17 September 2016

Leaving the Nest: Why Youth Development Needs Travel

Daniel Gallan

If succeeding as an elite athlete was easy, we’d all be doing it. So many variables have to go exactly right for a young talent to make it to the top. Hard work, struggle, sacrifice; talent means nothing if a young prospect is not willing to go the extra mile. But if what if the key to success meant going further than a mile? What if the path to greatness lay outside the boundaries of one’s home country and was paved in a foreign land? CONQA Sport explores why youth development needs travel and why so many young English footballers are unwilling to leave the nest.

Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City pluck the ball out of the air during his dazzling performance in the Manchester derby. At 25, De Bruyne is widely considered one of the most promising talents in Europe. But it could have been so different had he not taking the plunge and left Chelsea when he did.  Image supplied by Action Images / Carl Recine.

Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City pluck the ball out of the air during his dazzling performance in the Manchester derby. At 25, De Bruyne is widely considered one of the most promising talents in Europe. But it could have been so different had he not taking the plunge and left Chelsea when he did. Image supplied by Action Images / Carl Recine.

When Kevin De Bruyne, the Belgium and Manchester City midfielder, picked up the man of the match award for his world class performance in the recent Manchester Derby at Old Trafford, a large portion of football fans felt more than the usual dose of schadenfreude.

On top of the fact that this was a derby and that this 2-1 defeat for Manchester United means that the Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho rivalry now reads 8-3 in favour of the Spaniard (with 6 draws), Mourinho’s men were sunk by a player he once let go.

In 2014, Mourinho was in charge at Chelsea and deemed the then 22 year old De Bruyne, who had just returned from a loan spell at Werder Bremen, surplus to requirements and shipped him off to Wolfsburg for £18 million. Letting obvious talent go is never an easy decision for a manager to make, but with a midfield that included playmakers Eden Hazard and Cesc Fábregas, dynamic runners in Ramires and Willian as well as the box-to-box powerhouses of Nemanja Matiç and John Obi Mikel, there just wasn’t any room for the young Belgian.

Rather than rot on the bench or be bound to Chelsea while on loan at another club, it was in everyone’s immediate best interest for De Bruyne to leave London on a permanent move. Chelsea won the league that season and De Bruyne flourished in a team where he was given the freedom to be the main man: win-win.

Had Mourinho not let De Bruyne go or continued the tradition of bouncing young players from loan to loan, he may never have developed into the player he is today. Admittedly, Mourinho clearly missed out on De Bruyne and would probably have loved to have had him in his disastrous final season at Stamford Bridge where the champions eventually finished 10th, but if you’re like youth football coach Matt Whitehouse, you’ll see that De Bruyne, Guardiola, Manchester City and Belgium all owe a debt of gratitude to the Portuguese manager.

Whitehouse works at the academy at Chesterfield FC, a small club south of Sheffield that plays in the third tier of English football. He also runs a well-respected blog that unpacks the challenges and joys of youth development.  He believes that one of the best things a young player can do to further his career is to leave the comforts of a big club and go struggle in the world. That requires bravery on the part of the player and a willingness from the manager to let him go.

Firstly, like so many graduates around the globe taking gap years, young footballers who ply their trade in foreign lands develop a holistic understanding of the world. “Emotional maturity on and off the field is a massive contributor to succeeding,” Whitehouse says. “With everything else being equal, coaches and managers will always choose to work with a player who possesses a strong mental game.”

Leaving the nest, immersing oneself in a different culture, tasting different foods, learning a new language, interacting with people with entirely different histories; these experiences shape a young player’s mindset and that translates on the training pitch and during the game. In high pressure situations, a manager wants to know that the players on the field have the psychological fortitude to battle through and get the job done.

Going abroad also helps a young player broaden his athletic horizons. Every league around the world is playing the same sport but will have a different take on how best to play it. For example, the English Premier League has a strong emphasis on speed and physicality while the Spanish La Liga values possession and technical ability. Players who add skills learned in a foreign country develop a more rounded understanding on how to beat the opposition.

Before Joe Hart’s unpopular move to Torino in the Italian Serie A, every player in the current England squad represented a team from the Premier League. When comparing this to the other European powerhouses, the Three Lions start to look very one dimensional.

The Spanish and German national teams respectively feature players who operate out of five different leagues. Players from the French national side play in six different leagues. For Belgium and Italy, it’s seven. Portugal, the recently crowned European champions call on players from eight leagues around the world.

Is it any wonder why the English national team looks incapable of coming up with a plan B? All their major European rivals have players that understand the various nuances of the game. Whether the opposition is keeping the ball, defending deep, pressing high or knocking it long, teams with league diversity are better equipped to handle a wider spectrum of situations.

Whitehouse lists a myriad of reasons why, in stark contrast to almost every other nation on the planet, top English players are reluctant to go abroad. “A reluctance to leave their comfort zone, the promise of high wages in the Premier League, a lack of effort to learn another language; whatever the reason, our guys are shooting themselves in the foot because they are missing out on valuable tools.”

Patrick Bamford celebrates scoring for Middlesbrough. Matt Whitehouse believes that unless he makes a permanent move away from Chelsea, images like this one could become quite rare. 

Patrick Bamford celebrates scoring for Middlesbrough. Matt Whitehouse believes that unless he makes a permanent move away from Chelsea, images like this one could become quite rare. 

Perhaps England’s elite have simply drunk the Kool Aid. The English media has driven the perception that the Premier League is the best on the planet. Sure Premier League teams have failed on the continent, but that is only because it is so competitive. Why would any player willingly climb down from the top rung of world football?

Not that long ago, Jack Wilshere was being spoken about as one of the best young centre midfielders in England. “The midfielder we’ve been waiting for” the Guardian proclaimed in 2011. For whatever reason he has failed to live up to the hype at Arsenal and has been sent on loan to Bournemouth, a side that will do well to finish in the top half of the table.

Bournemouth. You must be joking? No disrespect to the Cherries but surely he would have benefited from a move to any number of foreign teams far exceeding in quality and learning opportunities than Bournemouth. Villarreal in Spain, Feyenoord in the Netherlands, Slovan Liberec in the Czech Republic are all competing in continental football this season. Surely these clubs, or a host of any others of equal pedigree, would have found a place for an Englishman once mentioned in the same breath as Steven Gerrard.

Instead he is on loan at Bournemouth where he will collect £80 000 per week to play for a club he must surely consider beneath him because his parent club doesn’t think he’s good enough. For Whitehouse, this is just one more example of an endemic problem in English football.

“There is no ingrained culture of giving it a go in foreign leagues,” Whitehouse says. “Very few do it and even fewer succeed.” With top players staying put in the Premier League, those hoping to make the step up from the academies are left with little opportunities to do so.

This is why Whitehouse would encourage any young player between the ages of 17 and 21 who is struggling to find regular first team football to push for a move abroad. “Teams in the lower league, such as us, or teams in less prominent leagues around the world, either through necessity or philosophy, are able to throw young players into the mix with more regularity and trust than the elite teams vying for major trophies,” he says. “I don’t think we would see the Kevin De Bruyne we see today if he hadn’t made the move to Germany permanent.”

But De Bruyne had already spent time in Germany, with Werder Bremen, before he was sold to Wolfsburg. What difference would it have made if he had stayed under the employment of Chelsea and developed as a loan player? After all, had De Bruyne not been sold, he might now be forming one of the most dynamic midfield partnerships with his countryman, Eden Hazard.

For Whitehouse, loan moves can act as safety blankets that prevent players from fully extending themselves, primarily as athletes but also as people. As he says, “Young players who develop at big clubs and then go off on loan feel safe in the knowledge that whatever happens they are still being taken care of by their parent club.” No matter what Wilshere says to the press, he is playing on the south coast with a focus on impressing his employers in London.

More worryingly, young players that bounce from loan deal to loan deal are constantly being told that they do not belong or are not good enough at their parent club. Whitehouse references De Bruyne’s time at Wolfsburg when he says, “This is a confidence game. Being made to feel like the main man can make all the difference. Often, it just comes down to how valued a player feels.”

Take Dele Alli as an example. At just 20 years old, the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is one of the most exciting English prospects in recent times. He is a product of the Milton Keynes Dons academy and played 88 games for the first team before signing with Spurs. All that senior football, coupled with the inherent knowledge that he was immensely valued at MK Dons, groomed Alli into the player he is today.

Contrast the case of Patrick Bamford and the club merry-go-round he has been forced to endure. Bamford is a 23 year old striker who has represented England at under-18, under-19 and under-21 age group levels. He is 1.85m, has a good turn of pace and is a clinical finisher.

In 2012 he signed for Chelsea but has not played a single minute for the first team. Instead, he has been sent on loan to MK Dons, Derby Country, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace, Norwich City and most recently, Burnley.

Whitehouse is adamant that this has the potential to ruin a promising career. “Bamford is being wasted at Chelsea and should demand a move,” he says with a more than a hint of frustration in his voice. “He’s had six loans in four years and every year the coaches at Chelsea are telling him he’s not good enough. If I could advise the young man I’d tell him to go and find a club that values him and then if he develops into a lethal striker, Chelsea can buy him back. I’d hate to see another talent go down the drain.”

There is hope. Bamford doesn’t need to get in touch with Whitehouse to see the light. All he has to do is look at another young Chelsea prospect, Nathaniel Chalobah, and his recent move to Italy’s Serie A.

Chalobah has represented England 88 times at age group level including captaining the under-17 side at just 15. However, like Bamford, he has not played a single minute for Chelsea’s senior squad. Since joining the Blues in 2012 he has spent loan spells at Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley and Reading. However, it is his most recent destination that shows this young man may make it after all.

Last year he joined Napoli and by all accounts is settling in quickly. According the FA website, he has immersed himself in the culture of Naples and is taking intensive language lessons. He said, “Experience-wise, it’s been good for me to see how they play football, the culture, the lifestyle and everything else.” Though this is only a temporary move, this experience will stand him in good stead in his development.

As the world gets ever smaller, there has never been a better time for a young professional to leave the confines of the world they’re familiar with and experience something new. There are 196 countries on this planet with over 7 billion people living in them. A saturated market in England is blocking the path for far too many talented players. If only more of them had the bravery to take that massive step and leave their cosy nests.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.