The development game has changed beyond recognition in the last five years with the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan and what the Premier League, Football League, Football Association and the clubs themselves hope is a more sophisticated way of producing the players of the future.
In this context 29-1 seemed like a return to the days when disparities in strength and skill meant that certain teams could find themselves on the wrong end of a hiding every single week. In fact when I began my enquiries about the game in question, the QPR Under-11s coach Oliver Hinckson refused to speak to me. Paul Hall, the club’s well-regarded Under-21s coach, said he unaware of the result.
This kind of reaction is not uncommon in development football. A tweet from Chesterfield Town’s academy in November celebrating their Under-9s side scoring 34 goals in a game was swiftly deleted when it drew criticism from coaches. The club even offered an apology.
It is at this point I should declare a personal interest in the plight of QPR Under-11s. I was a schoolboy at QPR’s academy for four years between 2006 and 2009 and although I never earned a professional contract – that is another story – I was part of a system that produced Raheem Sterling as well as Dean Parrett and Antonio German.
7-0 Clarey finishes off his hat trick with a lovely finish into the corner. What a way to cap off a great team & individual performance pic.twitter.com/XFZfUQs2xF
— Chesterfield Academy (@ChesterfieldYth) November 17, 2016
Even before that, during my time playing for Hayes & Yeading as an Under-12 (it was just known as Yeading Hayes End Wanderers FC in those days before they merged with Hayes FC), I remember being on the receiving end of heavy defeats, including one 10-0 against Hanwell Town FC. I remember this distinctly, not least because I recall one of their players being in floods of tears with his head in his hands when he was substituted. He was one of his team’s better players and his coach demanded high standards. It made me think about my side’s will to win and the standards we set for ourselves. Football is unforgiving at the best of times, so, as I thought then, what better time to get this drilled into you as an 11-year-old? It was a valuable lesson. Even so, that 2016 result of 29-1 felt like a very harsh lesson for an 11-year-old. I spoke to my contacts in the development game who put the blame firmly at QPR’s door. One said to me that QPR’s failings in preparing a competitive Under-12s team had put City at an “awkward position on how to play the game as it wore on.”
Full Time: Chelsea 13-0 Brighton. C.Brown (4), Taylor-Crossdale (3), McCormick (3), Gallagher, St Clair and C.Dasilva. — Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) February 18, 2017
Working as an intern Telegraph Sport, I spoke to City’s academy director Mark Allen about the game in question.
“We certainly don’t go looking to get massive results but unfortunately sometimes in football these things happen and you get a good group who play well,” he said. “Sometimes it’s about understanding a situation where unfortunately you’re going to come up against a good group of players playing against another group of players.
“We have to find the apt challenges for those boys and we’re always seeking them. Do we play an older team, do we play a younger team? Do we play a European team? How do we introduce this?”
He added: “How are you going to cope? Are you going to be disciplined when you’re winning by such a large number? Are you going to change the way you play? There are a lot of learnings that come out of that for both parties – no matter what you’re up against you don’t change the way you are and I think that’s important for us.”
At QPR, Paul Hall, the Under-21s coach, said that the result was never his first consideration when assessing development teams. “I don’t look at scores,” he said. “There are times where we’ve beaten Man City and there’s times where we’ve lost against them. But what did the kids get out of it? That’s the most important thing.
“When I first came here, we were getting beaten regularly. Those players had a benchmark to reach. Man City are able to recruit the best players from all over the world, and we have to get up to that level.”
Hall then raised an interesting point. “I played a game once and we beat the side – a side who were supposed to beat us – yet we beat them stupidly (a large scoreline that was undisclosed). But then they turned around and said they were working on their centre-back in two-versus-one situations. Every time we got the ball they purposely left him exposed so he could work on that
— MCFCReserves&Academy (@MCFC_EDS_ACAD) June 12, 2016
“That one person got more out of it than what we did. That boy developed as he has worked on his objective for the day. It makes you feel bad because although you might have won, what was the objective? When you win, sometimes it papers over a crack. Do you really look at yourself and analyse a performance critically?”
Is winning everything at youth level, though? And if so, why? In an interview with the Guardian, Arsenal legend Denis Bergkamp, now an academy coach at Ajax’s academy, was against England’s results-based approach.
“You have to win these games, so the coach is going to manage to win the game instead of developing the player. In my opinion it should be totally the opposite,” he claimed. “Sometimes you put your strongest player on the bench just to let others shine. Or you put a right-footed player who can’t do anything with his left on the left side and force him to use his left foot.
“Of course in that game you will probably lose because you don’t use your strongest players in their strongest position, but in the end you have a player who used his left foot when he was 12 and 13 and 14, and he can use both feet when he comes into the first team. That’s what we have at Ajax and I really stand behind that.”
His former Arsenal teammate Freddie Ljungberg disagreed. A coach with Arsenal’s U15 side – and their U19 UEFA Youth League squad – he bemoaned the fact that the lack of competitive nature in the academy system was inhibiting his players’ progress.
“For 16s here there’s still no competition. I made my debut in Sweden at 16,” he said. If I wasn’t prepared to compete, how could I then switch that on?
“When we go on tournaments [with Arsenal youth] our kids love it. But sometimes players may come up to me and say that they are not used to the pressure.
“I’m a believer that they should be in a competitive environment and feel that pressure. That’s the feedback I get from the kids. ‘Can we go to more tournaments so I can get used to it?’ I think they need it.”
As a young player in the academy system I learned that development was key, but from very early on it was clear that you played to win – both on and off the pitch. “Win your personal battles,” my coach Steve Gallen, a former apprentice at the club and brother of former striker Kevin, would say.
Who would be the first to training? Who would win the 8v8s? The possession? Even the box-to-box races. “Make sure you win,” he bellowed at us. “Don’t be last.”
Invariably, this carried out onto the pitch, and as we got older we often steamrollered the opposition. But while we won, we were not necessarily the best players on the pitch. At times out-passed and out-thought, we found a way to win. Sooner or later we would meet our match.
But while we were winning games, were we becoming better footballers? The breakthrough of Sterling and others would suggest that we were, but for those that shone, admittedly there were a few who masked technical deficiencies with physical prowess.
If winning’ and development are at different ends of the spectrum, where do we go from here? English football has to find a way.
Should matches be halted if the scoreline gets too high? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter: @Offthepostnews.