Living on the Dreams of Legends: Premier League Teams Must Be Courageous and Give Homegrown Players First Team Opportunities

Premier League teams consistently show a lack of courage when it comes to playing young, homegrown players. The best sides in the league have invested millions in developing academy facilities to ensure they are equipped to support player growth to the highest standards. However, Premier League teams do everything right in finding and training young players – then fail where it matters most. Giving them time in the first team.

The definition of a homegrown player is a player who has trained with a club for at least three seasons between the ages of 15 and 21.

The percentage of minutes played by homegrown players hit an all time low in the 2016-17 season. Just 1% of all Liverpool’s minutes were played by homegrown players. Chelsea weren’t much further ahead with 1.5%. Tottenham clocked 12.3%, Everton 14.6%, Manchester United 20.2%, and Arsenal led the way with 24.8%. The lowest ranked team, who recently invested £200 million in their academy facilities, was Manchester City with 0%.

An in-depth study in 2015 by the CIES Football Observatory closely analysed the makeup of players in the Premier League. The results emphasise the lack of playing time for homegrown players. The study found in 2015 that 11.7% of Premier League players graduated through the ranks of their team’s academy. In 2014 the figure clocked in at 13.8%.

An increase in the percentage of foreign players in Premier League teams means fewer opportunities have become available for homegrown players. Foreign players counted for 69% of all players in the Premier League for 2016-17 – the highest total for any European league. Manchester City’s transfer policy has reinforced this statistic with big money signings over successive seasons have been favoured over giving opportunities to homegrown talent.

It has become a trend in recent years for top Premier League teams to only field young, homegrown players who are deemed ‘wonderkids’. In seasons current and years gone by, players like Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen progressed from academies and straight into the first team. These types of players are currently few and far between in English football.

Players need time and space in order to fulfil potential – and it comes through substantial minutes playing first team football. Marcus Rashford was brought into Manchester United’s starting eleven because of a shortage of strikers. He immediately impressed and has continued to do so. Without being given time in the first team, Rashford wouldn’t be anything close to the outstanding talent he is growing into. He fits the description of ‘wonderkid’ and if there hadn’t been a striker shortage at Old Trafford his presence in the first team would have been questionable. If given adequate time over the next season he could kick on and progress to the same sort of level as Dele Alli.

For a number of players, like Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard, spells with other clubs on loan gave them the time they needed to experience sustained first team action. Other players, like Dele Alli, Chris Smalling and Jamie Vardy, progressed to England’s first team by developing their craft outside of the Premier League.

In Dele Alli’s case, he played for MK Dons 74 times over four seasons and made his debut at 16. To his credit Dele didn’t jump ship immediately. He spent time improving himself as a player and learning from the experiences of playing in a first team. In his final days at MK Dons it was quite clear Dele was the best player in the side and the big time loomed. When he arrived at Tottenham Hotspur in 2015, he wasn’t the finished article, but because of his first team experience at MK Dons he was much further along than any other player of his generation.

Despite the financial power from the commercialisation of the Premier League, English clubs are becoming safer in their player choices and unwilling to risk homegrown youngsters. UEFA’s introduction of an association-trained quota for Champions League eligibility means clubs must have at least eight players who have graduated from an academy within their home nation. This means players can graduate from an academy and then move clubs – much like most of the players who have come through Southampton’s excellent youth system. In 2015, 47.6% of players were classed as association-trained – a declining figure when compared to 51% in 2014.

The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) has given rise to a group of players who are beginning to show a glimpse of greatness. England’s Under-20’s recently won the World Cup for their age group and could be the first crop of talent to contribute to the legacy of the EPPP. In the Under-20’s team, 16 out of 21 players played senior football in 2016-17. The most significant figure is 8 out of those 16 players have earned their professional minutes whilst on loan and outside the Premier League.

The 21 man squad made 205 combined club appearances in 2016-17 and just 14% of those appearances came in the Premier League. This is quite telling. These players have been given the chance to play for a sustained period within the first team of clubs outside the Premier League. They have had the chance to experience first team football and grow in a competitive arena rather than warm a bench and grasp at Premier League cameo appearances.

With Gareth Southgate as England manager there is a strong feeling more young players will be given opportunities to play for their country. The victories for England Under-19’s and 20’s has given club managers a strong message along with an opportunity for reflection. Do they need to look overseas for a new signing, or is the potential for an excellent player sitting within their youth ranks?