Writing from a Scottish perspective, it is easy to attribute our domestic games devastating decline to lack of money. Looking at the money spinning sponsorship that the English game has had, as well as the Spanish League and German League, it could be said that Scotland has become such a poor footballing nation on all levels due to the lack of real funding in our game.
However, is it all about finances, or has the recent revelation in the quality of youth players at top European clubs, put our own country’s youth system into damning perspective?
Celtic and Rangers, who are equipped with state of the art training facilities and youth academies, have only 7 and 10 home-grown players in their squads respectively.
Of these players, only James Forrest for Celtic and Jamie Ness, John Fleck, Gregg Wylde, Andy Little and Allan McGregor have made over 10 appearances for their club and could be considered regulars. A damning statistic considering the evident lack of money in Scottish football, and also where there is a growing trend that the Old Firm have consistently bought Scottish players from sides such as Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United. This trend disproves the point that Scottish youth players just aren’t good enough, but more that, at the big clubs especially, youth players just aren’t getting a chance despite the real lack of quality in the first teams already.
Focusing on Celtic and Rangers may be seen as an easy option, but being the most dominant teams in Scottish football, both clubs represent the best chance for our youth players to be tested against high class opposition domestically and more significantly in Europe too.
So, are our players just not good enough? Or are the managers at top level in Scotland too scared to take risks when promoting youth players to their squad?
There could be a case for the latter, and the examples of Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and most significantly Manchester Utd could provide examples of how it doesn’t always take money, to achieve the best results.
There was much made of the ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ statement by Alan Hansen when describing the chances of Manchester United’s golden generation lifting the Premiership title in 1995, but contrary to much of what Alan Hansen says, he was proved wrong and the side went on to lift that title, along with many more in the next 10 years.
Not many people predicted a second coming of a United ‘golden generation’ but from the start of this season, it appears to have happened.
Sir Alex Ferguson, following winning the championship last year as well as reaching the Champions League, has managed to strengthen his side with youthful acquisitions and the emergence of top class players from the youth system. The sign of a good manager is not resting on his laurels and Ferguson has done this time and time again, reaching a consistently high standard every time.
Firstly, the capture of Ashley Young was possibly the best of the summer, with the England midfielder beginning the season with 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 games. Secondly, Ferguson was able to sign highly rated England Under 21 international Phil Jones from Blackburn and David De Gea from Atletico Madrid, two players who will most definitely spend the best years of their career in Manchester.
Most significantly for United this season, the emergence of Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling, although not directly from the youth system, has took the team’s game to a whole new level. Cleverley had managed to start all four of United’s Premier League games after his outstanding performance in the second half of the Community Shield, keeping Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher out the team and providing another creative spark in the last third for United. Sadly though, the midfielder was injured in the 5-0 United win at Bolton, an injury which he could have definitely done without.
Welbeck has also emerged from the shadows at Old Trafford, after a successful loan spell at Sunderland last year. Starting the first three games of United’s season before being injured, his electric pace, smart link up play and Cantona-esque composure in front of goal has led to two goals in three games, keeping Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov out the squad.
Both players have turned themselves in to Manchester United regulars, and the sooner they return from injury the stronger the team will get. However, one player who remains in the starting XI and a pivotal part of the squad is Chris Smalling.
Smalling, changing from centre back to right back, has took his game to a whole new level after a brilliant debut season with the champions and doesn’t look like stopping his outstanding form. Although signed from Fulham for £10million two summers ago, Ferguson has managed to trust Smalling on the biggest stage, and after an assured display, as well as a goal against Chelsea in the Community Shield, he has made the right back slot his own. This led to special praise from Ferguson and international manager Fabio Capello, who started the defender in his side’s latest qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales.
De Gea, Smalling and Jones will provide stability for United for many years to come and have already shown they can be relied upon in the absence of Ferdinand, Vidic and the retirement of Van Der Sar. Young, Cleverley, Welbeck as well as Hernandez and Rooney will be relied upon to create the attacking verve and flamboyancy that has always been attributed with Ferguson sides.
The most devastating thing for the rest of the Premier League though, is that this side is filled with relatively experienced young players such as Rooney, Anderson, Fletcher, Nani and Young, but with Cleverley, Welbeck, Jones, De Gea and Smalling added to the squad, the kids have every chance of dominating domestically as well as in Europe for years to come.
The emerging youthful side Ferguson has built has also managed to achieve United’s best start to a season under his tenure, a statistic which begs the question can they still move up a level? If so, Ferguson could find himself winning even more with his kids.
Success is most definitely now going to depend on producing high quality youth players, and teams such as Rangers and Celtic, with little money to spend, will have to follow the trend or see the terrible effect it will have on the quality of their play and success domestically and in Europe.