Cleaning Boots, Scrubbing Floors & Youth Development: Could The Mix Reap Benefits?

Predicting the future of football is hard. Players that are hyped from the age of 15/16 to be incredible world beaters will fall by the wayside while relative unknowns at that age become today’s global superstars. Remember Freddy Adu? One of the “next Pele” kids plying his trade in the States and not in the MLS. Robert Lewandowski was never given that hype and at one point looked set to be on his way to Blackburn Rovers. Now he is arguably the world’s best striker. Of the 1997 England Under 20 squad that went to the World Cup, only Danny Murphy, Michael Owen, Kieron Dyer, Matthew Upson and Jamie Carragher went on to reach full international level while the majority settled for a career further down the footballing ladder.

From a class of ten “wonderkids”, the likliehood is that one or two will fulfil their potential while the rest will not quite reach the level they were expected to. In England, the number actually fulfilling their potential seems to be taking quite a hit recently. The “Golden Generation” of Beckham, Gerrard, Owen, Lampard et al had their last real tournament together in 2006 and since then England have struggled badly. Humiliation by Germany, draws with Costa Rica and Algeria and not qualifying for Euro 2008 have all led many to question why the next generation of talent has been so poor and why the latest new stars often don’t fulfil their potential.

Steven Gerrard’s two autobiographies have both brought up the fact that attitude, humility and work ethic were truly learned by him during his YTS (Youth Training Scheme) days at Liverpool. He might have been one of the stars in the Academy but, like everyone else, had to clean first team players’ boots and changing rooms as well as training to be the next big star at Anfield. He felt that getting rid of this has seen more and more young players think they’ve made it once they get a pro deal and that many don’t kick on which the hard work of the YTS days encouraged so many to do.

It is a view echoed in another book I’ve read recently by a former footballer named David Farrell. He cited his time spent cleaning changing rooms and seeing stars like Aldridge, Dalglish, Rush and Whiteside as the thing that inspired him to try and reach their level. He criticised the way things are now and the amount of money young footballers find thrown at them. It really does raise the question of whether or not the return to the old style of having the young players almost serve an apprenticeship (cleaning boots etc.) while playing in the youth sides would be beneficial and what could be attributed to the rise in the players not fulfilling their potential in England?

Best XI Left Out Of Euro 2020 Squads

Money is certainly what many people will identify as core problem for the number of young players falling by the wayside. It’s a commonly trotted out point, “oh, he’s been on £15,000 a week since 16, he’s basically set for life”, and it’s also a fair one. It’s almost natural for human beings to want more especially when it comes to money and, for many young people, they equate the amount of money in your bank account immediately to success and may perhaps not work quite as hard or at all because they have this cash just sitting there. For a young footballer, this big money is more than welcomed and it can very easily go right to their head, causing them to value themselves higher or, in the worst cases, be more than happy to play reserve team football or sit on a big club’s bench while they collect their pay packet.

This is obviously detrimental to their footballing development and while people have probably thought of capping pay for young players it would be contested hotly, not least by the PFA, for being extremely unfair. It is of course a consequence of the almost ridiculous monetary explosion in football and one that should have been somewhat expected but perhaps not to the extent it has been (Martin Odegaard on a reported £80,000 seems a tad extreme honestly). The money isn’t going anywhere and that excuse is a bit of a lazy one for many. The big pay should be an indication of their current talent and what they could be worth and it should at the very least drive the young player on to try and reach for first team football and international football to at the very least earn more.

What the money point really leads to is mentality and, ominously, attitude. There is a colossal gap between playing youth team football and first team football and bridging it takes not only talent but incredible application and hard work. As a Liverpool fan, I remember when LFCTV was free on Sky and I watched Dani Pacheco tearing up the reserves, wondering when he would be playing in the first team. The problem was that in his fleeting first team games, he was lightweight and never really seemed up to it. Now this is not a personal attack on Pacheco but it never looked like he had the mentality to really prove himself. Give him time on the ball and young players he can bamboozle, then he was a world beater but put him in there with full-fledged pros and he was like a lost child. He had the talent but the mentality and, as clichéd as it is, heart were just not there.

Some players just do not have the mentality required to make it in the game while others that do sometimes do not apply themselves when they do make the breakthrough into the first team. It seems especially in the English game that attitude is a major factor in the success of a young player. Harry Kane was seemingly going nowhere at Spurs until he burst into the nation’s conscience out of the blue and couldn’t stop scoring last season. There is little doubt that Kane has an exemplary attitude and is a player that has worked hard to achieve what he has done in the last year. Compare that to Ravel Morrison, a player compared by many to Paul Gascoigne for his pure natural ability but whose career has had more negative points than positives. He should be a regular in a Premier League midfield but his attitude and application have been nowhere near where they should be to really make himself a star. Application and attitude are clearly massive factors in football success and for many hyped young players, this is their biggest downfall.

A big part of the difference in attitudes between the players who were brought through in the YTS days and now is the media. Whether a player wants to admit it or not, many will check the media to see where they stand or how they’re viewed. It’s a big part of modern football and the access fans have through them is unreal. Youth football is no longer 22 sets of parents and a few random blokes, it’s now a televised regularity whether on club channels or sports channels. Young players are now becoming household names around the country from 16/17, probably being stopped on the street by some fans for photos or autographs and, for some, being hailed as the future of England. It’s a lot for a young person to take in and, if their attitude is poor, then it can lead to an inflated ego and sense of worth. They’re the bees knees and they’re nailed on for success. Yet, while they are relaxing and slacking a teammate is working hard, ready for their opportunity. It’s a slippery slope is media praise.

Josh McEacharan was hailed as the next great English playmaker only four or five years ago but try and find anything on him in the media now. The pressure placed onto McEacharan’s shoulders was enormous from that point on and he was only bound for failure unless he could have literally dislodged Frank Lampard from the Chelsea side and had 40 England caps by now. Being a premier young player in England now is almost worse than being considered an average one as the premier players are subject to this insane pressure that is nigh on impossible to live up to.

It perhaps explains the rising trend of lower league clubs actually harbouring some of the best young talent in the country. The lessened expectations of lower league football is a blessing as it allows a young player the chance to develop and, importantly, play regularly without the media glare hyping them to the moon and inflating their ego. Jamie Vardy served his footballing apprenticeship in the lower leagues and is currently the Premier League’s top scorer. Charlie Austin took the top flight by storm having played lower league football until last season. Dele Alli was recently capped by England and has only played Premier League football since mid-August. Alli is perhaps the best example of a young player that has flourished in the lower leagues and then moved to the Premier League when they were established, developing steadily away from the media glare and despite Alli being made known in the media from a very young age, he was never once hyped to be the next big thing. He was always a supremely talented footballer who would grace the top flight but he wasn’t there yet so don’t bother just now was the media attitude. Lower league football is not a high-rolling lifestyle for young players like many of the big clubs can be and it can provide young players with a mental toughness and humility that will serve them well later on in their career.

So, would an apprenticeship style system still help bear more fruit if it was implemented? Probably. The rather primal and simplistic idea of making the young players work hard doing tasks people naturally avoid to teach humility and respect can and has worked. Cleaning boots gives them the chance to interact with big name players, build relationships with them and learn from them. There is only so much a random man with his UEFA coaching badges can actually tell you about football but the unique experience of first team players can teach young players about the mental side of top level football. They can also check the young player’s attitudes as anyone who has read Gerrard’s first autobiography will attest to (David James putting a young player in a bin for being cheeky is a personal favourite).

It’s unlikely to return however, as English football continues its obsession with copying every other successful nation. Young players have become conditioned to being catered for and all they have to do is as they are told and they are fine as they collect their pay packet while every coach is focused on being Guardiola or Klopp and forgetting they are there to get players to the next level. Forget attitude or hard work, passing the ball is more important. Everything is routine, irrespective to attitude or ability so a change like this would undoubtedly be opposed passionately and shot down immediately. However, I certainly can’t see another way that attitude and application across young players could be improved to try and produce better English players.

Like the 4-4-2, sweeping floors and cleaning boots fell out of favour in the 90s yet the principles and values that it instilled in young players like Terry, Gerrard and Lampard helped them to the pinnacles of the game. Yet, with media hype and money, young players are doing less to earn more as their application and attitudes suffer. English football is losing sight at the highest level while the Football League continues to be prosperous for its future. Is making them do menial jobs the solution to all their problems? Not a chance, but crucially it can definitely make a noticeable difference.

And let’s be honest: hard work has never hurt anybody.

Featured image taken by Football Wallpapers.

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