FEATURE: The Crazed Obsession With Youth Football

Thinking back to the days where Stuart Pearce or Kevin Keegan were managing Manchester City – and the days where the club had little money to spend after the latter’s splurge during his early time in charge – the squad was, at times, paper thin. Throughout there were gaps; the so-called ‘star’ names needed to play week-in week-out and there was little rotation. Strength in depth was a foolhardy dream.

Equally, players that had graduated from the youth academy heavily supplemented the team – though, in truth, many weren’t ready for the step up on a regular basis. It was hardly a surprise that the likes of Lee Croft, Willo Flood, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Ishmael Miller or Stephen Jordan didn’t forge a career at the top level. Many still amassed a fair few appearances for the club, however.

That’s because, for a brief time, they did a job and played their part in seasons where – however desperate it got at times – City stayed in the Premier League.

Things have changed. City’s squad is now full of that world-class talent it previously missed and, of course, places for the youth products are few and far between. There’s no longer the necessity to bring them in. It’s not a case of needing to fill places on the bench any more. Equally, the club has fewer dead rubbers at the end of a season to blood the youth; settling for 40 points is City in 2006, not 2016.

Aston Villa v Manchester City - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round

However, there’s an increasingly vocal section of the City support that seems desperate to see youngsters given “a chance”. I use quotation marks because that’s the phrase so regularly uttered when Manuel Pellegrini names a starting line-up of 11 senior players and a bench of seven further senior players. The insinuation is that the manager is being a blockage in the route to the first team for the legions of talented youth players that are currently plying their trade in the Elite Development Squad.

In the games against Arsenal or Chelsea or Liverpool, the mood is much more understanding – they’re tough opposition. But when the other team is a Premier League struggler or it’s a match in one of the two domestic cups and the manager has chosen to rotate a little, but still use only senior players in the starting line-up, the disappointment can turn quite vitriolic.

The Chilean was rightly criticised for his subs bench when City crashed out – unexpectedly – of the League Cup in 2014-15 to Newcastle. He’d named perhaps the strongest starting line-up he could, save for swapping first choice goalkeeper Joe Hart with back-up Willy Caballero. Yet his bench was still made up of experienced pros.

At the time, it was entirely possible that City could have been 3-0 or 4-0 up mid-way through the second half and he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to introduce any of the club’s EDS players. As it turned out, they were awful and lost the match 0-2 – so it was, in the end, immaterial.

Roll forward a season and there was widespread annoyance, tipping over into anger, that Pellegrini’s starting 11 for the trip to the Stadium of Light in the League Cup third round contained only senior players. Kelechi Iheanacho, who had made fleeting appearances by that stage and was being hyped up by many who had seen him play at younger levels and in preseason, was injured and it seems likely the boss would have given him time on the field for that match.

Leading 4-0, Pellegrini brought on Patrick Roberts, Manu Garcia and George Evans for their debuts. The evening probably couldn’t have gone better, despite how some were feeling before kick off.

It all started at the end of last season. Jesus Navas became the focal point for the anger and disappointment at the whole of the first team under-performing in 2014-15 and, with the rise of the EDS side and the £200m investment that had gone into opening the new academy in East Manchester, many seemed to assume that the step to the first team was now smaller than it had ever been. It would be a simple task for Brandon Barker, for instance, to come in and take over form the Spaniard based on how he’d done at youth level.

In truth, the jump has probably never been bigger – Barker couldn’t hold down a place at Rotherham, under Neil Redfern who once headed-up Leeds United’s academy fairly successfully. This isn’t to say Barker never will be good enough for the City team, but clearly there is a reason for him to be still yet to be given a run in the side as many wanted.

Pellegrini pulled the same trick he did at Sunderland in the next round against Crystal Palace. The original line-up was strong (and contained a start for Iheanacho), then at 3-0 he threw in Roberts and Garcia. The latter scored City’s fifth of the evening.

It’s a habit the Chilean has fallen into. He takes all matches in all competitions seriously as he clearly sees them as an opportunity to give the fans something to celebrate – it might “only” be the League Cup, but who didn’t enjoy the 3-1 win over Sunderland at Wembley in 2014?

City struggled against Hull, only scoring the second in the 4-1 win with 10 minutes left to play. Reflecting this, Pellegrini’s changes were far less risky. He didn’t bring on Cameron Humphreys or Manu Garcia; instead Raheem Sterling and Kelechi Iheanacho left the bench, with Martin Demichelis shoring things up too.


With Wembley in sight and a tough draw against Everton, few are complaining that he went full strength for the two-legged tie and did enough to progress to the final. There won’t be many who moan when his line-up for the match with Liverpool is full strength, too – in fact, it would likely be that he’d be heavily criticised for not taking the game seriously if he rotated and started some youth players.

Pellegrini pulled exactly the same trick in the FA Cup this season. At Norwich, when 3-0 up and coasting, Bersant Celina was given some first team experience. With the side 4-0 up and cruising at Villa Park on Saturday, Angelino and Humpreys made their debuts, with some more time being given to Celina as well.

Indeed, one of the youngsters that Pellegrini has been keeping on a tight leash all season benefited from leading the line in the FA Cup fourth round. Iheanacho exploded on the scene with a goal at Crystal Palace and the hat-trick at Villa Park has many saying he’s now arrived in senior football. The “treat them mean, keep them keen” principle could have been one of the biggest factors in his display.

Fans have been increasingly frustrated that Wilfried Bony – who isn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, though clearly he’s never settled at City – continued to be named ahead of the Nigerian. Iheanacho’s slow introduction will be doing a lot for his development, keeping him hungry, desperate to play and not complacent. This isn’t the time where the manager looks at his options and he’s got Bernardo Corradi and Georgios Samaras to pick from; he can play a longer game with a player that’s clearly got a lot of time on his side.

That hat-trick may be both the result of that slow process and the reason why he’ll be given a hell of a lot more playing time from now on, perhaps even to the point of being swapped into the Champions League squad. After weeks of sitting on the bench, waiting for his chance, he’s gone on to the pitch desperate to show what he can do – and it’s worked.

Manchester City v Aston Villa

City’s position in 2016 isn’t one where they need players to fill in from a young age. They have a squad designed to deal with injuries and suspensions, so Roberts is better served going on loan to Celtic as is reported – it would be madness to throw him into first team duties to deputise for Kevin De Bruyne while he’s out injured.

Fans love players like Micah Richards, who graduate and perform well in the first team to nail down a place. But those examples are few and far between – other than him, only really Shaun Wright-Phillips excited supporters on a consistent basis. Perhaps for a brief spell so did Joey Barton, Stephen Ireland and Nedum Onuoha, but to nowhere near the same scale.

City haven’t invested £200m into the academy for nothing, but the truth is the majority of players there aren’t going to make it to the first team. Speaking to the Blue Moon Podcast a few years back, former academy head Jim Cassell talked about creating well-rounded human beings who had a career in football, rather than a set of skilful wonder-kids that would light up the City first team. It’s entirely possible that the Blues will have a starting line-up that came through the academy, but it’s about as likely as winning the National Lottery jackpot – it’s expecting too much to think that’ll happen in the next few years.

Some players might not be up to Premier League standard until later in the careers. There are examples of late developers, who trawl the football league until getting promoted a couple of times and end up being a hit in the top flight. Others may be up to helping a team stay in the Premier League, but be well of the pace when it comes to helping a team win it.

The majority of youngsters at City won’t be the next Wright-Phillips, Richards, or even Iheanacho. But some will – and they will get a chance in the first team. So calm down on the youth football front – they don’t all need to start in every cup competition going when there’s the slightest hint of an “easy” draw and Pellegrini doesn’t need to bring them off the bench every time he’s winning a match 3-0 when he’s got other, first team players to keep interested, fit and in form.

Just because £200m has been spent on the academy doesn’t mean it will bear fruit immediately. Fans need to stop pinning all of their graduate hopes on certain individuals, then being baffled when those dreams are misplaced.

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Written by David Mooney.


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4 comments on “FEATURE: The Crazed Obsession With Youth Football
  1. I think this fails to address many points. It’s a one-sided argument.

    1) It’s common sense. Our players in the first team are knackered, thus injured, and over-exerted repeatedly by poor planning. Hence the 50 injuries this season, literally 50. Use talented, eager, bright kids to rest their legs selectively every now and then for 30 minutes.

    Two benefits of that. Senior players are fresher and have a greater impact, young lads show their uses and learn

    2) Could save us a fortune. Case in point – Kelechi. He is not the only one who can be useful. He wasn’t some kid head and shoulders above them all. I know, cos I’ve watched them week in week out. He was another excellent prospect amongst other excellent prospects.

    3) Our kids are very good. No, seriously – they are. Genuinely. Successful, talented, intelligent ball players with a great work ethic. Not some kids who are gonna boot the ball of the pitch. We could have uneartehed a couple of stars potentially by now if we’d give a few more 20 mins here and there as and when we could. And we definitely could.

    4) Emotionally it means more. It actually does. People are bored of £30m signings to an extent. Hard to feel any real connection to them and there is a nostalgia attached to the use of them thats understandable

    5) Its creates a healthy, vibrant culture and it keeps senior players on their toes. Plus younger players are more maluable. Pochettino said recently he likes younger players cos theyre more eager to work and adapt to his shape and so on. There’s a usefulness to this thats easy to see.,

    There are probably more points that have slipped my mind, but in general its common sense. No ones asking for ten kids to replace players, just be used sensibly and intelligently to help the squad and broaden our options…and perhaps unearth another Kelechi which is very very possible.

  2. One of my other loves is Rugby League. This reminds me so much of Wigan’s approach during the glorious period of 1988-1995.
    One or two young players were identified each season, and slowly drip fed into the first team, via the substitutes bench, and, along with shrewd purchases from ‘lower’ clubs.

    These players made their mark, and became established first teamers, and internationals as well. It still carries on today.

    It helps that they come into a situation that they are surrounded by top, and, indeed, world class players, so there is no immediate pressure on them (apart from being told to bag a winner at Palace in the last minute, haha)

    The loan system is the only real way we have to see the EDS play ‘adult’ football, although the clubs we loan to will always consider their own position first, quite rightly.

    It’s been talked about in the past, but time to consider looking at the system in operation in Spain, where the top clubs B sides compete at a high level?

  3. A good and very sensible and accurate article.

    There is now a clamour amongst some of our supporters to bring the kids in because they are doing well at EDS and youth levels, and ” are far better than X or Y ( usually a player who isn’t performing well for whatever reason ) currently in the first team squad.

    It may be that the kids are showing potential, but whether they are ready for our first team squad is questionable, and usually not a judgement that a supporter is able to make from the time they have watched them.

    The professionals who see them day in, day out on the training pitch being in a far better position to make that judgement.

    Also, because United are playing more of their younger players in their team, seems to act like a catalyst for the ” knowledgeable ” supporters to voice their opinions, but in truth we don’t really know whether they are being played out of necessity – like City had to do in the past. Too much emphasis is placed on ” what other teams are doing ” , and especially United.

    We no longer need to look at what our neighbours are doing, as we are in a stronger position than them in my opinion.

    I prefer to let the professionals make the big calls, and trust them to know when and where to bring our younger players in, to achieve the best long term outcome.

  4. It is not only a problem with city fans ,all clubs fans have this Dewey eyed nostalgic view of things that all eleven players should be born within 5 miles of the stadium!! It is a very nice idea of course but in city’s case probably only last happened when they were st.marks in Gorton .fact is and always has been clubs with money will always BUY to succeed.the much lauded Manchester United youth system has had 2 golden periods ( 1992 & 1950,s busby babes ) apart from that a very average production line of talent , city had the class of 86 – many had to play in the first team through necessity as the club had zero money for transfers. If the youth team players are good enough they will succeed, but as history has taught us the vast majority are not and do not .whether this changes with the incoming Catalonian remains to be seen.

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