to counter the prevailing impression that homegrown players are being squeezed out by imports.
As the argument rages above his head about the make-up and remit of the commission unveiled by the FA chairman, Greg Dyke, into the clear and alarming decline in the number of homegrown players in English football's top flight, Roddy says the course set 12 months ago needs time to reach fruition. The big question is this: can the Premier League clubs that for so long have been part of the problem (with a few honourable exceptions) provide the solution?
"Youth development is the lifeblood of the game. One year in, my message would be that we've delivered some big achievements off the back of a consensus-based approach. Not everyone is happy, inevitably. But, wow, we've made significant progress. We've done pretty well here."
The changes, including a new grading system for academies, have demonstrated how seriously clubs are taking youth development, says Roddy. If there is a risk, it is that the EPPP system will create a bigger schism between the haves and have-nots.
While Wolves and Reading, both represented here, have continued to invest the £1.5m-plus per year required to keep their category-one academies going in the belief that they represent a sensible long-term investment, Roddy says that at younger age levels the gap between those schooled at category-one academies and those below is already clearly apparent.
One of the issues identified by the EPPP was the need to almost double the volume of "contact time" and to have more coaching during the day, necessitating a re-ordering of the school day. Roddy says Chelsea's group have gone full time and are now schooled at Cobham, a move that has led their academic grades to "go through the roof". The aim, he says, should be to develop the minds as well as the bodies of the players that pass through the system and leave them able to think creatively for themselves on and off the field.
That is also part of the answer to the important question of what happens to the vast majority of kids who pass through the system and do not make it – historically, they are shamefully abandoned with dreams shattered and little to fall back on.
At the heart of all this, and more important even than doubling the amount of time players spend with the ball at their feet, is the quality of coaching. That is where the FA and St George's Park come in. There are enough top-class coaches to staff the best academies but the supply line needs to increase. "They need support, they need encouragement, they need paying properly. We owe it to them and to the game to support them. That's where the conversations I've been having with the FA's director of elite development, Dan Ashworth, have been really positive," says Roddy.
Twenty of the most promising academy coaches enjoy a support network of mentors and advisers from within football and other sports – from netball to rugby union. Roddy agrees that in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere there is much more room for the system to "breathe" – for players to move in and out of clubs at different points in their development and for the professional game to intersect with school and club sides.
"This is where the EPPP has to join up with grassroots sport. We need the academy at the hub of a network of environments that kids can flow in and out of. The biggest problem for a kid that drops out of an academy is that he drops off the edge of a cliff," says Roddy.
On quagmires of municipal pitches up and down the country, with small children hoofing a ball from one end to the other as parents rant at them to "get rid", the gap could not be more apparent. The FA is belatedly trying to change this, with an emphasis on age-specific coaching and smaller-sided games. But it will take a long time.
"If the top 100 boys in Liverpool end up at either Liverpool or Everton, what happens to the 101st boy? It's a very good question. Our system needs to breathe. We only succeed if the whole game comes together around this plan." Not only that, he says, but it makes good business sense – pointing to Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha as examples of players discovered through community programmes rather than the academy system.
All of which is great but if the Premier League continues to be infected by short-termism at the sharp end, with harried overseas managers hired by impatient foreign owners turning to quick fixes and trusted imports rather than giving youth its head, then all the investment in a Rolls Royce youth system will be worth little more than the reams of paper it is written on.
The figures, quoted most recently by Dyke in his state-of-the-nation address, are sobering: in the Premier League era the proportion of homegrown players has declined from 69% to 32%.
"We came in to the plan recognising that there is a disconnect. The reason we've put in all this time and effort and investment is because we need to bridge the gap," says Roddy. "You come back to the first principle – to create more and better homegrown players. That's the endgame. If we don't do that, we've failed."
He believes some of the systemic changes already floated in advance of Dyke's review process are non-starters. "There are what appear to be shortcuts. It's very attractive to think about B teams and quotas and so on. But if you think about it, quotas are directly opposed to the notion of developing excellence because you're creating a fixed market. And I think the damage B teams would do to the consensus, it would not be worthwhile."
Outside, Alan Irvine is casting his eye over an Everton side hoping to follow in the footsteps of Jack Rodwell and Ross Barkley. He is realistic about the task in a globalised Premier League. "There's certainly talent, without a doubt. It's just whether we can create the proper pathway for the talent to come through. It's going to be increasingly difficult to get players through into Premier League level, because it's global now. The days of players coming through the pyramid have gone," says Irvine, a former Everton player and assistant to David Moyes who returned to Goodison from a stint in management to head up the academy.
"The biggest clubs can get the best players in the world. Managers will go and spend money on a player today rather than taking a chance on one that will make them better in four or five years' time. But at a place like Everton, we still think we'll get players through. If they don't get a contract at our place, we're hopeful we'll get them a contract elsewhere."
Gazing across pitches featuring the cream of English youngsters taking on the best from abroad or, alternatively, in the similarly picturesque Staffordshire countryside listening to Dan Ashworth talk about his plans for the age-specific England squads it is easy to feel more hopeful about the future of the national side but scanning the team sheet at Stamford Bridge or the Etihad on a matchday, or seeing talented English players wither in their late teens as they ricochet around the loan system, that enthusiasm can vanish.
Roddy insists we are on the right lines. Incredibly, Dyke has yet to pick up the phone to him. "This is not glamorous, it's not even particularly interesting but it's the hard yards you have to go through if you want this to work," he concludes.