Wednesday 26 September 2012
Footballing philosophy and vision was on the agenda as the Premier League brought together 40 Professional Development League coaches and Premier League academy directors last week for their third Leadership Journey Event, held at the new National Football Centre at St George’s Park, Burton-On-Trent.
With a view to reinforcing the Elite Players Performance Plan [EPPP] – the new youth policy designed to improve the quality and quantity of home-grown players in the Barclays Premier League – academy coaches from Barcelona and Southampton were invited by the Premier League to give presentations on the thinking and methodology behind their club's ground-breaking youth systems.
"Nicola Cortese has a five-year plan to have 50% of Southampton's academy boys playing in our first team in the Barclays Premier League"
"We put these events on for all the League coaches in each of the phases of the 'Performance Pathway'," Ged Roddy, the Premier League's Director of Youth said, referring to the three-phrase programme for when players join clubs at the age of nine through to the Under-21 level.
"Today we have all the Professional Development phase lead coaches from our clubs. It is an opportunity for them to experience what their colleagues are doing in various aspects of the game.
The event was focused on coaching philosophy and the approaches of two particular clubs: Southampton and Barcelona. England manager Roy Hodgson also attended and explained about his approach to coaching.
For a club that has been the pre-eminent force in European club football Barcelona's philosophy is relatively simple. "Our philosophy is to keep the ball, to play and to enjoy," said Joan Vila, the Head of Methodology, who was invited by the Premier League to speak and whose presentation enjoyed a packed auditorium of Professional Development Phase coaches, Youth Academy directors and senior members of the FA.
"We believe only in this way will the players thrive and the fans enjoy our football." Vila spoke for an hour and a half about how Barcelona's youth academy is run at Juan Gamper and, most importantly, the philosophy which underpins everything they do.
There are myriad strands to Barcelona's detailed footballing education programme, in which 80 boys live full-time at their La Masia residence. Behind it all, however, is one simple rule: keep possession. "'The ball is your best friend', we teach our students," said Vila. "'Losing possession is a fatality'."
"Our philosophy is to keep the ball, to play and to enjoy"
From the ideas conceived by Rinus Michels in the early 1970s and nurtured by Johan Cruyff from 1985 onwards, Barcelona's vast infrastructure has evolved to produce a club who boasted seven players in Spain's UEFA EURO 2012-winning side.
"They told us 17 of their 25-man UEFA Champions League squad are home-grown players,” said Terry Westley, the Premier League's Senior Club Support Manager. "That quashes the theory it is too difficult to get many youth players into the first team. They are the best team in Europe and they produce their own so it's a good club to have over to see what they’re doing and how they are doing it."
Southampton Academy Manager Matt Crocker also spoke about the philosophy and vision which has helped Southampton to emerge as one of the pioneers of youth development in England.
"Our executive chairman Nicola Cortese has a five-year plan to have 50% of our academy boys graduated and playing for our first team, playing in the Barclays Premier League, challenging for Europe and playing our attractive brand of football," said Crocker.
"It's fantastic to have the opportunity to hear from the likes of Barcelona, which is a great model to look at in terms of a long-term sustainable model for a football club. It gives you a great insight and the motivation to go back and share the ideas with our staff and push our programmes forward."
Crocker added that the EPPP, which ensures better age-appropriate coaching, increased coaching hours for kids and better coaching facilities, has also helped clubs who have a progressive attitude to youth development thrive.
"The EPPP has been one of the best things for youth development in this country for many years"
"It covers a multi-disciplinary programme," he said. "You're not just developing the players technically and tactically, there's the physical element, the psychological element and the educational benefits that encompass the programme.
"It's also about us getting more access to the boys and spending more time on the grass. Facility development is another thing, not just having time with the boys, but having time with the boys in state-of-the-art facilities and with world-class coaches is only going to benefit everyone."
Southampton's executive director Les Reed also highlighted the importance of the EPPP for the future of the game. "It has been one of the best things for youth development in this country for many years," said Reed, whose own academy has produced five players training daily with the first team.
"I used to be technical director at the FA and we started with The Charter For Quality and it slipped away a bit. But the EPPP has picked up the reins and taken it to the next level.
"I hope that everyone does get behind it because we've got some talent in this country but it’s what we do with it when they are 17 upwards. We let them down a little bit, and the EPPP will make a great difference.
"It gives players the opportunity to play in the first teams at their clubs," he continued. "The Under-21 League that has come along with EPPP will be of major benefit because what we have to replicate is what we've learned today about Barcelona, with their second team playing in the second league in Spain.
"We have to turn the Barclays Under-21 Premier League into something like the Segunda A or the Segunda B in Spain, so that the Under-17s to 21s play a competitive, high standard of football. That's when they can make the transition and start making in-roads into the first teams at their clubs."
"The EPPP has been a fantastic thing for youth development"
Everton's academy director Alan Irvine concurs with Reed. "The EPPP has been a fantastic thing for youth development," he said. "At Everton we see it as being a very useful tool to look very carefully at how we do everything and see what areas we can improve on. This has made us think about them and hopefully we can put things in place that will make us better."
For any youth system to be successful, however, a good relationship needs to exist between the academies and the managers. Fortunately for Alan Irvine, Everton's manager is fully behind everything he does.
"I have a very strong relationship with David Moyes and that's why I came back to the club about a year ago," said Irvine. "On Sunday he popped into the office and we had a chat for half an hour and that kind of relationship is really important because within those impromptu conversations you get some good pointers on both sides. The relationship between the academy director and the manager is paramount."
Days like these have been designed to strengthen the youth cause and Sunderland academy director Ged McNamee was one of many who were encouraged by the day.
"Everybody knows about Barcelona and the success they've had, but I found the Southampton presentation very interesting because we're doing some of the same things at Sunderland so it reinforces that some of the things we're trying to do other clubs are trying to integrate and introduce as well.
"In the same way that they have a Southampton way Sunderland have a definite philosophy for how we want to play the game. We want to play a passing game, but the game's evolving so we've got to look at that and review what we do.
"At these events you're exposed to new ideas, new ways of doing things; you take them away and discuss them and re-evaluate what you're doing"
"At these events you're exposed to new ideas, new ways of doing things; you take them away and discuss them with your staff and re-evaluate what you're doing.”
Roddy explained that the event was an example of how the academy system is geared towards trying to give our coaches the tools to become the best they can be.
"Ultimately we want creative players so the more we can expose our coaches to ideas that enable our players to become creative the better," Roddy said.
"It's at the heart of the plan. We need to create players that are independent decision-makers who can go on the field, feel confident technically in what they are doing and have a clear understanding of the framework a team is trying to play in.
"We want them to have the ability to recognise situations as they emerge on the pitch and affect the game via their own decisions, so a lot of the work that we’re doing is about working with coaches and supporting them so that they can in turn empower their players."
On this particular day in question the players being empowered in the state-of-the-art indoor football complex at St George's Park were Nottingham Forest's Under-18s, who were firstly put through their paces by Southampton Under-21 coach Martin Hunter, then by Vila.
"The more we can expose our coaches to ideas that enable our players to become creative the better"
"One of the things we're keen to do is make sure that coaches in each of the phases get age-appropriate sessions and are exposed to ideas and opportunities that relate to the work that they will be doing on a weekly basis," said Roddy. "It's very tuned in to what we're focusing on today and it’s very tuned in to what we're doing in the EPPP."
Vila made light of his pidgin English by demonstrating in person what he wanted the players to do. By looking around him before, during and after receiving a pass and never standing still, it was very easy to see, even in a short space of time, the Barcelona template emerging.
It was only a fleeting glimpse of the Barca way, but as Vila said at the end of his presentation: "They told me, I forgot it; I saw it, I understood it; I did it, I learned it."