Alan Millward is telling a tale that should make anyone with the best interests of North East football – and English football, for that matter – at heart feel thoroughly depressed.
It won’t capture headlines like Wayne Rooney’s £300,000-a-week contract or divide opinion like Martin Demichelis’ desperate dive, but it cuts right to the heart of why the North East’s “hotbed” reputation has cooled off lately. It should also pique the interest of those within the FA who are busy readying their commissions on the game’s future.
Millward is the manager of the South Tyneside Football Trust, who run the Chase Holmes Youth Leagues. He knows what he is talking about – this is a competition in which Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson were discovered. Thousands of talented boys play in his leagues every year.
“We found a fantastic young talent in Norway a while ago. We brought him over, the local clubs felt he was too young but Manchester City ended up taking him,” he explains. So far, so ordinary.
“He’s now got a two-year scholarship there and guaranteed a year’s pro. Both of the boys clubs he played for will get £100,000 from the deal. It is a Fifa edict, it has got to happen. Over here, with a similar deal, they wouldn’t get anything.”
You can see the problem here. When Carroll and Henderson moved from Newcastle and Sunderland to Liverpool, the percentage of those fees that went back into the grass roots of the game was nothing.
While the Norwegian clubs use their upcoming windfalls to improve facilities, put coaches through badges and courses designed to sharpen their expertise, the grass roots of North East football seem parched.
“There’s very little money put back into the grassroots in the North East,” Millward admits.
“There is in the south, in Hackney and Croydon – where they are building better facilities. Ours leave something to be desired and nothing comes back. We get £200 a year for running a league from the Durham County FA.”
At elite level, money flows freely. It is lavished on Category A academies in the Premier League and on St George’s Park. Manchester City are building a mini Etihad and a hotel to bring through young talent.
But at Millward’s level, the pinch is being felt. It is not that there is a lack of talent or willing volunteers in the youth leagues of South Tyneside, but how can budding coaches aspire to get their ‘B’ or ‘A’ licenses when the cost is a couple of thousand pounds?
In Spain and Portugal there are around 30,000 coaches with A and B licences. In England there are 4,000 and the breakdown in the North East is not favourable. Yet if you were a part-time coach giving your time, would you put your hand into your own pocket to cover the expenses? Why should you?
There is a snowball effect here, for English and North East football – a lost generation of talent, if you will. For while the best of the best inevitably get picked up by the three big Premier League clubs, where they are coached by elite youth coaches, there is a level of talent, youngsters who are capable of going on to professional careers who are missing out on the facilities, the coaching and most importantly the opportunities that they should get.
Everyone can pick the problems of the system but solutions are harder to come by. So forward-thinking Millward has struck a partnership with law firm Quantum Law, whose sports management and agency branch is run by James Welch and former
Sunderland striker Marco
The aim is simple: to solve the problem of the lost generation of North East talent. Too many players, they feel, are slipping through the cracks.
Gabbiadini explains: “One of the things Alan does is that for a lot of those kids if they’re told they don’t have a place at Sunderland or Newcastle at 15 you’re at a crossroads in your football life already. That’s where we come in. That’s why we’ve formed this partnership. Alan’s running these leagues but the partnership we’ve got with Quantum is the more elite groups.
“The cream of the crop at Alan’s leagues are still playing for fun – they might have been passed over by a Premier League club – sometimes they need a bit of help to be pushed to a club because unfortunately in this region if you get released from one of the big three you’ve really only got Hartlepool and Gateshead who are viable.
“Compare and contrast that to Derby, where I used to play. There’s 30 clubs within a 50-mile radius – an hour’s travel. There just isn’t that in this region so its difficult for lads to get the contacts, the connections and the wherewithal to get themselves in front of scouts at other clubs.”
This is a project that brings together many of English football’s red button issues: the sad decline of homegrown talent, a deficit of proper, qualified coaches, the lack of opportunities for young footballers and the role of agents in the game. And while it is no bleeding heart charity operation – at the end of the day, money drives this project as it does everything in football – it is an encouraging development to see initiatives that might provide practical solutions to the region’s stunted production line that actually nourish the grass roots.
In essence it works like this:
Millward pools his contacts and knowledge of the youth leagues.
Talented boys who have either been released by clubs in the area or not quite made it into their Academies are given opportunities they might not otherwise have had, and if they make it through 50% of their agency fee while represented by Quantum goes back to the Trust.
“Can you imagine if the Trust had got half a per cent from the Carroll deal?” Gabbiadini ponders. “Football is the national game and the grassroots is ignored a bit.
“Kids who come out of the Premier League clubs will play football for the rest of their lives but the facilities need to be there.
“We will lose them if we’re not careful.
“I have gone around St George’s Park and it’s fantastic but that is in the long-term. This could make more of an immediate difference.”
It is the sort of bold thinking that is required to try and save the game and the region. So many good people are working with young players but they need help, they need trust, they need money and they need support. This project is certainly one to watch as the years pass on.
GETTING GAME TIME IS KEY
"It's a chicken and egg situation. Players who get experience have a chance." Marco Gabbiadini
You might not have heard of Matty McCarthy, but he is a perfect example of the dilemma faced by young, North-East talent.
Released at under-16 level by Newcastle, he might easily have been one of those who fell through the net after being judged not quite good enough by the Magpies.
Thanks to the project he is now at Queen of the South, pushing for the first-team squad just a year later. If he has played 40 or 50 times by the age of 19, he may be in a better position to enjoy a professional career than others who are in a Premier League Academy but are yet to play.
Game time is key to the transition for the lost generation. “Belgian players come over here, most have played more than 100 games by the time they’re 20. They’re proven. We can’t get them proven in this country – it’s like a chicken and egg situation. Players who can get
first-team experience have a chance,” Gabbiadini says.
There are other players who are benefiting from Quantum’s link-up with the Trust. Adam Curry is 17, a work-in-progress and recently captained England School Boys but is not involved with a professional club in the North East.
Thanks to Millward’s network of contacts and those of Gabbiadini he is likely to be fixed up with a professional club outside the area in the coming weeks and a promising talent might yet get a leg-up into the professional game. Sunderland under-18 striker Andrew Nelson and Callum Williams, who recently made his bow for Newcastle under-21s, are other beneficiaries.
Whatever happened to every football club having a Geordie pro?
It may surprise you to hear that in Leeds United’s Academy there is not one Geordie. It’s the same at York City.
It all feels a far cry from the days when Marco Gabbiadini (pictured above) recalls there being a Geordie and a Scotsman in every single football club he can remember playing against.
Ironically, that realisation first came to him when he was playing Bolton, and Tynesider Phil Brown put in a particularly tough tackle.
“Every club had a Geordie and a Scotsman back then but not any more. You aren’t telling me there aren’t still Gascoignes and Beardsleys out there,” he said.
It is partly a problem of geography but it is also a problem of infrastructure. Alan Millward of the South Tyneside Youth Football Trust explains that the reasons for North East talent not moving out of the region more is not because of talent.
“If you look at the success rate of the lads who get scholarships and get into clubs it’s very low,” Millward says.
“The clubs will only carry one scout and normally it’s a retired guy who will only do 10 miles around the house, for
understandable reasons. Blackburn, Burnley, clubs like that have one scout and are trying to cover the North East. There’s always going to be players dropping through the net.
“I think at the lower clubs, there are players passing through the net.” Gabbiadini takes up the theme. “Twenty to 30 years ago you’d have scouts from all over the place in this region,” he says. “I think that still exists to some extent but that harks back to the fifties when this was seen as a heartland.
“The North East was always a hotbed of football, but it’s like the rest of the country has cottoned on and we’ve been left behind because we’ve got a lack of clubs up here.”
The partnership between Gabbiadini’s employers Quantum Law and the Trust is intended to pool contacts and resources while also replenishing the Trust’s funds when a player makes it into a professional club.
“This is money going back to grassroots. Agents fees are published every year and that is a very big market,” Gabbiadini says.
“Our company has invested in us to get into that. We need to make a return but if we can do something that benefits the region – and it’s a North East charity – then that’s good as well. It is not just facilities and running costs – consider some of these lads wanting to go to the US on bursaries, that is what they can provide.”