Tag Archives: Howard Wilkinson

Chris Green talks about the issues surrounding ‘Every Boys Dream’

In 1997, the FA decided to revolutionise youth development in this country. Doing away with the national football school based in Lilleshall, Premier League clubs would now provide an academy system.

Late last year, Howard Wilkinson – the man who helped transition the league from the old to the new 21 years ago – called for a review and overhaul of the current system claiming clubs are failing in their ‘moral responisbility’.

With young players being churned out at every decreasing ages – do clubs properly care for the well being of those prospective kids?

Chris Green, along with being the late Cyril Regis’ biographer, has previously worked for BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 4 as a broadcaster.

Along with having written three other books on football, he also charted the trials and tribulations of the academy system since its inception.

Every Boys Dream

‘Every Boys Dream’ is his fourth football tome and was written after years of following various academy systems as a journalist.

He tells me that he decided to write it nine years ago due to the well-being of young players seemingly being a non-issue in football.

“Nobody had really covered what had happened after setting up the academy system in 1997.”

The catalyst for finally writing the book being a local story he had been gathering for Radio 4.

“After I did a really small piece on the FA coming down on a small club in Gloucestershire called Cirencester Town, because they had set something up called an academy and the FA were attempting to take legal action against them for using a word that they deemed in football now belonged to them.”

Howard Wilkinson now believes that the academy system has failed young footballers.

“Cirencester had actually trademarked their academy before the FA had set up the academy system. It was a satirical piece talking about how the FA now think they have ownership of a word with Ancient Greek origin; it was a place where Plato taught his students and now they are claiming it’s theirs.”

This then led Green to writing to the then technical director of football, Wilkinson, to gain a broader knowledge of just what the FA were proposing.

“He kindly sent me the blueprint for how the academy system was going to operate and that was called ‘a charter for quality’.”

Too much too young?

As he began mulling over what was supposedly the new layout for how the future of English football would play out, the journalist was surprised to find that the new regulations meant kids in Primary School would now be scouted.

‘It didn’t take too much imagination to think that this was going to be a big ask for the clubs to now deliver this’

Previously the scouting system dictated that players aged 13 and upwards was the past policy when identifying young talents.

“It didn’t take too much imagination to think that this was going to be a big ask for the clubs to now deliver this. It’s going to be fraught with issues surrounding the education of kids, the distance they travel to academies and the safety standards being brought in – many welcome – some I believed were a distraction.”

“I then found out by speaking to people, that was indeed the case. Although, it didn’t mean clubs were getting more players through or producing necessarily better players.”

Chris then highlights the role the media have played in hyping up young kids – after a newspaper in Sunderland published a piece about a young prospect recently signed by the Black Cats.

“They were parading a child around as the next Wayne Rooney. He was five and they had on him on the pitch before a game against Arsenal signing something.”

Green then detailed a story he had also heard recently of “how a Premier League club had signed a four year old and when he got to training, one of the coaches noticed he was still wearing a nappy.”

He continues, “Anybody who says they can spot a five year old and predict that he can be a footballer at 18 is mad, in my opinion. I think there are a lot of coaches who don’t want to be coaching kids at that age, and I know because I’ve spoken with many.

“They don’t see the value in it, they think it’s all about trying to make sure you have kids signed to your academy; just in case.”

Pay to play?

Based in Worcester, Chris now operates from his media centre where I am speaking to him. He believes that since stepping away from his job as an active journalist recently, little improvement in standards have been made.

“Scouts, as I hear it, are currently being paid to get five year olds to development centres that are unregulated – they are getting paid by clubs just simply to fill up the surrounding local centres.

“I know there are scouts operating in the local area, I say scouts in inverted commas of course. We often have no idea whether these are club officials or qualified coaches due to the lack of regulation.”

In light of the recent case of Barry Bennell at Crewe Alexandra – where young players were sexually abused over the course of many years in the 1990s and 1980s – this kind of dream weaving opportunity could present an even greater immediate threat for young footballers.

With no presence of proper regulation, Green questions how the club can truly protect that child and the motives behind this method of recruitment.

“They can get any number of these kids to a centre and go to these things because there is no paperwork; and to me the whole area is where the money is being spent.”

Mental well-being in youth football

More and more we are seeing cases of players after or during their playing careers, struggling and attempting to deal with personal demons.

However the same level of understanding – which is now afforded to those who have been lucky enough to play the game – is often found lacking for those who do not make the grade.

Chris tells me that he considers it “the biggest scandal of the whole system”.

“The fact that clubs can have such a big influence on young people and then just completely wash their hands of any responsibility.”

Often for those who cannot quite realise their ambition after years within a system, this can prove devastating. It has even led to some former academy players taking their own lives after being released.

Whether the FA decide to take advice from the man who provided Chris with the academy system blueprint in 1997 remains to be seen.

But with the emphasis so far simply on putting academy prospects into a professional setting from early; the other issues within the system seem to still be largely ignored.

Chris finishes with a quote from a man he says was a highly respected Premier League youth coach: “He told me that ‘the child is supposed to be first and foremost in the minds of Premier League clubs and that is a f*****g million miles away from how they think’.”

Photos Courtesy of @ChrisGreenMedia

Leeds United – fallen giants

‘We’re not famous anymore’ was the chant ringing around Brighton Station as Leeds fans headed for home.

They had just witnessed their team being torn apart by the Seagulls in embarrassing fashion, conceding four goals in 38 first-half minutes in the teams’ recent Championship encounter at the Amex Arena.

Since playing in the Uefa Champions League at the turn of the millennium, as their teams’ fortunes have gone into decline over the last 15 years, so have Leeds fans’ chants, becoming more and more negative. ‘You’re nothing special, we get beat every week,’ is this season’s favourite.

Admittedly, it made a pleasant change from hearing them bang on about their old European exploits at a volume which could probably be heard across the Channel.

Evidently, some people still regard Leeds as a Premier League club in spirit if not reality – but having been the Manchester City of the early 90s, they have become lost in the modern footballing era.

Not too long ago, Leeds were up there challenging the best both at home and on the continent, but look at them now; a club who once sat at Europe’s top table now regarded as an easy three points by teams in the lower reaches of the Championship.

Hugely promising

Parc des Princes in Paris must seem a long way away now for the once-mighty Whites. That was the scene of Leeds’ biggest ever match, the 1975 European Cup Final against Bayern Munich, but the side who were all-conquering in English domestic football fell just short, going down 2-0.

“Seasons of overstretching, or as chairman Peter Ridsdale infamously called it, ‘living the dream’, finally caught up with Leeds”

In the early 90s, it looked like the glory days might be back at Elland Road, as manager Howard Wilkinson and the inspirational Eric Cantona guided them to glory in the last-ever season of the old Division One in 1991-92, before the establishment of the Premier League.

George Graham soon replaced Wilkinson, but it was under their next manager, David O’Leary, that things got even better, as Leeds built a hugely promising young squad and reached the semi-finals of both the Champions League and Uefa Cup.

But success on the pitch was being funded by deals off it which would come to threaten the club’s very existence.

Overspent

Seasons of overstretching, or as chairman Peter Ridsdale infamously called it, ‘living the dream’, finally caught up with Leeds in March 2002, when they announced £13.8m pre-tax losses for the previous year, a situation only made worse by their failure to quality for Europe.

“The club’s financial downfall loomed and, with turmoil both in the boardroom and dug-out, its foundations had gone from concrete to sand”

Within three years of losing out on the champions league spot, Leeds were set to self-destruct, they had chronically overspent in the summer and the giant was ready to topple.

Terry Venables succeeded O’Leary as manager in July 2002, but it was not to be for the former Barcelona and England coach, who lasted less than one season as the team fell down the Premier League table.

Peter Reid took up the reins to rescue the season but even though he started the following campaign strongly, he was eventually sacked the following season. After 13 years, at the end of the 2003-04 season, the Whites fell out of English football’s top flight. They have not been back since.

The club’s financial downfall loomed and, with turmoil both in the boardroom and dug-out, its foundations had gone from concrete to sand.

Administration

Leeds started offloading players in the summer of 2002, with Rio Ferdinand moving to Manchester United for £30m, then Jonathan Woodgate leaving for Newcastle for 9m, Robbie Keane heading to Tottenham for 7m and Robbie Fowler switching to Manchester City for 6m.

“Club and supporters have had a huge reality check, and one which shows no sign of coming to an end any time soon”

Leeds also sold their training ground and Elland Road Stadium in 2004-2005 seasons to try and make a dent in their mountain of debt.

Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates bought 50% of the club in January 2005 for an estimated £10m, but even he could not stop Leeds going into administration in 2007, a move which cost them 10 points and consigned them to relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.

Their first two seasons in League One saw them reach the play-offs twice only to miss out on promotion, but it was a case of third time lucky in 2009-10 as, under manager Simon Grayson, they finished runners-up and secured promotion back to the Championship.

That season also saw a memorable FA Cup third-round win over old rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford. At long last, things looked to be improving for Leeds.

Outbursts

But when Grayson failed to take the club back to the Premier League, he was duly off-loaded in February 2012, since when Leeds have tried seven different managers – including former Academy boss Neil Redfearn on three different occasions – without any significant improvement.

The arrival of current owner, Italian Massimo Cellino, was welcomed by many Leeds fans as a sign that finally someone with significant financial backing was coming to their aid, but his bizarre personal outbursts and repeated hiring and firing of managers to no great effect have only antagonised supporters even more.

With the end of the current season in sight and manager Steve Evans in charge since October, Leeds currently lie 16th in the Championship. Another season outside England’s football elite beckons for Leeds and their fans.

Over the last 20 years, both club and supporters have had a huge reality check, and one which shows no sign of coming to an end any time soon.

Leeds misses and desperately needs the Premier League – but is the feeling reciprocated? Leeds’ long-suffering fans will have to wait a while longer before they find out if their club is welcomed back.

Photo by Chris Robertshaw via Flickr Creative Commons