Sun | Dec 17, 2017

Follow the Trace | Development needed, but how?

Published:Tuesday | October 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Kingston College's Fabian Grant dribbles away from Excelsior High's Tyrick Sutherland during their ISSA/FLOW Manning Cup match at the Stadium East field last month.

After several years of administrative uncertainty and myopic naivety by Jamaica's football leadership, finally, the consensus has been reached that for our football to achieve and maintain its pride of place and relevance going forward, the focus must be on the sustained development of our young players.

Consensus is a good starting point, but the real challenge is to find the most realistic way to optimise the development of more of Jamaica's best football talent, especially given the crippling weaknesses in the local football structure. In traditional football cultures, the development thrust is driven by big professional clubs with extensive academies and youth-development programmes.

We can dream and fantasise all we want in Jamaica, but we have nothing remotely close to the required structures to adequately address our developmental needs. The best of our local clubs in our struggling semi-professional league cannot make ends meet and the football is played on terrible surfaces with very sparse sponsorship and negligible alternative income. It is a perennial struggle to field even a Premier League team, much less to properly address youth development.

As it is now, the traditional ISSA/FLOW Manning and DaCosta Cups, as well as the relatively new Super Cup competitions, drive the very popular schoolboy football product in Jamaica. These are the elite under-19 competitions that attract all the top young players. But as popular and as well supported as it is, schoolboy football remains an amateur high-school competition run by school principals.

The extenuating circumstances of Jamaica's football reality leave us some rather imperfect and unorthodox choices. In this renewed developmental thrust, as imperfect as it is, we have no choice but to continue to scout the Manning and DaCosta Cup competitions for our best football talent.

It is at this crucial juncture that we have struggled over the years, losing tens, maybe hundreds of very talented players for one reason or another. Within the myriad of unique systemic, structural and cultural challenges facing our football, one very basic thing that can do is at the end of the schoolboy football season we identify the best of the best young talent and get them playing in the Red Stripe Premier League. As a developmental strategy, let us strategically expose our best young players to our best available level of football at the earliest possible age.

The top 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds across the world all came through the academy structures in their clubs and were all elevated to senior football at an early age. Kylian Mbappe, formerly of Monaco, now at Paris Saint Germain, Marcus Rashford at Manchester United, Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund are all outstanding young players who would have benefited from the early exposure to playing adult football at the highest level at a very early age.

 

Players in school too long

 

One of the big disadvantages of depending on schoolboy football to produce and expose our talent is that the top players stay in school until they are 19. We have lost an entire generation of young players courtesy of the thinking that a player at 19 is a young player. In football terms that thinking is five years over aged. Elite-level talent at 15, 16 and 17 should already be exposed to the top-level adult football if they hope to become high-quality professionals.

All things considered, the very best that we can do right now is to get our top players into our top league as early as possible. Even then, the real investment will begin when the Jamaica Football Federation mandates the top clubs to play a minimum number of young players, maybe three or four under-19 players per club, and they must play a minimum number of stipulated amount of minutes.

This would be an investment that would eventually benefit the clubs themselves, and ultimately, Jamaica's football in the medium to long term. More players would be better prepared and better developed at an earlier age for the lucrative, open football market, and eventually for Jamaica. If there is a better, more pragmatic, more workable plan out there, let's hear it. Speak now, or forever hold your peace.