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Is it time to remove junior and youth football from club control? - we look at two options open

Opinion and analysis by Stephen Ignacio

As the future of junior and youth football once again takes centre fold the question on whether it should be removed from club control to a draft system or even educational institutional structure as once existed, a long time ago for many, is among one of the many questions still open to debate.
Club owners in the whole, except for a small number, will frown at such an idea, and probably resist it. Many parents have already expressed their support when such an idea has been put to them, whilst many a junior and youth coach aligned with clubs, both past and present have silently expressed their support but warn that clubs will not allow such a change, especially if it reduces their revenue stream.
An exodus of young players, the number put at some 110, migrating into Spanish regional clubs along with the controversies which have led to a delay in the start of the youth leagues has seen questions of where youth football should head towards as one of the biggest discussions points this season.

The concerns fuelling the exodus
From concerns over a lack of football, to a lack of proper coaching facilities, high registration fees imposed by some clubs, criticism over the value for money players receive to concerns over the costs of sending players to train in Spanish facilities alongside concerns over how clubs are using funds which should be used in youth development has ensured that many a parent has continued to express their concerns and question the adequacy of the Gibraltar football development programme under the present club structure for junior and youth players.
Whilst many have pointed the finger of blame towards the Gibraltar FA, as they point to who is ultimately responsible for governing the sport, most of these criticism ironically coming from clubs themselves, it is these same clubs who continue to be seen by the end users, the children and parents, as the main focal point for the concerns.
Among one of the biggest concerns many raise is how funds which should be directed towards junior and youth development are being used, especially when coupled with the registration fees players are required to pay to clubs. This figure varying in magnitude between clubs, some players required to pay up to £150 whereas registration fees to the Gibraltar FA have remained static (and were even reduced during the global pandemic).
Such have been the concerns that it is already widely known that the governing body itself has warned clubs that transparency in their use of funds will be required in order to ensure that funds are not diverted towards the funding of senior football.
The implementation of requirements for a minimum standard in coaching certification was also introduced after it became apparent that senior players were being used to fill the position of coaches. Whilst this should not have caused to much concern. However, the fact that players on amateur or semi-professional contracts were being used as a way of ensuring they received monthly income without the need of a professional contract with the senior team raised concerns that this was a way using the youth programmes to prop up the senior team. With some players known to only have required to fulfill minimum hours a week with junior teams and only receiving coaching instruction at the minimum levels with no further development programmes offered to increase their coaching proficiency the activity was viewed with wide concern due to the detrimental impact it had on some junior and youth teams. Especially with the continuous movement of players between clubs at the end of each season.
Whilst not all clubs can be painted with the same brush, some investing into the development of their junior and youth teams, where even the use of senior players has been properly managed to afford experience and not just fill gaps. However, those lagging behind have given rise to many a concern which continues to impact the development of players.
With many a report of some clubs reducing their training and coaching towards the final months of the season and with many parents indicating that little is done, in their opinion, by some clubs to retain players, instead looking at a hard drive in recruitment in the summer to gather the numbers, the idea of removing club control over junior and youth football has in recent seasons gathered momentum and seen more parents and even coaches expressing their desire to see this happen. Many indicating how continuity in coach, even beyond the actual league season is a key factor they are looking for.
Support for such a move away from the league club structure has even been expressed by some parents whose children now play in Spain and who have indicated that their children would probably return if they believed the opportunities to develop their football in Gibraltar where in place with the additional support structure they are seeking.

The options – Schools and academies
Among one of the many suggestions has been to move junior and youth football into the educational system where it is guaranteed a protective shield alongside a fair and balanced distribution of players using the school system itself.
A partnership between the Gibraltar FA and the education system many believe could yield a level playing field for players which would ensure football has an open door approach for all and where the different tiers to develop beginners and elite alike can be created.
Although such a proposal would require substantial planning and discussion which some believe could still be rejected by the education system itself, the idea itself continues to gain momentum as a possible avenue many believe should be looked into.
From internal school leagues which could see class or year groups playing between each other and even qualifying towards interschool leagues to interschool “elite” leagues at different age categories the structure of the education system itself could afford the platform football has been looking for many years.
Importantly it would also bring a competitive sporting environment which is only seen during school sports days or interschool tournaments, and would ultimately also lead to more interest in matches.
Whilst one of the many detractions is the pressure this could place on PE departments one of the many solutions proposed has been to provide Qualified and vetted coaches by the Gibraltar FA, using both school and after hours sessions, as well as using the existing allocations for junior and youth teams which would ensure that the burden on schools would be greatly reduced whilst affording players a protection to really “play without pressure.” At the same time affording all schools with the expertise football can provide not only through the local governing body, but also through UEFA and FIFA where school development programmes are among some of the areas which have gathered pace in recent years.
The idea, though not publicly debated, has been among one of the many ideas which have emerged in recent years from within Gibraltar football’s own grassroots environment. One which has been suggested as a possibility but which has been resisted from being pursued due to fears of the reaction from local clubs which would lose one of its main sectors.
Although clubs would feel excluded, observers have pointed out that such a proposal could see club involvement in a schools programme where they would not need to recruit but instead provide their expertise such as coaches. It has even seen suggestions that a return to schools leagues could still allow clubs to recruit independently but with a lesser burden on numbers as no criteria to meet certain numbers for funding would exist and any competitions would need to be independently run.
Another idea which has been mooted in recent months is the re-introduction of the Gibraltar Youth football council, removing junior and youth football from the present structure and to place it under an independent body which would not have the restrictions imposed by rules which keeps the local league at just eleven clubs at the moment opening it up to independent teams from across the community.
With local football now effectively operating a closed shop policy in which any new teams or entities wishing to create a team require to effectively be voted in by the eleven clubs that form the Gibraltar Football League Association, ideas opening the doors to everyone continue to receive more and more support. Although most of the debate is behind the scenes with few willing to debate such ideas openly due to fears of a backlash from clubs.
However, opening the game to a wider sector has become more relevant especially now that the eleven club policy effectively reduces the number of players who can register, at the same time creating a scenario where clubs are either looking for the best players, or simply look to fill up the numbers to meet the quota required to be eligible for youth funding. This excluding many youngsters who find themselves without a place to play.
The closed shop policy also effectively removed recreational football as no provisions now exist for recreational teams at any level to play in any league or competition except tournaments organised by independent bodies who would have limited and restricted use to facilities providing little to no scope for long term competitions.
The mix of players which would be seen by forming teams from within school groups would also ensure that there is a greater balance in teams with a mix of talent and beginners within teams, providing for more competitive matches at a wider scale and less of the 20-0 results which have been seen. Plus allow for recreational, outside-school-activity competitions to be developed.

A similar concept to that of using schools, with the same effect of removing control from clubs and registering players under the same umbrella has also been mooted as another option that many a parent have indicated that they would welcome. However, in this second option the players would be registered under the Gibraltar FA and drafted into clubs who would need to meet basic criteria for participation.
This idea has already been partially launched and tested this season by the Gibraltar FA with its Academy, although limited to the youngest year groups. By keeping this young year group within the same structure next season the Gibraltar FA would effectively extend its programme further and slowly erode away at club control over players. However, there has been no clear commitment that this will happen, and with clubs likely to see this as a revenue losing idea the likelihood of the collaborative partnership extending beyond what clubs will consider a reasonable age is seem as unlikely. The process, however, if maintained year in, year out for the next six years would itself remove club control of players up to under 12’s effectively creating, through a slow process, the same scenario many a parent have called for, but are calling for now.
What has become apparent is that although clubs point the finger of blame towards the Gibraltar FA, whilst at the same time supporting collaborative partnership programmes such as the Gibraltar football academy, the end user, junior and youth players and their parents, have been pointing the finger of blame also towards clubs, as well as the Gibraltar FA. The latter whom they hold responsible for how clubs provide their development programmes and how the administration has governed the use of youth funds provided to clubs. Many a parent have echoed the same concerns, “it’s been the worst era of junior football ever,” as they describe the most recent seasons including prior to Covid-19 pandemic. Most also questioning where the youth development funds given to clubs actually go.

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