THE SECRET FOOTBALLER: Youth team graduates at every club owe something to wise Wenger

Our man inside the game witnessed first hand the remarkable influence of Arsenal’s Frenchman.

If a week is a long time in politics, 22 years in football is an eternity. Politics may well be the reason that Arsenal will part company with Arsene Wenger at the end of this season but in an era when the average managerial tenancy is just over a year, Wenger’s run of well over a 1000 games is nothing short of remarkable.

Much has been made of Arsenal’s demise as a Premier League force under Wenger in recent years — the Gunners have not won the title since 2004 when they went through the entire season without suffering a single league defeat. 

A record of three FA Cup triumphs in four years has done little to convince many of the club’s fans that the future shouldn’t be entrusted to a new, perhaps younger and more dynamic manager with fresh ideas.

But you know all that. My admiration for Wenger’s legacy is based on what he did for English football as a whole. Very few football people can lay a genuine claim to having transformed the game in some capacity, but Arsene Wenger certainly can.

At my first Premier League club, our training ground was split between the main practice pitch and a series of first-team pitches and academy pitches that spanned the lower side of the complex. Occasionally our afternoon training session would overlap with the arrival to our training ground of various age groups from other Premier League teams that would play against our youth teams.

To be honest I never really used to watch many of the academy games but when Arsenal rolled up I made an exception. Once, Wenger turned up personally to cast his eye over the proceedings and I suppose to see if our academy was worthy of the reverence that many people held it.

Wenger was a legend at this point, bringing in young players and developing them into world-beaters until he could no longer keep them out of the clutches of the European giants. He was regularly branded a genius both inside the game and out, but for very different reasons. 

I fully expected Arsenal’s youth teams to be made up of predominantly young, French players with a sprinkling of talent from all corners of the globe. And while there was the odd European hopeful in red and white shirts, the vast majority were British. English actually.

Youth team graduates at every club owe something to wise Wenger

I’d assumed that Wenger’s philosophy was much like the philosophy of most of the other foreign managers at that time, namely that young English players were shit, and cultured foreign talent was where it was at.

Not a bit of it. I stood on the touchline close enough to hear Wenger explain to our Academy director how English kids were undertrained or trained incorrectly.

I really don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I probably learned more about football development in four or five minutes of earwigging Wenger than I learned in any conversation with any of my managers, or anybody else in football for that matter.

I distinctly remember him saying that he couldn’t believe how British kids were trained when he first became manager of Arsenal.

Kids as young as seven or eight were playing 11-a-side football on full-size pitches, following the ball like a swarm of bees around a honeypot.

At Arsenal Wenger moved to reduce the numbers in each youth team and turned the pitch around so that the kids played across it in one half. He explained that with fewer players on a smaller pitch the kids would have more touches and they would improve rapidly as a result. 

It seems embarrassingly simple now, obvious even, and maybe it was, but it demonstrates the state that English football was in and the lack of enthusiasm at home to do anything about it. We changed accordingly, everybody did. I regularly talked with our academy director in the months after about new ideas and what he was up to. 

He revealed that he was in regular contact with Wenger and that his basis for diet, rest and recovery, as well as technical and tactical training all came from the Wenger handbook. The academy flourished.

Youth team graduates at every club owe something to wise Wenger

Two years after my fleeting brush with Wenger, Arsenal signed two of our academy prospects. In the seasons that followed we lost almost all of our academy staff to elite clubs.

While I understand that it may be a stretch for some of you, I think it’s possible to make the case that every footballer to graduate from a youth team and on to a professional contract in this country since Wenger’s arrival owes his opportunity in some small part to the passion and revolutionary approach that the Frenchman had for developing raw talent that was seized on by others.

Indeed, in the years that followed there would be many who climbed up on Wenger’s back and eventually stood on his shoulders, but the explosion in heavily subsidised training in this country together with significant investment in academy infrastructure at the top level can be traced back to the day that Wenger showed us that it was possible to coach every player to bring out the best of his ability rather than wait for the odd no-brainer to come along.

I would cross paths with Arsene Wenger many more times in my career, but each time he was more beatable than the last and far less imperious than I’d wanted to remember him.

In fact, his approach to football became the antithesis to what many of my clubs stood for and we regularly beat Wenger and his Arsenal side over the head with the rod that he had made for his own back.

That’s the price you typically pay for going first. It’s far easier for people to replicate and improve on a theory than it is to come up with one of your own.

When Wenger bows out on May 13, we would all do well to remember that.


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