20 March, 2008

The Younger the Better

No, not a reference to our editorial staff’s dating policy, but in fact a nicely sweeping generalization of today’s football scouting procedures. So in the past we’ve had landmarks from the likes of Pele and Ronney making severe splashes at the age of 17, and even Premier League debuts from James Milner, among others, at just 16, but over the last couple of years things seem to have accelerated at an alarming pace.

Barcelona’s up-and-comers are treated as professionals essentially from the age of about 15, which is bad enough, and then last year a huge fuss was kicked up by many major European superpowers surrounding a Brazilian wonderkid, (obviously dubbed the new Pele/Ronaldinho/Kaka) named Jean Carlos, who was just a sickening 12 years old. Now make no mistakes about it, this kid can seriously play (check him embarrassing age-groups up to under-15) but how can you ever really make a serious career decision on someone that young? I guess teams like AC Milan and Manchester United with bottomless coffers would argue that talent is always worth speculating on in case you do find that next unique prodigy, but plucking a 12-year-old kid from his home thousands of miles away and dropping him in a 24 / 7 football life still strikes me as a little off. Without doubt, it’s every kid’s dream, and as the saying goes, no risk no reward, but an element of parental or club responsibility has to come into it, especially when dealing with trainees who aren’t natives. All of you who read the piece we ran on Eric Djemba-Djemba last week will recall the plight he suffered as a result of too much money at too young an age, and it’s clear how easily things can all go wrong without any kind of real adult guidance.

Now however, things are officially out of hand, with Everton today announcing their success in attracting a young goalkeeper named Harry Yates to the club who is, get this, 7 (seven) years old. Having beaten off interest from Liverpool and Manchester United, the plan for this kid is to meet with David Moyes next Wednesday and then actually sign, although at the moment the Toffees will not have to part with any money. Yates was recently spotted playing for his school team, and is understandably over-the-moon about this fantastic opportunity. Speaking to the Daily Star, Harry’s dad, a local plumber and former keeper himself called Phil, had these words:

“Playing in goal is his number one passion – he really has no other hobbies. He’s not stopped talking about it and says he's got butterflies in his tummy. But he is old enough to understand what a big thing this is and we have had to keep his feet on the ground. He also knows he can be dropped just as easily if the effort flags, but it will be a fantastic experience for him as he meets up with all their first team stars.”

This latest incident begs the question of just where will it all end; if this recent trend continues, it won’t be long until scouts are literally being placed in every hospital around the country, waiting to test male babies as soon as they’re born.

‘This one just did an around-the-world juggle Dave.’

‘Oh ok great, well snip his umbilical chord and let’s sign him up then!’

The constant concern as professional ages plummet and actual contracts are offered to increasingly younger kids is: do football teams truly care about these kids? And by that I mean, as people, and not just as potential match-winners and money-makers. With this week’s announcement that £200million is being pumped into youth development and homegrown talent by the FA, I’d like to think this is one of the main points they’re considering. This huge cash injection is the perfect opportunity to bring about a few necessary changes to the country’s youth system generally, with more independent and nationally-regulated academies the way forward. Clearly football would still be the main focus, but with governmental interest, emphasis could also still be placed on traditional schooling and academic subjects, instead of the blinkered approach currently favoured by the country’s club academies. One needs only to listen to Joe Cole attempt to speak to know that these don’t exactly offer a well-rounded education.

If we’re going to accept that for some of these young kids, a career only in football is ahead of them, then why not properly prepare them for that lifestyle, in the hope that the next generation will set a better example than the current crop? Being a footballer and having a triple-digit IQ don’t have to be mutually exclusive, that’s just the way things are now. By keeping identified talent in a pool together, and away from specific club allegiances until as late as possible, they could ideally be taught the responsibilities that go with the privilege alongside traditional school subjects. Issues of accountancy and contractual law could therefore be drilled into players at a young enough age to protect them from Djemba-Djemba-esque financial problems, while some form of basic life-coaching from an ex-pro could be easily used to help moderate public behaviour. It’s an unrealistic dream sure, but something has to be done if we accept that poaching kids at ages under 10 is gonna happen.