A conversation with Lead Consultant – Richard Grootscholten
RG: As you mentioned, I consult with Academy Associates on youth strategy. I advise Academies around the world on how to overcome the greatest challenges in youth development and I help them lay down a blueprint for long-term success.
Prior to this, I was an Academy Director and / or Advisor in a number of different countries around the globe, such as Poland, Russia and Canada.
My home is Holland and I fondly look back on my years working there, especially at Sparta Rotterdam – where we successfully developed an academy that has become a blueprint for clubs all around the world. I am also proud of my contribution to the Dutch youth development system through my work with the KNVB (The Dutch Football Federation).
Holland is famed for bringing through young players with clubs like Ajax, PSV and Sparta Rotterdam – where you worked – consistently held up as examples across the globe. Why do you think that English clubs generally don’t bring these players through?
RG: I think that there is a perception that English clubs fail to develop players and that’s often attributed to the Premier League but if you look at clubs like Manchester Utd, Everton and Southampton, these clubs consistently churn out strong young talent. Whether that talent then plays in the Premier League, and specifically for the club where he developed, is another matter.
The greatest challenge for youth development in the Premier League, considering the ever-growing financial rewards on offer, is the pressure for immediate success. Youth development requires taking risks – playing a young player when there is a more experienced player available is usually just such a risk. Risks are easier to take when you have less options to do something else, like buy an expensive player – hence young players in other countries, where the financial realities are very different, have a more accessible route to their respective first teams.
I think the other aspect that requires attention when talking about youth development – something that is usually forgotten about in the fast-moving, media-driven football world – is that a pre-requisite for a successful youth development programme is stability. If you look at the great youth development systems of recent times – Ajax of the 1990’s or Barcelona of the 2000’s – what is similar for both, apart from the Dutch foundations, are the fact that the players in question played together for a long time, in the same playing style and with the same football principals drilled into them over a number of years. What usually happens in the big leagues is that young players come and go, the loan system is over-used to give the impression that players are being developed and the outcome in terms of youth development success stories can be described as mediocre at best, with only a few exceptions.
Where you worked in Holland – Sparta Rotterdam – is legendary for consistently churning out incredibly talented players such as Memphis Depay and Kevin Strootman amongst others. What’s the difference between that and English clubs?
RG: In Holland, our youth teams compete from the age of 8. We don’t coach to win at that level, although it’s a bonus! The focus is on making sure that week in, week out, the best play against the best at every opportunity, maximizing the development opportunity at every moment.
I believe that strong competition creates desire, helps drive young players forward and pushes the boundaries of their potential as young as possible and then continuously.
The focus on young players in Holland is immense and their development, both on and off the pitch, is customized to ensure each high-potential can realize that potential. Senior players play a much bigger part in helping to develop their young counterparts than in other countries. High-potential players with bad habits or a bad attitude are intensely influenced to change their ways; in other countries these same players would usually be quickly sent out.
There are also the financial realities that Dutch clubs have to contend with. Because we had a much smaller budget at Sparta Rotterdam than you might see at a Championship club for example we had to be creative, work harder on scouting younger players, develop extremely close links with schools across the region and so on.
Marcus Rashford / Manchester United
James Ward-Prose / Southampton
Ross Barkley / Everton
What are your top tips for a Football Club to help boost their youth development?
RG: Did you know that only 50% of clubs across Europe spend over 6% of their budget on the academy?
So the first step is a serious focus on youth development. This is not a topic that can and should be treated as an add-on – for a club to truly access the benefits that are on offer from successful youth development there must be real and intense focus on it that is built on a long-term vision from the key stakeholders and decision-makers at the organisation.
At younger ages, coaches should be focused on developing players rather than winning matches. Yes, it’s nice to win but for me, it’s an even greater feeling to see your youth players playing in the club’s first team.
Youth development is a holistic process – a professional lifestyle and a strong psychological grounding are as important as technical and tactical development on the pitch.
I would also say that the best academies ensure that young players become owners of their own development process. It is the players themselves who must know how to evaluate their own performances and make decisions to change whatever aspect they are considering for the better. Coaches are guides, not masters, and they must have the ability not only to transfer knowledge but also to trigger players with a specific coaching style that will reach that particular player to motivate him or her to take control over their own development.
My final thought here regards the important hardware vs. software topic. It is easy, if expensive, to build a shiny training facility (‘the hardware’). To the outside world this is often a symbol of ‘job done’ – youth development is in place. However, to ensure that this facility is designed with the specificity of football development in mind and to implement a successful long-term youth development strategy within its walls takes far more vision, skill and strategy (‘the software’).