Last week retired Matildas midfielder, Joey Peters spoke out against teenagers being trialled at international level, feeling that the pressure put on these young players was unfair, and also resulted in an early burn-out in their careers.
Peters comes from a position of authority having made her international debut against Italy just shy of her 17th birthday. Peters went on to play over 100 times for the Matildas in an international career that spanned 13 years. She also played in the USA and with Brazilian club Santos, becoming the first Australian woman to play professional football in South America, so comes from a position of having seen how other systems work.
Trials have in fact been a hot topic of late in not only football circles but amongst other sporting codes as well, and not just in Australia but globally. We are seeing more and more clubs in a myriad of sports as well as representative teams holding trials before selecting their squads. It is a long way from the way things used to be and many feel it is detrimental to both the standards of the sports and those who play. As frequently many talented players are being overlooked.
If you look back to the 1950’s, 60’s, even the 1970’s and early 80’s in England to play for England schoolboys carried some kudos. This was a team for under 15 year old players, and they played international games against other nations schoolboys and the games were played in front of huge crowds on the hallowed turf of Wembley. Of the 76 games at this level played at Wembley 33 had crowds of over 50,000!
These were the games you went to watch to see the next generation of superstars. The Likes of Manchester United great Duncan Edwards, who was lost in the Munich air disaster, made his Wembley debut in a Schoolboys match against Wales. Johnny Haynes, Terry Venables Ryan Wilson – better known as Ryan Giggs – and Michael Owen all came through the England Schoolboys ranks; with Owen scoring 12 goals in eight games in 1995.
In 1998-99 the English FA, as part of the “Charter for Quality” took over the control of the Under 15 international team. The curtain came down on this historic part of the game after 91 years, when in the final English Schools’ Under 15 match at the Olympic Stadium, Berlin England defeated their German hosts 1-0.
As celebrated as the English schools system was in its day it still had its flaws. The team was invariably picked from key footballing regions within England. The North West cities of Liverpool and Manchester, the North East which housed Newcastle, Middlesborough, and Sunderland, the Midlands and London. If you came from outside those areas your chances for winning an England Schoolboys cap was extremely rare. Even within those regions, if you talk to players who competed at that level they will tell you that selectors tended to favour some schools over others. Which proves that no selection process is perfect.
Yet those who were overlooked will also tell you that the snub made them all the more determined to prove those making the selections wrong.
Back then being overlooked for such a team was not the end of the world as these were the days before video cameras and before mobile phones and certainly before eye could fit on a phone! So every club had a network of scouts. Often ex-players who would travel within a set area watching all levels of football, their goal to unearth a star. Some were paid a set fee for watching a player on behalf of a club, others relied on a ‘spotters fee’ when a player they recommended was signed.
Even in Cricket the same scouting system existed. Cricket too had youth teams that were supposedly selected on merit, but sometimes the methods used in the selection process were dubious. For example for one schoolboy’s team performances were assessed over the first five games of the season, and the team was picked on the back of player’s performances over five games. Some players however had only played three games due to the unreliable weather in the set period of time, but that was not taken into account, and their performances were assessed as if they too had played five games.
In today’s world clubs still have scouts monitoring the performances of young players with talent, however often they will also take their coaches out into the community to try and find the next generation of talent. Those players deemed to have the ability to make it to the next level are then invited to come and train at those professional clubs.
Of course no club wants to miss out on a potential superstar so now in addition to their scouting process and coaches being out on the road, they will hold trials to make sure that they have not missed any talented players.
There is a structure to the way clubs find the next generation of players around the globe, and there is a network that has arisen. Despite local players no longer being the foundation on which clubs build their team, it was refreshing to hear Real Madrid coaches when in Perth say that their youth teams are made up solely of players within a certain distance of the club. That is as it should be. As former Liverpool Craig Johnston recently said on Fox Sports, his daughter is being driven an hour to an elite training session twice a week and an hour home, and he questioned the value in such a session and the time invested in getting to and from it; as well as the quality of that session.
In football we hear of State teams holding trials, we hear of NPL clubs holding trials, as all involved look to bring in the best players, but should trials be held for State representative teams? This technique of selecting a representative team via a trial system is commonplace in a number of sports but does that make it right?
Should the appointed coaches not be taking in the games of recommended players and making decisions based on their performances in those game situations, rather than a few training sessions?
As has been highlighted by many professional sporting organisations, they are now watching players at all times, seeing how they interact in the gym, their behaviour at meal times and what they eat, as well as checking out their activity on social media. So surely the least we can expect is the coach to watch a player in action, especially if he is going to represent his State.
Surely trials should not be held for representative teams? The Australian cricket team does not invite Sheffield Shield players to come and take part in a training session and then pick their Touring or Test side on the back of those sessions, so why should it be acceptable for other representative sides?
Also in recent times there has been an almost ‘closed shop’ approach to picking representative sides. Many are questioning if this too is the right approach.
The ‘closed shop’ has seen only players playing in a top flight competition being considered for selection. Is that fair? There are some talented players who have loyalty as a key attribute, and if the side they have played with since childhood is relegated from the top flight competition they do not jump ship, but stay with that team to try and see it return to the top. Should they be penalised for such loyalty? Are they not the very people most coaches would want in their side?
In 2008 Joe Lewis who had just helped Peterborough United win promotion from the English Division Two was selected for England and made his under 21 debut against Wales replacing Joe Hart and then sat on the bench for the full England team in games against the USA and Trinidad and Tobago.
Steve Bull of Wolverhampton Wanderers is a famous player to have played for England while playing in the old Division Two, now the Championship. The famous Tommy Lawton represented England four times during 1948-1949 while at Third Division South side Notts County and the late John “Budgie” Byrne, played once for England while at Third Division Crystal Palace in 1962, before moving to West Ham.
So should it really matter where you are playing, as long as you are deemed good enough by the coach to play at that level?
As for talented teenagers debuting in internationals, and being trialled to see if they are up to the challenge mentally and physically, Joey Peters has raised some very valid points. Hopefully with all of the back up staff involved in sport today the strength and conditioning gurus, as well as the team Psychologist, will help the coach decide whether a young player is up to the challenge.
After all in many sports we have seen teenagers come through and become true superstars in their sport, players such as Tendulkar, Pele, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Michael Phelps, and Boris Becker. Yet for each of these successes there have been many a promising teenager to fall by the wayside, and in sport once you drop out of the limelight you are entering a very dark and lonely place. It is true balancing act and having been there Peters is ideally placed to comment.
Sport has evolved, and is continuing to evolve. However surely when picking team it should always come down to the best five, eleven, fifteen or how many the rules state that take the court or to the pitch to start the match?
Many who grew up used to watching teams selected by coaches based on form rather than reputation, and irrespective of what team the player was playing for rue the day that trials took over from coaches or their scouts watching players play. What they wouldn’t give for a return to the good old days!