Thursday, 22 September 2011

The greatest signing of them all

This week saw the club layout of the specifics of a planning application that will see the construction of a new youth development and first team Academy, situated right next to Etihad Stadium. I’m impressed, both in terms of the process and the eventual outcome that this application will produce – if of course we have it granted.

The club really seems to have gone about this in a professional manner, making sure to canvass the opinions of local residents and feeding those views into the planning application itself. The plans have also been informed by the club’s research on top sports development centres across the globe, and also research into youth development best practice.

The club say that this is the single most important investment made to date, and I completely agree with them. The new development, in combination with the stadium, is intended to form the Etihad Campus. The campus will be spread across 80 acres, and located somewhere with this stretch of land will lie to key to our footballing future.

As part of the club’s football development strategy, the campus will have space to house 400 young players, 11 or so youth development pitches, 4 first team pitches, accommodation and classroom facilities for 40 young players, a designated first team building decked out with all the mod cons, and finally, a 7,000 capacity stadium for youth team matches. To cut a long winded paragraph short then, all the ingredients we need to be successful over the long term.

Significantly, youth and first team facilities will be in close proximity. This is something that has to happen, as Patrick Vieira – our new Football Development Executive – has already said:

“It will be fantastic for the youth because they will be next door to the first team. That will make them think 'if I want to make it, I will have to act like them'. They will take the first team as a fantastic example. It will be important for the first-team players as well, to show the way to the youngsters."

To add to the football dimension, the campus will bring regeneration and community advantages to the local area. Much better than planting a great big super casino in the east of Manchester.

The really exciting element to all of this is the youth development. Some will say that we’ve had one of the best if not the best youth Academy of England over recent years. I’m not so sure. We certainly don’t come in the top two. Apart from our standout graduates – Daniel Sturridge, Micah Richards and Michael Johnson in my opinion, we’ve produced a handful of good solid players who can play at Premier League level – the likes of SWP, Stephen Ireland, Joey Barton, Nedum Onuhoa, Vladimir Weiss etc.

But whilst good, these players are not on the same level as some of those that other clubs have produced. In the 1990s, West Ham developed a mass of talent in the form of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. The cream of United’s academy came in the form of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham – more recently Giuseppe Rossi is also of the same ilk, and has gone on to do well at Villareal.

All of this of course is massively eclipsed by what has been achieved on the continent. Ajax set the first benchmark in the 1990s, with the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Denis Bergkamp, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert all coming through the ‘Jong Ajax’ academy. More recently Jong Ajax has produced the likes of Rafael Van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and our very own Nigel de Jong.

We all know of course that this benchmark has now been raised by Barcelona. The Catalan club’s ‘La Masia’ has been at the core of Barcelona’s recent domination of the club game, producing the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Bojan Krkic, Carlos Puyol and Victor Valdes. Not to mention of course Mikel Arteta and Luis Garcia – who made the grade elsewhere. And all these players are just the recent crop. In the 1990s the likes of Pep Guardiola, Ivan De La Pena and Albert Ferrer were also produced.

The Etihad Campus must surely be looking at matching and one day eclipsing the achievements of Yong Ajax and La Masia. Let’s face it – wouldn’t it be excellent to see five or six English lads – or even better, Manchester lads getting into the first team? I think that would eclipse signing the best the world has to offer. There’s nothing better than watching a local lad come good – if anything I think this would strengthen the bonds between the club and the fans even further. Over the long term it would probably increase our performance on the pitch too – there’s nothing more formidable than a talented player truly playing for the shirt.

As Brian Marwood says, the aim must be to bring through home grown players with the ability to play in the Champions League, but facilities alone will not produce this kind of player. Only the right personnel, imbuing youngsters with the right philosophy – and of course welded to the right environment, will bring the results we need.

The foundations of this philosophy are already being built. I watched a reserve team game at Hyde last season and they played very similar to the way Mancini set out his first team, at the time a kind of 4-2-4, four at the back, two defensive midfielders and an attacking diamond up front.

It’s also good to hear how the club have been treating our young players off the pitch. Club Ambassador Paul Lake has been taking the squad on tours of West Gorton and Ardwick to give the youngsters a sense of the history of the club. Aside from our recent past, there’s a lot to be proud of and some great past players that our current youngsters should want to emulate and surpass. Clearly this is about building pride in the shirt, and about realising what it means to the fans to give your all to the Blue shirt of Manchester. I’m reminded up a banner that has been known to drape from the stands of the Etihad Stadium: “We dream of playing in the shirt. Today God chose you. Play like we dream.” That is the kind of mentality we need to be giving these youngsters, because when it comes to the top, top level, a large part of football is all about mental strength.

If given the go-ahead, the challenge for the Etihad Campus is to develop a set of players with the right mix of technical skill, tactical awareness, physique and mentality that will form the foundation of the club’s long term success. This is the only way for this club to move forward and is bigger than any signing we can possibly make.

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