What Now For The Academy?
In a season that has ended potless for the first team, it is worth venerating the achievements of Steve Bould and his team in first of all winning the Academy Premier League title (showing real first team aptitude by clinching it at our official title headquarters at White Hart Lane) and reaching the Final of the F.A. Youth Cup. It`s often noted that English football fans have a prurient desire to see graduates from the Youth Team gracing the senior side. A brief glance around the Grove on match days will see the legend 19 WILSHERE grace many a replica shirt. This is an extraordinary leap of faith for someone who has made two and a half Carling Cup appearances, as well as two substitute appearances apiece in the F.A. Cup, Premiership and 1 in the Champions League. (Also witness the difference in the supporters` treatment of Bendtner and Walcott, both of whom I consider peas in a pod in terms of the current stage of their development). It also speaks to the enormous amount of pressure hoisted on the shoulders of young English players.
The level of invective levelled at the manager in last Thursday`s Shareholders meeting would suggest the word on the street is that Arsenal fans are tired of living in a perpetual future. "The experiment" as it is often erroneously referred to has failed, the over reliance on youth too stark for us to challenge for the top honours. As Amos pointed out in an article last week, this is something of a mis-corroberation of facts as Wenger has only signed one first team player under 21 since 2006. The voluble criticisms from the gallows yell, "experience, experience" (probably the same people that have Wilshere`s name on the back of their shirts and deride the manager for picking Eboue over Vela and blame Gallas for global warming), yet apparently we don`t want "geriatrics" with immense experience either. The manager himself has ominously told us he is looking for players who "aren`t inexperienced, we already have enough of those." In a climate where our supporters are apparently now unwilling to continue to invest in a future that lies at the end of a hypothetical rainbow, one has to ask where this leaves Steve Bould and the under 18s? I`ve no doubt that thousands will file into our ground on Friday evening to watch the First Leg of the Youth Cup Final as we take on Liverpool. I will also bet you my left testicle right here and now, that I will hear at least one comment along the lines of, "well player x who I am watching for the first time ever at youth level is much better than that geriatric Silvestre/ Eboue/ Bendtner." So the question of who will come through from this current all dominating crop is slightly compromised by the confused rantings of our own beleaguered concerns of our own supporters.
The last time Arsenal had a Youth Side of comparative success was at the turn of the Century, when the team of 2001 absolutely mauled Blackburn 5-0 in the F.A. Youth Cup Final First Leg at Highbury. Before drawing 1-1 at Ewood Park in the second leg. The core of that side has eked out an existence in the Premiership; Jermaine Pennant, Jerome Thomas, Steven Sidwell, David Bentley, Justin Hoyte and Jeremie Aliadiere (Premiership footballers for the next few days at least), James Harper had two seasons in the top flight with Reading, as did Graham Stack- albeit as a reserve keeper and Rhys Weston has drifted around league football ever since. The captain of that side, Ben Chorley, had brief spells at Wimbledon and Milton Keynes Dons before drifting off the radar. As Youth Sides go, that represents a good crop indeed. However, the key point remains that none were deemed good enough to play for Arsenal. Whilst we have made an incredibly good currency out of raiding the products of the globe`s finest Academy products and "ripping and burning" them into our own file marked "Arsenal Youth Products." However, players to earn the strictly 100% organic label on the supermarket shelf have been in short supply. Ashley Cole being the only Arsenal youth product of the 21st Century who has earned himself a 1-11 squad number. You can justifiably argue that modern, freewheeling, Champions League chasing Arsenal`s standards are higher, hence the lack of real emergence from the ranks. But does that not mean our Academy is not matching our status as a club? Are any of the Big 4s academies mining and cultivating footballing gold? Liverpool have reared no one of significance since Gerrard and Carragher who are both nudging 30, Chelsea don`t have any youth project to speak of having harvested nobody since John Terry. United have some squad members in their mid 20s from the academy in O`Shea and Fletcher whilst the likes of Welbeck remain unproven.
So who from the current Arsenal crop will make it? It is interesting to note that, in true Wenger style, many members of this year`s Youth side have played in a multitude of positions. Emmanuel Frimpong, like his namesake Eboue, has been tasked with the full back and wide midfield positions. Jay Emmanuel Thomas, the current captain, has played at full back, central midfield and in the wide positions; Rhys Murphy can play in midfield or upfront. The jewel in the crown is considered to be Jack Wilshere, who was a persistent fixture in the first team eighteen until the New Year, when a loss of form and concern over the premature pressure placed on his shoulders saw him quietly ushered away from the spotlight. Wilshere is a left footed player weaving his magic on the right, though Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould see his future in a central supporting striker role. Yet the supporting striker position is one that is traditionally well stocked under the current manager; Merson, Overmars, Bergkamp, Pires, Ljungberg, Hleb, van Persie, Arshavin, Kanu, - the list is endless. So will Wilshere realistically get the chance to flourish? Particularly in a climate where people are apparently entitled to make curt and crude remarks to the manager in the absence of instant success. In the late 80s Arsenal forged a team from their youth set up with the likes of Thomas, Rocastle, Merson and Adams. Nobody needs reminding of how Manchester United`s current standing was earned back in the early 90s. Isn`t it about time Arsenal produced at least one more gem from its ranks? In the modern game has the importance of a quality academy really diminished or has it just been neglected amidst the rainbow chasing? Arsenal`s current under 18 side looks set to be very decorated, but so too was the 2000-01side and not one of them were considered precious enough diamonds to sculpt into pricely gems. Many of us will crowd into the Emirates on Friday night to watch these young charges, but contemporary football shows us it is likely none of them will ever grace the stadium for regular top flight football. If it`s because they`re not good enough we should perhaps ask questions of an academy system that has waited nearly a decade to unearth a genuine first team player (though Gibbs` emergence might just break that glass ceiling). If they are good enough, the question lingers, are we as fans patient enough to let them develop. It would appear not.LD.