José’s back in town. Like a persistent infection that lingers after treatment, he reared his head at his third official unveiling in English football – the first away from the initial host Chelsea, which is still recovering from the destruction caused by their last bout of Mourinh-itis. The symptoms are the same – the strong sense of confidence and belief, and a fierce desire for victory – and the willingness to attack vulnerable targets continues, with both Louis van Gaal and Arsene Wenger subjected to subtle barbs.
Rafael Benítez has earned some temporary immunity, courtesy of Newcastle’s relegation last season, but he may have had a wry smile at the homage paid to him by Mourinho during proceedings. In a move reminiscent of Benítez’s infamous “facts” speech back in 2009, Mourinho came prepared with a piece of paper containing his own list of “facts.” Having anticipated a question relating to his perceived lack of success in bringing players through from youth systems to establish themselves in the first team at his myriad clubs, his response was “I did 49 [players] – some of them are big names, they are Champions League winners, in the Euros, playing for national teams…If you want the names, I give you the names.”
That Mourinho was faced with this question at all is perhaps more indicative of the state of English football rather than any vital deficiency in the Portuguese’s skill set. The ultimate yardstick for any manager’s success is trophies and Mourinho’s cabinet is full. Sadly for the English FA, the same cannot be said for theirs and England’s Icelandic nightmare has seen a repeat of the call for a root and branch reform of the country’s youth system – a biannual event that occurs after every early tournament exit. And it’s hard to deny that the Premier League fails those who represent its country of origin. Despite a reasonably promising youthful English squad, in terms of the obscene amount of money sloshing around the top flight there’s a puzzling paucity of world class talent in any position – no Bale, no Ronaldo, no Pogba – just an abundance of wistful memories of a Euro 2004 vintage Rooney, perhaps the last genuinely brilliant English player to burst into a Premier League first team with instantaneous impact.
Recently the FA has taken steps to try and kick-start the ailing youth system. At the beginning of the 2010/2011 season, a homegrown quota was introduced, requiring at least eight of a Premier League side’s 25 squad players to have been registered with an English club for at least three years before their 21st birthday. And there have been calls by the FA Chairman Greg Dyke to extend this to 12 players, with the registration period being changed to three years before the 18th birthday, to eliminate players such as Cesc Fabregas from being classed as homegrown. Although the plan to introduce Premier League U21 sides into the Football League appears to have been scrapped, this season is notable in that the Football League Trophy will see 16 of these U21 teams appear, alongside the 48 teams from League One and League Two, in the competition for the first time.
The idea behind this is to expose players at top-flight academies to the rough and tumble of real competition if they’re not quite ready to take their place in the first team of their respective club. The obvious observation here is that the players would be exposed to much more competitive action if they were playing regularly in the lower divisions. If the FA is serious about allowing a new generation of English talent to flourish in high-pressure environments, then steps need to be taken to reduce the shiny appeal of the Premier League academy with its flashing neon signs promising fame and glory. In a world where the Professional Footballers’ Association suggests that 75% of 16 year olds will no longer be in the game when they reach the age of 21, the academy system is far from a safe home.
A radical proposal would be a limiting of the number of players owned by a particular club to prevent the abuse of the loan system, or a total ban on the transfer of players under 21 years of age. The successes of players such as Jamie Vardy, previously of non-league Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town, and Olivier Giroud, who was playing second tier football in France into his twenties, is an indicator that beginning a career in the lower echelons is no barrier to future achievement.
The players on Mourinho’s list of 49 include Steven Watt (1 appearance for Chelsea, now at Hastings United), Lenny Pidgeley (2 appearances for Chelsea, recently released as goalkeeper coach by Forest Green Rovers) and Diogo Luís (26 Benfica appearances, now an investment banker). Just featuring in a top flight first team wasn’t enough to see these players reach their full potential, and most ended up with journeyman careers regardless of their illustrious beginnings. So Mourinho doesn’t really have to defend his record, he’ll play the players he think can deliver the three points regardless of where they come from. Real reform of the youth system is English is what’s needed, and it’s likely that the existing Football League clubs could provide a lot more opportunities to young players if they were given a fair chance to. But expect to hear a lot more on the topic after England are eliminated in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.