Professionally Speaking: Kids need a school of hard knocks before they hit the big time


Whisper it quietly, but very few England internationals are being Made in Chelsea, or Manchester, north London, and Liverpool for that matter.

Jack Wilshere is an exception, as is the ever-improving Danny Welbeck, but a brief history check on Roy Hodgson’s most recent England squad reveals a staggering dearth in the number of graduates to emerge from the academies of this country’s so-called elite in recent times. Amazingly, from Hodgson’s original squad, aside from Welbeck, we have to go back as far as the mid-to-late 90s when Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and John Terry burst through, to find true home grown talents from the big six.

Given the money that’s spent on the academies that’s astonishing, isn’t it?

Of course, by now most of Roy’s hopefuls belong to the big boys but the vast majority began their footballing journeys in humbler surroundings. Joe Hart started out at Shrewsbury Town, Tom Cleverley at Bradford City, Jermaine Defoe and Scott Parker are products of Charlton Athletic, while new kid on the block Ryan Bertrand is a former Gillingham man. Clevedon Town, Cambridge United, West Ham, Wolves, Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Leeds, Middlesbrough and QPR were all represented at Wembley this week too.

Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were of course nurtured by Arsenal’s weekend Premier League opponents Southampton, before being moved on to a bigger stage for the final all-important phase of their development. And it’s worked out perfectly for the pair of them under Arsene Wenger, hasn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, the big six have some of the best youth coaches in the business; they treat their young players magnificently and provide the kind of facilities that professionals of my own not-too-distant generation could only ever have dreamed of.

But is that all-encompassing luxury service inadvertently making it harder for their talent to emerge? I do wonder…

In my day, we’d be made to buff up the Arsenal first teamers’ boots, sweep the dressing room, clean the toilets and all that jazz. If it wasn’t done to the highest standards we’d be forced to start all over again, often late into Friday night before a match at the training ground the next morning. Staying grounded wasn’t really an issue for us.

In 2012, youth team players at the big clubs burn off in their BMWs the moment training’s finished, they spending their afternoons splashing the cash at designer boutiques, playing their X-Box or teasing one another on Twitter. Everything’s laid on a plate. It’s easy. All they have to think about is their football (and some might say rightly so,) but by this stage most are used to that anyway having been treated like superstar royalty since the age of eight.

Tragically, most of these pampered kids have disappeared without trace before their 21st birthdays. Only those with exceptional inner drive and talent seem to escape that footballing disease called softness.

That’s why I’m beginning to wonder if our best kids are better off roughing it in less salubrious environments first up, learning their trade at smaller clubs where they aren’t spoilt rotten from day one.

The make-up of the current England squad would certainly suggest that’s the way forward...

With their heads nowhere near the clouds during their adolescent years, and driven on by the prospect of fighting their way to a seat at the top table, you suspect the likes of Hart, Bertrand, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barry, Jagielka, Walker, Jones, Smalling, Lescott, Ruddy and Butland had no problems retaining the fire in their bellies. The climb, in all likelihood, did them good. Sometimes it takes a dose of reality to inspire youngsters to reach the next level, and as an example, I know for a fact that at one point Theo Walcott was Southampton’s tea maker/errand boy on away trips.

In this era of win-at-all-costs football, where short termism is a necessary evil in order for managers to survive, it’s harder than ever for a talented untried young player to be handed his chance in the Premier League, especially at one of the big six.  

Put it this way, if I was a teenager starting all over again I’d certainly think twice about signing for a giant, as I did with Arsenal in 1993.

Not only would my uphill ticket to stardom help mould me into a more-rounded person and player, but ironically, growing up outside of the Promised Land would also give me my best chance of ending up there.


Former professional footballer Adrian Clarke came through Arsenal's youth system in the early '90s and went on to make a handful of appearances for the first team before moving on to a career in the Football League. Read more from his exclusive weekly column, Professionally Speaking, HERE.