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26th September 2012

St Mirren’s Sam Parkin continues his series of monthly blogs for PFA Scotland.

Too much too soon?

”I have noticed the changes in football. It used to be work,work,work. Now,for some players,the priority is the gold watch”
Paolo Di Canio.

It’s 15 years since I first walked into Chelsea’s then Harlington training ground as a nervous 16 year old about to embark on a journey which has since taken me to 13 professional clubs and counting. The Chelsea then and the one you see today have of course changed considerably in that time,the move from Harlington to the incredible state of the art Cobham facility being a prime example of this.
For those not familiar, the original ground is a stone’s throw away from Heathrow airport.As well as dealing with the noise from a descending Concorde the place had it’s very own microclimate,strong winds and driving rain is the vision that always pops in my mind when I recall those early years. It was here I was to learn my trade and where I believe gave me an invaluable education to go on and have a 1st team career in football.
The questions I get asked the most often are always about this period of my life.What was it like to come through the ranks at Chelsea? Did the influx of foreign players hamper your progression? What was John Terry Like?!
Despite never making a 1st team appearance,London cabbies often remember I started at Stamford Bridge when we’re talking football on one of the many airport journeys I have these days. This isn’t my inflating my ego but just an indication of how the Premier League was taking off in those early Sky Sports years.
The Chelsea 1st team squad at the time consisted of players such as Steve Clarke,Dennis Wise and Paul Furlong alongside homegrown talents such as Eddie Newton,Frank Sinclair and David Lee. Under manager Ruud Gullit’s guidance the club had started to add stars from overseas like Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo,. …..
Those two names alone emphasise what an exciting time it was to be a young player at the football club. We had our own changing room in the same building and would carry out all the chores before training to make sure everything was ready for the 1st team’s arrival. Laying out the kit,pumping up the balls and cleaning the boots were a few of the nicer duties that needed to be carried out. Walking round with a ball or shirt to get signed was one of the jobs we all tried to avoid.It was all very well sharing a training ground with these international stars, but the thought of having to talk to them was still an intimidating prospect.You would often get the annoyed ”Who’s this for?” response if the player in question was in a bad mood or running late .Generally your face would be covered in black marker pen by the time training started and you’d probably have already worked up a decent sweat chasing the balls up and down the corridors as they were regularly knocked out of your grasp.
This was the way it was,you were in awe of these men,somewhat fearful, but respectful at the same time. They had paid their dues,they had worked hard and were the ones playing in the 1st team.It was up to us young players to show we had the right temperament and attitude ,not only on the pitch but also in all situations that arose around the training ground.
It was a great time.The education I was receiving being around the top players was invaluable and the camaraderie amongst the young lads is something that you couldn’t buy. Don’t get me wrong,there were times when i hated hoovering the awful green staff room carpet after a double training session, but at the same time I knew why it was necessary. It kept your feet firmly on the ground and most importantly it gave me the drive to want to be in the 1st team and have my own young player assigned to clean my Puma Kings.
We had players in my group who made their debuts that season.They would still be there long into the afternoon carrying out some job or another. You weren’t given the opportunity to get ahead of yourself.The staff wouldn’t tolerate it. If anything it made these boys work even harder because they’d had a taste of the big time.
During my youth team years a few of the boys were rewarded with professional contracts. I was one of the lucky ones and generally we were signed on 3 year deals. The management was very shrewd.There was no big money on offer.The contracts were almost identical between us and whilst it gave you a bit of money to play with ,the majority of us still lived at home or in club digs and the Nissan Almera driven by Jon Harley was the nearest we all got to a flashy motor!
I think the message was clear.You haven’t achieved anything yet.The hard work starts now.Play 20/30 games and then you can start reaping the rewards.
It’s a far cry from what I’m seeing now.Such is the money in the Premier League today that young players at the leading clubs are earning seriously good cash without even having graced a 1st team match. I’m confident it’s not like this in all cases. It’s been widely reported that Sir Alex Ferguson has banned his players under 23 from driving the sports car from club sponsor Chevrolet,I don’t know how much truth is in that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Why does a young player have to own his dream car at 21 when surely 10 years down the line after a top Premier League career he can buy one for every day of the week, if that’s what he wishes?
I know at my last two clubs the coaches discourage the youth team from wearing coloured boots. That may seem petty and I’m not sure I agree but at least it’s trying to keep the lads feet on the floor and instil some discipline. ” Get in the 1st team and you can wear whatever you like on your feet!”
The jobs, such as the cleaning of boots , are generally a thing of the past and I can’t help but think it’s taken away a certain edge that was the cornerstone of my development 15 years ago.It gave the young players the chance to rub shoulders with the pro’s. People may think that this is an old fashioned approach and that time has moved on. In my early years in football the training was the most important element.We would be out on that great open space of Harlington practicing our touch with a game of head tennis long after our day’s session was over.We were more concerned with breaking into the reserve team rather than how much money we’d need to buy a Porshe 911.
Frank Lampard recently said ” There are good young pro’s out there but nowadays it’s made much too easy for them,we’re all lucky to be leading nice lifestyles but that lifestyle is coming earlier and earlier,the lads are forgetting the hard work that needs to be done to earn that lifestyle” To the best of my knowledge he is one of the most dedicated hard working footballers out there. Lampard is still playing at the highest level week in week out at 33.That’s the kind of career that needs to be strived for.
The rise of celebrity culture over the last decade has probably added to the problems with our young players.It’s great when people are stopped in the street if they’ve won something or achieved something great in life. Just too often people in popular British culture are famous for nothing. Aspiring footballers used to want to play in FA Cup Finals. Now you can’t help feel that all the trappings that go along with playing football are becoming more desirable than the winning of the silverware itself.
It’s not a problem I see heavily at clubs north of the border.The financial difficulties in the Scottish game over the last few years culminating in the Rangers situation means the young players at many clubs are getting opportunities whilst not earning silly money. Certainly the promising young players that i’ve met have the right kind of desire. I know that the clubs’ hands are tied in relation to what duties the young players can do these days, but I have noticed that the young players at SPL clubs still muck in and it’s no coincidence as far as i’m concerned. The carrot for these boys is to make a name for themselves and in time move to England where they can be tested in a stronger league and earn better salaries. I notice at the clubs in Scotland the immense pride at one of a teams own young players coming through the ranks to prove themselves in the 1st team. A pride experienced by the fans,the management and the team alike.
It’s difficult to point the finger of blame in one direction.The top clubs’ staff are obviously under enormous pressure to produce talented young players who are capable of breaking through.Where once they had the pick of the country’s best players,the scouting network now brings in youngsters from all over the globe. The top young players are wanted and lucrative contract offers follow.Of course it’s difficult to turn down big money especially if you have experienced a tough start in life, but surely clubs should wait and see if the player progresses into the first team before he is living the high life. I’m sure some clubs will finance deals based on appearances and if you ask me it’s a better way of doing things.At least that way if money is your main motivation you will continue to train hard and show the hunger required to make the step up. Clubs are now going head to head for the signatures of boys as young as 15/16. I know when I was that age my decision to join Chelsea was based purely on the enjoyment factor.Like many kids that age, I spoke to a number of local clubs but I had been training with Chelsea for a few years and as funny as it may seem now they had an excellent record of promoting young talent and I hoped I could be the next one to break through.
I think the clubs need to have a financial structure in place that isn’t going to be forgotten when they’re trying to entice players.The important thing is that the players can focus on the football and if they are a success the money will come.If the focus is solely on money from the beginning then  problems inevitably follow.
There is no manual for these boys and some players seem to handle it and some don’t. Obviously good advice has to come from home and agents need to do more to help.In many cases the young players are talked up by these agents and the pressure intensifies and the expectation to deliver is too much. Clubs such as Manchester’s big two are putting on lifestyle courses for their youngsters to help them deal with life in the spotlight and it is imperative that this continues.
Much is said about providing the best possible facilities to develop the young talented footballers of the future,but it is important to partner this with support and education to help them with the the testing times ahead.