Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs are all featuring in the NextGen Series this year. Now in just its second year, the competition, which is essentially a Champions League for U19 players, is already helping talented youngsters make the transition from the youth side to first-team football....
After more than forty years had passed since they last won a major international tournament, Spain’s emergence as the dominance force at international level over the past six years forced all the major footballing nations to re-think their strategy; La Roja established themselves as the leader of the pack, winning the World Cup in 2010 and the European Championships in 2008 and 2012. With a clear blueprint running from the senior side right down to the lowest of youth levels, all playing an almost identical brand of football, the rest of the continent attempted to emulate their successful production line of talent.
Despite the Premier League establishing itself as arguably the best league in the world over the 21st century, its success failed to transfer to the national team. Established stars such as Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney had all played key roles in their respective clubs success, yet they could never consistently perform for their country as they did for their club. They were all mainstays in the national setup, but were no longer in prime form; however, the next crop of players coming through the ranks failed to match up to England’s ‘Golden Generation’.
For a nation the size of England, and with the resources at its disposal to rival that of anywhere else in the world, they were failing to produce the same number of quality players that the other major European – and South American - nations were. The odd result aside, they were technically and tactically outplayed by many of the top nations. After decades of underperforming at international level the warning signs were there, but it took a disastrous World Cup 2010 campaign for the penny to finally drop: England needed to drastically improve its youth football setup.
With a clear blueprint running from the senior side right down to the lowest of youth levels, all playing an almost identical brand of football, the rest of the continent attempted to emulate their successful production line of talent.
That, however, was easier said than done. From grass roots level upwards, the infrastructure needed change. Many kids were brought up by volunteering dads with little or no coaching experience, and were taught to play percentage football, emphasising work-rate and a safety first attitude rather than focusing on the technical and tactical side of the game. For those kids who did manage to secure a place in a professional youth academy, they were often subjected to similarly outdated coaching, albeit at better facilities. Whilst academic progress in school should rightly take precedence, after they turned 16 and focused full-time on football, this is where the need for quality coaching was most required.
The old Premier Academy League and the Premier Reserve League were both split into different regions, meaning that mostly the same clubs would face each other every year – and would often go close to a month before playing a ‘competitive’ game. Many players would play in the same youth/reserve sides for five or more years, meaning that every year that would face the same players, albeit a year older. Apart from the FA Youth Cup, which involved all national academy sides, there was no variety, no coming up against different teams with different ideas. It was contributing little to the development of players, so much so that in 2009, Spurs refrained from entering a team (which led to others following suit).
Something needed to be done, and quick, yet the FA still didn't act. However, thanks to Cycad Sports Management, the NextGen series was created and started last season. The competition was the brainchild of sports TV producer, Justin Andrews, and Mark Warburton, Brentford sporting director (and former Watford Academy director, who also set up the Harefield Academy, a renowned dedicated football school and the first of its kind in the UK). The competition was set up as a way of raising the levels of competition for U19 stars.
The likes of Tony Watt at Celtic, Gary Gardner at Aston Villa, and Davy Klaassen at Ajax are all other players who shone in the NextGen series and have gone on to make strides in the first team.
Designed to replicate the Champions League, clubs are required to play NextGen games either at their home stadium or other suitable alternatives, with affordable tickets available to encourage big crowds and create a better atmosphere. There are also strict squad rules, with a maximum size of 18 players - 15 of which must be 18 or younger – but three players who are 19 are allowed in the squad, and only two of them are allowed to be on the pitch at any one time.
Now into its second year, the NextGen series offers promising talents the opportunity to experience all aspects of a competitive European tournament. Featuring a whole host of the continent’s top sides, with clubs from 12 different countries competing (England, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Scotland, Russia, Turkey, Greece and Norway) the challenges they will face, such as competing against different styles of play, prolonged periods of travel and often two/three match weeks, will help them when making the transition up to the first team. The twenty-four clubs competing in this year’s tournament are divided into six groups of four, where each club will contest a home and an away fixture against each group member; the top two teams from each group and the four teams finishing third who have amassed the most points will progress to the knock-out stages.
As a Liverpool fan, the rise of Raheem Sterling is a shining example of how the competition benefits young players and aids their development. After the diminutive winger had impressed for Liverpool in the U18s and the youth cup, he stepped up the reserves and continued to show his form. He really thrived in the NextGen last season, and he can now be seen in Liverpool's first team, and even the England squad! That's the aim of the tournament, to help youngsters progress their careers. The likes of Tony Watt at Celtic, Gary Gardner at Aston Villa, and Davy Klaassen at Ajax are all other players who shone in the NextGen series and have gone on to make strides in the first team.
Designed to replicate the Champions League, clubs are required to play NextGen games either at their home stadium or other suitable alternatives, with affordable tickets available to encourage big crowds and create a better atmosphere.
The first year was not without growing pains, though. I can only speak from my experience following the Liverpool games in the competition last season, but I can’t help think the club aren’t getting all they can out of the competition. The ticket prices of £5 for adults and £2 for kids aren’t bad, but I can’t help think that if they reduced them further – or even offered kids getting in for free - in order to really entice people to come (the games that I went to, the crowd was made up mostly of juniors - I’ve honestly never seen the food kiosks so busy!) then the players would benefit from playing in front of a packed Anfield rather than just a half-empty Kop.
Liverpool played their first five group games in August and September, but had to wait until mid-November to play their final group game. Liverpool were then defeated in the knockout stages by Spurs, who then withdrew from the competition after admitting they had violated one of the rules and fielded an ineligible player. So Liverpool replaced them in the semi-final against Ajax, but instead of being played at Anfield (where the other group games had been played) it was moved to St Helens Rugby League Club’s Langtree Park Stadium with no explanation. The other semi-final, between Inter Milan and Marseille, was scheduled for Griffin Park, Brentford, and last time I checked, there was no Brentford in Italy. The Final between Ajax and Inter, which Inter won, was played at Leyton Orient's Matchroom Stadium.
Of course, given that it was the inaugural competition, such minor flaws are understandable, but perhaps if the competition had a proper structure, set dates and venues it would feel like a mini-Champions League. Hopefully it will be expanded again next year from 24 teams to a more logical 32 teams. The competition has secured a four-year-deal with Eurosport to screen the games, and the money will ensure the tournament's long-term future as well as give these youngsters the stage to showcase their talents all over the world.
The competition has secured a four-year-deal with Eurosport to screen the games, and the money will ensure the tournament's long-term future as well as give these youngsters the stage to showcase their talents all over the world.
The FA have finally acted and revamped the reserve and youth setup, abolishing the old format and replacing it with the Professional Development League, as well as creating the Elite Player Performance Plan. Quite whether this new system will help further the development of youngsters more than the previous one, but it is a shame that it took an independent sports company to create their own competition for the FA to really step their game up and make the necessary changes.
Still, the NextGen tournament is a welcome addition to the youth football setup, and their efforts should be applauded. Hopefully clubs and players will start to see the benefits sooner rather than later.
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