A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, otherwise known as pre-Sky Sports, football was aglow with an innocence that the youngsters of today could barely imagine. OK, not all of it was innocent. Actually, quite a lot of it was far from innocent. In the 80s, there was off-field thuggery, crumbling stadia and obscenely tight shorts. But at least the value of live TV football had not yet been debased like a struggling currency.
Before the Premier League broadcasts took hold, we had to make do with just a handful of live TV games every year: The FA Cup and European Cup Finals and England v Scotland. Now, TV companies are involved in increasingly frantic battles to hoover up just about any game going and nowhere is this desperation more obvious than in the latest obsession with youth team cup finals. How did they become essential viewing all of a sudden?
Every year, we are expected to swallow the line that we are witnessing the very future of the game in these unmissable matches and that the privilege is so overwhelming, we ought to be preserving the images in collectors-item box sets. We can later dig these out as proof that we were in on a star player’s career from the very start. In the game of social media one-upmanship, we imagine being able to tell our peers: “Yeah, but I could have told you Jack Grealish was going to be a star years ago when I saw him play in the Under Six West Midlands Trophy Final on Channel 5.”
Except what we are seeing is a mirage. A perpetual false dawn. This year’s U18 final between Chelsea and Man City was supposed to showcase a clash that might be replicated at the very summit of the game 10 years hence. Fat chance. What we are witnessing is effectively the snapshot of a mid table Championship fixture six years down the line, and a less polished version at that.
Chelsea’s Dom Solanke may prove to be the exception that proves the rule, but more likely those ‘young stars of the future’ will be considering permanent switches to Charlton or Norwich in 2020 after a string of loan spells with various Championship clubs.
The 2010 youth cup finalists Josh McEachran, Sam Walker, Conor Clifford and George Saville typify this well-worn path. Decent players all, but not marquee. Jeffrey Bruma has had to go back to Holland with PSV to realise his potential. Doubtless, they all get great schooling at their respective academies – decent food, great medical care and state of the art tactical guidance – but ultimately they have to take their chances elsewhere. The clubs that nurture them now will always have chequebooks at the ready to sign a finished product from the Eredivisie and recoup their investments by selling on their groomed youngsters.
Some players manage to live up to the increasing hysteria over these matches. Daniel Sturridge played in the 2006 final for Man City against Liverpool. But he is the only player from the two teams involved who now plies his trade in the upper echelons of the game. Of the 32 players named in the squads for the first leg of the 2007 final, only Danny Welbeck, Danny Drinkwater and James Chester still play in the top flight.
Of course, there was always a naïve hopefulness about watching such televised games. I remember being excited about live broadcasts of the Wembley schoolboy internationals in the 70s, such were the starvation rations served up on TV then. But really, how many of them made it? Looking back at the line-ups for an England v Holland fixture in 1975, only Ray Ranson (Man City, Birmingham, Newcastle) springs out as a recognisable name from that era.
I’m all for catching up on some Bundesliga or La Liga action live on TV now and again, but I draw the line at youth cup games. Not so long ago, these were confined to club website streams and MUTV. And that’s where they belong. You’re watching the future of the game, all right. But don’t kid yourself that you’re watching the good bit.
You can follow Yann Tear on Twitter (@YannTear)
Is Yann right? Are youth cup finals relatively pointless affairs witnessed only by the desperate and the bored? Or will we see those victorious Chelsea players in the first team before too long? Write to us: [email protected]