Mark Warburton is highly regarded in football circles for his outstanding track record in the development of elite players at youth level. Having forged a successful career as a leading coach in the UK, he is now establishing international recognition even further behind the scenes in elite player development.
This year has been a memorable year for English football at the top, Manchester City's smash and grab title raid had all eyes of world fixed on the Premier League again, and in many years to come Chelsea FC 's monumental march to glory in Munich will be at the forefront of any football discussion recapping the 2011/12 season.
All this coming at time when the English domestic game at youth level has also been at a major crossroads with new proposals being put forward by the games national governing bodies on how best to develop the countries best players. Maybe it's fate or irony that UPRO interviewed Mark in a German Airport a few weeks before the Blues triumph as we got the story on the groundbreaking debut season of the The Next Gen Series, an exciting U19's competition Mark and Co Founder Justin Andrews created in the image of the UEFA Champions League for Europe's best youth academies. The game always teaches that fortune favours the brave, In it’s pioneering first season the Next Gen Series has shown the way forward in organising top level competition for Europe’s best young players.
The calibre of the clubs, stadiums and overall organisation of this competition has shown any initial doubters that there is a place for a season long tournament at elite youth level and hopefully a glimpse into some of the stars of the future.
In his previous role as Watford FC Academy Manager Mark created an environment which combined football and educational excellence at The Harefield Academy where he nurtured the bright talents of Bolton Wanderers Marvin Sordell, Lee Hodson and the much sought after young midfield prospect Sean Murray. His vision of how elite youth players should be developed provided the Watford first team with a thriving and productive youth system envied by more prestigious professional club academies with major resources at their disposal.
He attributes the rapid development of the players who came through the Harefield model to experiences gained playing against Europe’s top professional clubs in elite tournaments and pre arranged friendlies, his objective to give players under his academy tuition exposure of high level competition outside of their domestic commitments. With no disrespect intended he recalls becoming disillusioned with the repetitiveness of the fixtures, routines and lack of challenges his players received throughout the regular season.
“We felt at Watford we had to offer the players a variety of challenges, we played Chelsea who have an outstanding academy eight times in one particular season, many of the players were mates with guys they would come up against in other academies. We decided to take the players out into Europe to play teams like Inter Milan, Sporting Lisbon and Valencia, the idea being to take the players out of their comfort zone. Many of the players who went on to become pro’s remember those games as being key in their development as they knew they could perform against high quality opposition from anywhere in difficult conditions.”
The experiences of pitting his wits against the best in Europe also had a lasting impact on Mark and his thinking of how the very best players should be developed here in the UK and abroad. After completing his work at the Watford FC Academy he travelled around the top football institutions on the continent to meet and exchange information with some of the brightest minds in elite youth football development, he discovered that many of the coaches he spoke to shared his frustrations with regard to being able to provide their elite development squads with regular challenges outside of their own competitions which would prepare them for the cut throat nature of the first team football environment.
Considering the Champions League has been going for two decades and helped to develop some of the world’s best players in the formative years of their careers it is amazing that the elite youngsters at the top clubs in Europe have not had the opportunity to gain experience playing the best from abroad in a competition that mirrors the Champions League.
Seizing the opportunity, Mark combined his football knowledge with his business partner Justin's media expertise and connections coming up with the format and all important sponsorship which would bring their vision to reality. They idea was to top clubs on the continent with some of the world’s most talented and gifted young footballers on their books. Mark’s track record in developing gifted young players as a coach provided the reassurance for the youth team departments clubs that their players would be looked after.
In explaining the objectives that secured the commitment of famed football academies such as Ajax, Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven it is very clear that the players development and progress was paramount in Mark securing the commitment of the sixteen club academies to the tournament.
”We made it clear to clubs that they could trust us to put on a world class tournament , It was important that we allowed the teams flexibility in their schedule so that fixtures would compliment the domestic and international commitments of the players. The tournament would also require a lot of travelling as teams would play fixtures home and away, we had to convince the clubs that this would not be detrimental to the long term progress of the players. The goal of the Next Gen is about educational development and preparing players to make the transition from elite youth performance to competent first team performance.”
Many of the teams that featured in the competition have fast tracked players to the first team based on their performances in this years competition. The tournament being an ideal benchmark for clubs looking to see which individuals are best prepared for the first team and cut out for life as a top professional. Aston Villa are an example of a club who have turned to their Next Gen stars in a bid to freshen up their ailing first team. Having endured a miserable league campaign this season, Villa can point to the appearances and inclusion of a number of youth team players in the first team set up as a positive that can be taken into next season’s rebuilding process.
Gary Gardner showed his class scoring a hat- trick in an inspirational performance against eventual finalists Ajax in the group stages of the competition, providing the evidence that the tournament does provide a platform and pathway for young players that show ability and consistency in top level competition. Samir Carruthers is another young Villa talent who also has shown confidence in the limited first team opportunities he received last season.
Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs made up the rest of England’s contingent in The Next Gen producing a mixture of experiences for the players and staff at these clubs. Man City’s elite development squad like their senior team mates learnt about the harsh realities of Europe, losing all six of their group games. Villa unfortunately finally ran out of steam in the quarter finals against a hardworking, technical Marseille side. Tottenham threatened to be serious contenders until they withdrew from the competition due to an administration error which they themselves brought to the attention of the tournament officials.
Liverpool were handed a route back into the semi finals as a result of the Spur’s omission, only to end up receiving a 6-0 schooling by an intelligent and creative Ajax team.
Mark acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to do in closing the gap on our European counterparts.
“We have some outstanding work and coaching going on at English academy clubs but the reality is there is still a lot of work to be done before we produce the type of quality that will impact the international stage.”
Even though the final between competition winners Inter Milan and Ajax had to be decided by penalty snooty out, it was fascinating observing the tactical battle take place on the pitch between two quality young teams. Ajax’s much revered principles of creativity, freedom and total possession versus Inter Milan’s disciplined, cautious approach . Like all great Italian sides before them, the foundations of this group of players (who have been together since U15 level) built on a rock solid defence which provided their more attacking players a platform to break quickly and attempt to take the space left behind by the Ajax's back line.
The players and clubs who participated this year it are not the only beneficiaries of a truly excellent competition, the involvement of British clubs has given fans and stakeholders in domestic youth football opportunity to go and see young players at the very top of the youth football pyramid for next to nothing, giving insight to styles of play, different formations, organisation and the professionalism of the teams at this level.
For any prospect harbouring ambitions to fulfil their potential it is important to see players of a similar age play in a top level environment. Next season will present an ideal opportunity to go and see what makes these young players so special when fixtures are played here in the UK, a further eight European clubs including Arsenal and Chelsea will add U19 squads to the roster of top teams signed up to the tournament. Mark's closing advice for anyone looking to establish a career in professional football is simple.
"Go and see why these players are wearing the badges of some of the biggest clubs in Europe, what are the attributes these players have and watch all aspects of their game. Look at them technically, observe their touches, look at the physical aspects of their game such as agility, aerobic and anaerobic capacity. You will see first hand the amount of work that goes into their performance, mentally they are able to handle big occasions and the tactical awareness that the players display in games is of a very high standard. You basically have to ask why am I sat here watching and their out on the pitch "