Ange says there’s no magic door for young players. I think there should be.
When asked ‘Does the Richarlison injury open the door for Dane Scarlett to get an opportunity?’ this is how Ange responded. And, in light of my previous blog, Ange – Small C Conservative?, it made my spidey senses tingle.
‘Yeah but the door is never closed. He trains with us every day and all the players are in the same boat. That door is always open. If you’re waiting for some secret, magic door to open, it doesn’t exist. The door is always open and they have an opportunity every day to put themselves in front of me and the coaches to make an impact and wait for their opportunity.’Football.London
I am, obviously, sensitive about this because: 1. I am an advocate for our Academy as a talent pool and a revenue stream and 2. Ange has quite a poor record when it comes to bringing through young players.
What Ange is saying here is what 95% of football coaches in the league system would say. It’s seen as common sense. It is the conventional wisdom. It’s also — I believe — wrong. And it’s what the best modern coaches are starting to reject. Here’s why I believe that. And, caveat, I’m not suggesting for a second that Dane Scarlett should get an extended run in the first team at the moment. Whisper it, but I’m not even 100% sold on Scarlett as a future Spurs player. This isn’t about Scarlett. But it is about the magic door.
Let’s think about the typical journey of a young player. They start playing from an extremely young age and, by 8 or 9, they get picked up by a team — a good local team in their town, a county team, or maybe even a professional or semi-professional club. And the seriousness of their hobby starts to take hold, training a couple of times a week, playing a match every weekend. County trials, Academy trials. And then at 12 or 13 they join an academy programme and it ramps up again, parent or parents shuttling them around to training and matches constantly. Kicking a ball around in the garden every night after school. They give up their social lives and weekends and they become somewhat obsessed with football, eventually moving up the age groups until, at 15, they find out whether they are to be offered a scholarship. They get the nod and they move into digs, attending training daily but also being given a college education and taking exams, all the while still focussed and hungry, possibly having some one-to-one technical coaching on top of their regular routine. All whilst dealing with the challenges of being a teenager. It’s a lot. And then, at 17, they find out if they are to be given a professional contract.
Of course, the work isn’t over then. In fact, it’s likely just beginning. If you’re really good you’re moved up to the Development Squad — now playing against boys and men who are physically more advanced, tactically perhaps two or three years ahead of you in their learning, some of whom will have league experience and the know-how that playing against wily, old pros affords you. Perhaps, if you’re really lucky, you get to join in first team training every now and again and the standard blows your mind. It’s so fast and frenetic and everyone is in peak condition. You’re at Tottenham so you’re training with players who are mostly full internationals, they’re likely in the top 1% of players in the world in their position. You hold your own, you’re still showing your potential, you’re seen as a future star. But in order to get a chance in your position — let’s say forward — you are told that there’s no magic door and instead you have to essentially be as good in training than literal-best-finisher-in-the-world Son Heung-min and Brazilian international Richarlison to get some form of opportunity.
Obviously, obviously that’s not going to happen. And I’ve dragged this out and I’ve made a lot of assumptions about Ange’s quote to lay it on really thick. But this argument taken to its extreme is why I believe there has to be a magic door for young players. Of course all the players are not ‘in the same boat’, as Ange put it. Some have thousands of minutes of experience to show you that they can be ‘trusted’ and others do not.
Without a magic door, young players either have to be outperforming their rivals — likely impossible — or they have to wait for an injury crisis so crippling that all of their competition, as well as all existing first team players that could feasibly play their position (I refer you again to Ange – Small C Conservative?) to be injured or unavailable. This is yesterday’s logic. It is an approach which will hinder young players, not be illustrative of a genuine pathway, and will lead to the decline, over time, of our Academy, as the best talent will see that there is little chance of them making it at Spurs. We’ve just been through one of those periods before Fabio Paratici (rightly) threw money at the situation to resolve it, raising the wages we offer for players’ first professional contracts to make us more competitive and more of a tempting proposal.
My view is that the best young players from our Academy — provided they show the requisite technical ability, mental and physical resilience, and work ethic — need to be given opportunities regardless of injury, regardless of whether they are better than the next best alternative. When we look at the outstanding young players we have signed — the likes of Destiny Udogie, Micky van de Ven, Pape Matar Sarr and now Lucas Bergvall — we see players who obviously had talent, but most importantly had opportunity. Destiny Udogie did not just plop out of the Udinese academy fully-formed. Had he been at Spurs, I’d guess that Udogie would have been in the Under-21s by 17, probably would have stayed there for 18-months to two years before being loaned to Doncaster Rovers at 19, then Bristol City at 20 and then maybe he’d be getting his first start the following season. Instead, he joined us, aged 20, with around five and a half thousand Serie A minutes under his belt.
The argument will go that the stakes are lower at Udinese. The budget is lower too. So there’s less competition, and more space for Academy players. Or maybe it’s that our young players are just not as good as those at other clubs.
Let’s look at Liverpool this week. The front six who played in their Under-21 match against Stoke City on 11 February all played for the Liverpool first team this week. That Under-21 side is 8 points behind us in the PL2. Bobby Clark has been playing some England U19 football with Jamie Donley, Alfie Dorrington, Ashley Phillips, Will Lankshear and Luca Gunter. Clark didn’t get into last two England U19 squads, Donley started both matches. Louie Koumas only got his first Wales call-up at Under-19 level. Jayden Danns has been in and out for England – never called up to Under-17s. Same for Kaide Gordon. James McConnell has never played for England at any level. Nyoni is the exception — he’s a gem and has played a lot for England Under-16s. All of this is to say that Liverpool’s youth players are objectively not better than ours. The only difference is opportunity.
What Liverpool seem to be good at is giving young players opportunity, regardless of whether they see them as long-term prospects. Of these six players, only one or two will become long-term Liverpool squad members at a guess. But there are many reasons why it’s beneficial to use Academy players (as I discussed here and here).
Daniel Levy has made it clear that Ange saw the importance of the Academy (sources: Daily Mirror, Evening Standard). He has made it clear that it is an important piece of the club strategy. I think it’s important to be clear about what this might mean: 1. it’s important that we have a coach that integrates Academy players because we are producing top-level players who can improve our playing squad and/or 2. it’s important that we have a coach that integrates Academy players because we are producing future football league players who can become an incredibly useful revenue stream. I choose to believe both of these statements but, even if you only believe in the second, it’s undeniable that exposure to men’s football increases the value of academy players ahead of onward sales.
Anyway, I’ve extrapolated an awful lot from a throw-away comment in a press conference, and I almost feel guilty about it because I love Ange so much. I wish he had said ‘All I can ask of our talented young players is that they keep working hard to improve and understand our system and, when the right time comes, I will give them opportunities to show what they can do on the pitch.’ I hope Simon Davies can work some magic on Ange over the next 12 to 18 months.