Tuesday 20 March 2012
Two of the best Under-14 Academy teams in the Barclays Premier League took on some of the finest players in Europe in a four-way tournament at Barcelona’s training complex last weekend.
Arsenal and Fulham both qualified for the memorable trip to Spain after winning their respective competitions in the 2012 Barclays Premier League Under-14 National Tournament in London last month.
The three-day visit was their prize and last weekend they faced teams from Barcelona and Catalan side Cornella, as well as taking in the sights and sounds of the city.
Both Arsenal and Fulham impressed over the weekend, with both sides going unbeaten against Catalan giants Barcelona.
"The trip was a big success," said Premier League Games Programme and Youth Development Administrator Neil Saunders.
"For our boys, it gave them the experience of playing against one of the best academies in the world and testing themselves against the best players"
- Premier League's Neil Saunders
"We are keen to provide our clubs and players with as many different experiences and opportunities as possible.
"The more types of experiences and challenges they can face will hopefully provide them with the necessary tools to maybe one day play in the Premier League."
Saunders believes events such as these will play an important part of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which is set to begin in time for next season and is a long-term strategy designed to create a youth development system in the professional game that will raise standards at every level.
"As part of the EPPP, we have said that we want to try to create those best versus best opportunities," explained Saunders.
"Playing against international opposition is an integral part of our Games Programme and it complements the domestic stuff that we do."
On the pitch, Fulham claimed a 2-1 win over Cornella while Arsenal came from behind to record a 2-2 draw with Barcelona on Saturday at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training complex.
The next day, Arsenal lost 5-0 against a Cornella team from an older age group and Fulham claimed a 1-1 draw against Barcelona.
"For our boys, it gave them the experience of playing against one of the best academies in the world and testing themselves against the best players," added Saunders.
"Barcelona are a benchmark and earning hard-fought draws against them showed that they can compete, it will give them a lot of confidence.
"In terms of the experience for the boys, for some it might be the pinnacle of what they do in football but for others hopefully it will be one experience that plays a big part in their development."
Saunders believes the whole experience will have also been extremely valuable to both the Arsenal and Fulham coaching staff.
"On a trip abroad, the coaches are with the players for almost 24 hours a day and they get to learn a lot about how they react to those environments," he explained.
"How do they react to that challenge of playing against a big club like Barcelona? Do they come out and want to play their best game or are they quite shy and go into their shells?
"There's also the aspect of how boys cope with being away from their peers and family as well as living as a professional footballer, eating the right things and conducting themselves properly."
The players went on a tour of the world-famous Nou Camp Stadium as well as well a visit to the Barcelona club museum, with the youngsters able to have photos taken with the UEFA Champions League trophy.
"It is something we will look to grow in different age groups and different countries moving forward"
- Premier League's Neil Saunders
The Arsenal, Fulham and Barcelona youngsters then attended a dinner at a Catalan restaurant, an event which Saunders says was a key part of the trip.
"With any of our events we try to have a technical, educational and cultural aspect to it so it's not just about the football on the pitch," he said.
"We mixed the boys up and it didn't take them long for them to try to converse even though they didn't necessarily have a grasp of each other's language. They are all 14-year-old boys and they have a lot of common ground, they are all aspiring young football players.
"We did the same with the coaching staff. It allowed them to speak informally and get ideas from eachother about what they are doing and their philosophy so it's a good experience for the coaches as well as the players."
Saunders also said the Premier League could extend the use of foreign trips to other age groups.
"The clubs thoroughly enjoyed it," he added. "It gave them the chance for them to see what is going on with other countries, perhaps taking the best bits and using it for their academy while also gauging where they are.
"It is something we will look to grow in different age groups and different countries moving forward.
"There are a lot of different countries that have good youth sides and good academy systems and we want to expose our clubs to as many of those as possible."