WITH AN injury crisis leaving the national team short, Boro have been cast as the unlikely saviours of English football. The club’s approach to grooming talent all the way into the first team is being hailed as a template that can turn the tide of the foreign invasion.
The need to draft left back Gareth Barry into central midfield and give a shock recall to BoroÃ¢ÂÂs Nemesis Emile Heskey for the crunch qualifier with Israel has led to widespread Ã¢ÂÂwhy oh whyÃ¢ÂÂ hand-wringing over the dearth of top class domestic talent available to coach Steve McClaren.
Just a few injuries had left the squad looking alarmingly thin.
And, shouting above the sound of a giant rouble dropping, FA director of development Trevor Brooking has forecast the collapse of EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs football future as the stream of prospective stars slows to a trickle. The Soho Square kingpin is in charge of youth and grassroots football so is in a position to see the decline at first hand – and he is in no doubt that the root of the crisis is the impatience of the big clubs and the habitiual import of ready made talent.
“The national team has to be under threat – the numbers show that. I don’t think you can underestimate it. It’s a major concern. Last year about 40% of starting XIs in the Premier League were English and with all the buying over the summer that will probably fall to under a third. Will there be first-team opportunities for some of our youngsters?
“If you look at Italy when they won the last World Cup, I think they had over 70% of their league made up of domestic players. Spain, France, Holland, they’re all up there too. Germany aren’t much better than us but we’re the lowest. The more that goes down, and the pool of choice reduces, we must come under pressure. In 10 years’ time you don’t want us just being pleased to qualify for tournaments.”
Given that backdrop the concerted efforts of Boro to focus on the Hurworth academy to produce home grown heroes and the clubÃ¢ÂÂs eye-catching success in nurturing exciting kids into the first team squad is being hailed as a role model that can help turn back the tide.
The number of England qualified players in Premiership squads, dropping gradually since the day the Premier League kicked off in 1992, is now nudging down to just a third of the total and that has belatedly set off alarms bells. There were only 12 foreigners starting on that first day, but in this termÃ¢ÂÂs opener 121 – 56% of the total – kicked-off.
The stark warning and the unanswerable statistics have put the spotlight on Boro – and for a change the club can bask in the praise of a positive press. In the wake of BrookingÃ¢ÂÂs comments the BBC, Sky Sports and a string of national newspapers have pointed to BoroÃ¢ÂÂs careful husbandry as a possible antidote to the quick fix option of importing ready made talent while the Sunday Times despatched chief sports writer David Walsh to write a glowing colour piece about the Hurworth academy.
And it is worth echoing that praise closer to home. Amid Ã¢ÂÂthe cloud of negativityÃ¢Â? that envelops Planet Boro at times and the white noise of our constant internecine squabbling over prices, engagement and atmosphere we should not forget the incredible progress that has been made to develop a system that is now the envy of far bigger and richer clubs.
The careful investment of an estimated ÃÂ£1m plus per year in the infrastructure of the academy for coaches, facilities and a productive scouting network for over a decade has helped put down the building blocks for a sustainable future.
We know that Boro can not compete with the real big boys for the best players, a problem that has become more pronounced as foreign billionaire speculators close in on the cash rich Premiership and push the stakes higher. Recently Steve Gibson revealed that to satisfy Mark VidukaÃ¢ÂÂs wage demands would mean giving over half the season ticket income every year while over the Summer boss Gareth Southgate repeatedly stressed that the club could not and would not chase the rising market and spend money they did not have on inflated transfer fees.
But Boro now regularly include five or six homegrown players within the matchday squad – on the opening day against Blackburn the 16 included Andrew Davies, Andrew Taylor, David Wheater, Stewart Downing, Seb Hines, Lee Cattermole and Adam Johnson plus academy polished Aussie Brad Jones – an enviable feat that has saved millions of pounds in transfer fees and, as most are just youngsters and still at the just about comprehensible end of the pay scale, also in the wages their imported equivalents would demand too.
The academy hitting pay-dirt is a financial boon for the club that helps them compete – but the youngsters are not just the cheap option. They are in the team on merit. Downing, Taylor and Wheater would be pencilled in on almost every fansÃ¢ÂÂ first XI while Johnson and Cattermole have their champions for a starting role ahead of big buys too.
After the impact of Downing in his first season, James Morrison, Stuart Parnaby and then Cattermole and Johnson last term, Wheater has been this seasons revelation with a string of displays that suggest he has stepped up in style.
Drafted in to answer a central defensive injury crisis the imposing Redcar lad has slotted in smoothly with an unflappable physicality that brings to mind a young Tony Mowbray.
The strength in depth of the set up is illustrated with every England squad. When was the last one unveiled at any level without a Boro presence?
In the current round of internationals Downing is in the senior squad (and but for his Summer operation Jonathan Woodgate would surely have featured too) while Wheater, Taylor and Johnston were included in the Under-21s and Jonathon Franks, Jason Steel and Nathan Porritt were all in the Under-17 set-up. A year ago Boro staged a photo shoot and could call on 17 England internationals at all levels who had come through the academy set-up.
Perhaps more significantly Boro can point with pride the achievement on the final day of the 2005-06 season in which they fielded a complete team of their academy graduates.
They started the narrow 1-0 defeat at Fulham with ten – Ross Turnbull, Davies, Matthew Bates, Wheater, Taylor, Morrison, Cattermole, Jason Kennedy, Johnson and Danny Graham – then Malcolm Christie made way for Josh Walker to make up a full complement and push the average age down to 19.
Yes, they were filling in as regulars were rested ready for the UEFA Cup final, but they held their own in a spirited display and put down a marker on what is now a well trodden path. Over the past five years 13 Academy players have made the first team and all but Brad Jones hail from within 30 miles of the Riverside.
Of course, the academy canÃ¢ÂÂt be rated as a complete success until it is paying for itself and even becomes a regular source of significant income. The sale of James Morrison to West Brom for ÃÂ£1.5m in the Summer was a major step towards that but it will take more sales, and ultimately bigger ones if the club are to take the concept to its logical conclusion and become a giant version of Crewe, a self-sustaining set-up with areputation for excellence.
But the academy it more than just a financial arrangement. The academy conveyor belt is ensuring that Boro continue to be a team with a core of local lads who understand the traditions and passions of the club and who can relate to the supporters, players who give it the fighting spirit that strikes a chord with the crowd. At a time when fans are increasingly alienated from the millionaires who wear their shirt that emotional link is a factor that is priceless.