Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughMan Utd Youth Policy - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Man Utd Youth Policy - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Man Utd Youth Policy

As a sombre Sir Alex Ferguson faced the world’s media after his side’s humbling at the hands of Barcelona, the fiery Scot displayed a graciousness that is seldom seen from this master of media manipulation.  “Great teams go in cycles,” said Ferguson of the Spanish magicians, “and they’re at the peak of the cycle they’re in at the moment.”

The origins of the talent crucial to this cycle have been well documented. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Busquets, Puyol, Piqué, Valdés: all products of La Masía, Barcelona’s famed academy set-up that has in recent years annihilated the traditionally-lauded academies at clubs like Ajax and Boca Juniors to emerge undisputedly as the world’s best breeding ground for young footballers.

In contrast, the production line of talent from Manchester United’s training ground at Carrington has slowed dramatically.  Since the stellar class of ’92 burst into the limelight and defied Alan Hansen’s predictions (it seems you can win things with kids, Mr Hansen), the next generation of Beckhams, Giggs and Nevilles have resoundingly failed to impress.

Don’t be lured into thinking that the team’s recent F.A. Youth Cup victory signals a turning of the tide.  When the club last won this competition in 2003, the leading lights were Phil Bardsley, Kieran Richardson and Chris Eagles.  It’s safe to say that none of this promising trio set Old Trafford alight during their transition into senior football, and it’s a similar tale if you compare the squad that reached the 2007 final, of which the raw Danny Welbeck remains the only member likely to retain a genuine future at The Theatre of Dreams.

Ferguson puts it down regulation.  In this country, there are countless pieces of red tape stopping our clubs from overworking any talented youngster, chief of which is the rule agreed between the Premier League and the Football Association that clubs cannot work with their youth team players for longer than 90 minutes a day.

“People have to understand the mechanics of the industry we are working in,” Ferguson said. “We are only allowed to coach youngsters for an hour and a half, they [Barcelona] can coach every hour of the day if they want to. That’s the great advantage they have got. It is a fantastic philosophy.

“We hope that in years to come our coaches will be able to spend more time with young kids, to teach them the basics, the technical abilities and the confidence to keep the ball all the time. We are good at it, but not as good as Barcelona at this moment in time. It is a wonderful challenge and we should always accept a challenge.”

For a time stretching back far beyond my own footballing memories, England has bemoaned a lack of tactical finesse that football’s Latin countries seem to possess in abundance.  Pace and power are the two crucial ingredients for any aspiring footballer here, with technical deficiencies forgotten if they can run the 100m in under 12 seconds.

Maybe Ferguson has a point.  La Masía is officially the name of the halls of residence where Barcelona’s academy players live during the season, but has slowly evolved to become a byword for the club’s outstanding approach to youth development.  Players live, breath and sleep Barcelona during their time at La Masía.  They are schooled there, rest there, play there; these young protégés are hypnotised by the philosophy and culture of one of the world’s most mythical football clubs, with the affiliation they feel for Barcelona reaching far deeper than that experienced by any players currently enrolled at one of Britain’s equivalent academies.

Is this the right way to go though?  While Barcelona may be reaping the awards of their glorious academy, not everybody can be Lionel Messi.  For every Prince that emerges to star at the Camp Nou every week, there are a dozen more unfortunate paupers who fail to meet the required standard, crushed under the huge weight of expectation that comes from being at the world’s most prestigious football school.

The F.A. made the 90-minute rule not in some vindictive swipe at Premier League clubs to stop them competing with the great and good on the continent.  They did it to protect the countless good-but-not-great prospects destined to spend their football careers at a much less illustrious level, hopefully ensuring that they had sufficient education to fall back on should their dream not become reality.

The situation is a hideous dilemma faced by our country’s football governing body, with either side producing valid and justifiable arguments.  Do you replicate the Barcelona model, immerse our most gifted youngsters in football and simply sacrifice the majority that are unable to fulfil the standard?  Or do you keep in mind the bigger picture, maintain an awareness of life outside football and watch while our footballers are routinely outclassed by the more refined talents of Europe and South America?  Whatever it is decided, I’m sure Sir Alex Ferguson will have something to say about it.

Jon Vale

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