Paris St Germain, Olympiakos and Chelsea have signed up to join an expanded Next Gen Series for 2012/13, amid television deals and heightened interest.
As far as format concepts in football go, this devision seems not to fall amongst the most revolutionary. The idea is basic but its long awaited arrival onto the football calendar and it’s trickle if not a seep into public consciousness has been perhaps more so do to with a struggle with implementation and promotion than a failure to appreciate its positive aspects.
The Next Gen series, the brainchild of Brentford sporting director Mark Warburton, is evidently as far as can be from a victim of ill conception. It is a labour of love and working outside the confines of any football governance, its rise has been impressive. Ostensibly, this is an underage Champions League, under 19 level to be precise. The competing teams, sixteen expanding to twenty four in 2012/3, were initially invited by virtue of the strength and reputation of their academy sides. The presence of Ajax and Barcelona from their respective and revered De Toekomst and La Masia academy dwellings provide clout and justification of the tournament’s manifesto. It pertains to, ‘feature the next generation of world-class players who have been trained and nurtured by some of the greatest clubs in Europe.’
That is not to suggest building a tournament of even this moderate scale has been plane sailing for Warburton and his partner in its formation, Justin Andrews, whose background is in television production. There are imbalances and imperfections. If academy strength was atop the list of criteria, there are blatantly obvious omissions. Warburton, in his former roles as first assistant and latterly Academy manager at Watford’s Harefield Academy will know the nuances of rejection. How he will have adapted as the recipient as opposed to the bestower will have played a vital part in forging the formulative stages of Next Gen’s beginning and future. The make-up of the original line up including no fewer than five British sides suggest that a foothold at home was seen as an imperative in their maiden season. Utilising the brands of English and Scottish Premier League’s elite generates an interest at odds with its ease. That aside, the potential visits of Barcelona to Hyde Park’s Ewan Fields and Inter Milan to Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road offer the chance to see exalted company in more everyday surroundings. For an average price of three pound per ticket, the prospect of a ‘I seen Lionel Messi MK 2 at Ewan Fields’ anecdote is too tempting to pass up.
At the end of a maiden year that has seen interest steadily if not spectacularly increase, the series bears the hallmark of many of the players to which it offers a platform. It is an unpolished diamond and like its teenage stars, it is on a steep learning curve. Their footballing education is ongoing and Next Gen is learning with them. Aside from allowing continent wide audiences, live and on television, the chance to have the babes of Europe’s elite showcased for their delectation in a marquee tournament, the competition’s positives are in it’s practicalities. The experience of trips to foreign lands, some more far off than others is vital in teaching behavioral responsibilities when on official club duties. Pre and post-match media endeavours too, be it with official club or tournament media, offer the youngsters a glimpse into what their senior counterparts enjoy and endure on a bi weekly basis. Playing sides of a traditionally higher calibre than what they may be used to in Under 18 Academy Leagues and Premier Reserve Leagues that remain guilty of criminally sparse fixture lists is an ace card with which the Next Gen series can trump the detractors.
Should a flaw be an insistence, the competition works on a round by round basis. It’s infancy means every aspect is subject to trial and error. Cycad Sports Management, Warburton and Andrews’ business moniker, are at the folly of circumstance. A final contested between Inter Milan and Ajax Amsterdam held at Brisbane Road was never going to garner huge crowds in East London despite a smattering of heightened critical interest. Until those two finalists had been determined, the venues were yet to be confirmed. Once Aston Villa had seen their eye catching progress in the maiden competition curtailed by Olympique Marseille, Villa Park was among the contenders to host the final. The entire knockout phase being played in a World Cup style period of two weeks in an overseas destination was mooted too. As it was, a moderate showing of two and a half thousand filled just a quarter of the old Osborne Road.
Clubs would be blind to fail to appreciate the obvious benefit to their academies and the players entrusted within it’s walls and on it’s pitches.
Lacking the clout and fanfare that anything with an official UEFA stamp could generate and with a television deal only coming to fruition towards the end of an encouragingly fruitful debut season, a solid foundation has been set for future years. The basic fundamentals and principles are Next Gen’s most saleable assets. Clubs would be blind to fail to appreciate the obvious benefit to their academies and the players entrusted within it’s walls and on it’s pitches. To take Aston Villa, who have since promoted no fewer than five of their Next Gen panel to first team duties, most prominent among them Gary Gardner, brother of former Villa midfielder Craig, as an example. Villa’s seven matches in the competition this season account for a quarter of their entire reserve team fixture schedule. For players such as Derrick Williams, Daniel Johnson and Samir Carruthers who have outgrown the age restrictions for Academy league football and are caught in the inadequate slipstream between first team action and underage football, the matches provide welcome relief in the most basic of manners, playing time. That their opposition consists of the technically adroit from the Ajax academy, with Ronald De Boer and Dennis Bergkamp at the helm and plethora of others is surely the ultimate justification.
Williams and Carruthers have been the stand out Irish performers in an impressive Villa side pre-Christmas, recovering from a 2-0 reverse in Amsterdam to overcome the Dutch side by a further goal at Villa Park, usurping them at the top of their group in the process. The Midlands’ club’s Irish increasing affiliation was much publicised in the aftermath of additions of messers Given and Keane but with seven Republic of Ireland underage internationals in their ranks it is only right that such a presence in a competitive elite structure should be noted applauded. When Villa return to Next Gen duty in August, five of those seven will be eligible once again. Celtic’s Paul George and Liverpool’s Joseph Rafferty completed the compliment of an extensive Irish contingent in this year’s tournament. Celtic and Liverpool will too return, as will the other thirteen original teams and eight new clubs too. Interest will now come with an expectancy and foresight that lacked this time around. Initial latter stage television deals with ESPN AND Fox brought this season’s semis and final to a worldwide audience. The still functioning arm of Setanta Sports made the coverage belatedly available in Ireland.
Whilst many teams flit between annual football tournaments held worldwide (Manchester United have sent reserve and academy sides to the Dallas Cup in the US and the Ageon Cup in Amsterdam this week alone), the series offers a constancy and an itinerary more in keeping with the realities of senior football. Many of those Irish players who remain involved with their international Under 19 team, have in more than mere essence seen their involvement in top level competition double, a minimum Next Gen group stage round of six games now on top of yearly qualification for the UEFA Under 19 Championships with preliminary and elite stage qualifying made up of six games in total.
In his role as facilitator in chief in unearthing the hidden gems that risk being lost amongst often dour reserve football at Europe’s top clubs, Mark Warburton’s very own diamond can shine all on its own.
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