Ricky Sbragia, the Scotland under 19s manager, has made himself a very unpopular man in Scotland indeed. He announced his 18 man squad for the internationals against Austria, Italy and Croatia this week and there was one massive exclusion – golden boy Jack Harper. The Spanish-born Real Madrid striker, currently being coached by the likes of Zinedine Zidane, was omitted due to his lack of physical presence (despite being 6”1) and immediately the Spain under 19 manager was on the phone enquiring about whether Hunter wanted to turn out for their side instead. Clearly for Sbragia, winning is far more important than nurturing the best future talents Scotland have to offer. This obviously leads to a massive question; is youth football becoming too competitive?
There are obvious advantages of integrating competitiveness into youth football. The obvious benefit is the vital preparation it gives young players in order for them to enter the first team. Managers of teams like to know all players from under 16s upwards in case they need to be called on, and so to have them ready and prepared to step up makes sense. It also keeps the young teams happy and fit. The league and cup system gives these youth players a constant run out, keeping them in shape and developing their skills. Finally, and maybe crucially, it gives young players a competitive edge which can’t be developed without these youth competitions.
However, there are massive problems. As we have seen in the Jack Harper saga, some managers are too driven with winning and will do anything to achieve this. If this means changing the tactics and leaving out the best player, these managers will do it. Off the back of Sbragia’s decision, Scotland could miss out on a potential future star just so that Scotland could attempt to win a (meaningless) tournament.
Another problem we have seen in recent years is the attraction for players from smaller teams wanting to join the youth teams of larger teams. The draw of achieving success at youth level can sometimes leave players as nowhere men in the future at large clubs. Chelsea is a massive example of this.
Players such as Tom Taiwo joined the Londoners as a 16 years old, and after winning youth trophies found himself surplus to requirements as a 21 years old. He now plays in the Scottish Championship for Falkirk, after spells at Carlisle and Hibernian. He clearly felt that in joining Chelsea he would further his career, and in fact it has had the opposite effect, and he is left thinking of what could have been.
Finally, the pressure attached to performing can be massively detrimental to a young player’s development. The increased media scope has put youngsters in the spotlight, with comparisons flung about all too easily these days. The most startling example of this is The Times’ England 2014 first XI prediction. The players included Sam Hutchinson, who has retired and came back to football, Robbie Threlfall, who is currently without a club, and other players who have fell well short of expectations. This pressure obviously doesn’t do players any good.
So, all in all, youth football probably is too competitive. The need to win is a state of mind which is definitely healthy, but for this to be the be all and end all in football games between children as young as 6 is wrong. It isn’t healthy for the development of player’s skills and for players to develop properly competition shouldn’t be brought into youth football until kids are ready for it.