What about the other 100?
Opinion and Analisis by Stephen Ignacio
“What about the other 100 plus players who form the Gibraltar youth leagues, and who don’t get rewarded?”
That was one of the questions raised by one of the many coaches from the Gibraltar youth league as he debated issues relating to the presence of the Elite Youth Player Development Programme.
His comments, if read solely as a single sentence, might have been interpreted as a criticism of the EYPD programme. However, it was far from a direct criticism of the programme, which he highlighted he supported.
Instead, it was an expression of concern at how far the programme reached and a reflection of the multiple issues which influence players and dictate, at present. It also raised questions on how far organisations involved in football, be it the association or clubs, are expected to go.
The EYPD programme, as has been highlighted this past weeks, reaches only to provide for a certain number of players, mainly those seen as the most talented or likely to progress into the next levels especially within the national squads.
Among them, and reflecting current player trends, it inevitably includes some players who now play for Spanish teams after a migration of some of the elite players into Spain.
Inevitably, this has led to concerns from those who have stayed behind in the Gibraltar leagues but did not meet the cut to form part of the EYPD programme, that they are missing opportunities being offered which widen the gap between the elite players and the rest.
Although the criteria to reach Gibraltar national squads is not dictated by where you play but by the talent of the player. The fact the best players have been moving to play in Spain has provided a perspective that only those playing in Spain would get opportunities. A view which has led to a chain reaction which now sees players perception being influenced to believe that their best option is to play outside Gibraltar.
All these factors now seem to be making it seemingly impossible to bridge the gap between the top players and the rest leaving some to believe that the impact on the league will be detrimental in the long term if perceptions are not changed.
Ironically, among those migrating to Spain, whilst there is still a belief that the coaching levels are more adept towards guiding players to the professional level of the game. There is also a feeling that moving to Spain reduces your chances of first team football within the Gibraltar national team.
This was reflected by concerns raised by one parent recently expressing the belief that whilst their son plays in Spain and has consistently performed well, the lack of exposure in Gibraltar has meant that they feel sidelined.
The perceptions which have been influencing players decisions are among the many issues which continue to create confusion within the youth ranks on what routes to take to further their prospects.
Whilst the perspective that you will be selected is merely based on an idea promoted by some who benefit the most from seeing players moving to Spain rather than reality, it is enough to create an ambience in which the promotion of a migration to Spanish leagues continues to exist. As one coach asked, “what do you say to a player who tells you that playing in Spain means that he will be trialled for Gibraltar?”
To some involved in Gibraltar youth football and trying to lift the levels in the sport, the effects of an EYPD programme, alongside the recent migration of players into Spanish league spell disaster in their minds for the future. A concern which they believe is not being addressed as the gap between one group of players and the rest widens.
Ironically, even those who raise their concerns over the growing gap still support the continuation of an EYPD programme and an acceptance and appreciation of the hard work being put in by players and coaches. Their concerns did not reflect a wish for the programme to be reduced in anyway, but rather an indicator that there was a belief that it should be extended wider.
Hhowever, the concerns also raised multiple questions, some of which have remained unanswered for many years since UEFA membership.
Why was it that perceptions that moving to Spain was far better than playing locally being allowed to exists?
How were clubs countering such perceptions?
Have clubs looked at offering a similar programme as the EYPD?
And why was the EYPD programme in existence anyway?
Whilst there are many critics among league clubs of the migration of players to Spain and its impact there has been little effective reaction from clubs to counter what are known to be the ideas leading players to migrate away from the Gibraltar youth leagues.
Clubs instead, including this summer, continue offering much the same as they have offered every summer and leave the rest to the association to come up with ideas instead of having their own. At the same time with critics rising from within their ranks calling for something similar to the EYPD programme to be extended to all players.
A quick look at the EYPD programme’s history reveals some of the reasons why the programme was first initiated and why it is proving a success. As one of its leaders highlighted this month the programme is aimed at filling a void which exists in Gibraltar youth football where players are not getting enough practise time or coaching to see them meet the levels expected at international level. The very nature and reasons for the programme highlights one of the many problems youth football development has encountered. Many believing players are not necessarily receiving adequate coaching and development opportunities from within the club ambience to see them try and attain the competitive levels which are expected in other places outside Gibraltar. The programme aimed at bridging this gap and offering additional training and practice whilst preparing players towards a professional pathway.
One key area of blame has been a lack of facilities and allocations which has limited the allocations for clubs to train on the pitch. Some clubs opting to go into Spain to train, although this is not seen as optimal.
However, another key factor which has impacted on development has been the number of training sessions some clubs provide their junior and youth teams. Some providing as little as one training session a week. This seen as insufficient for players aspiring towards higher levels of the game where players in other leagues outside Gibraltar will train between three or four times a week.
Another factor which has impacted youth development has been a scenario where most teams are only aspiring to compete within Gibraltar youth leagues levels rather than trying to attain higher levels which will lead to professional level football. At least that is the impression many parents during the past years have expressed and which many feel is not the case at some of the clubs’ players have been migrating to in Spain.
This, itself, also makes it more attractive for players to seek playing outside Gibraltar if they wish to further their chances towards a career as a professional player.
Few argue at the fact Spanish regional leagues must compete within a bigger market, with a bigger pool of talented players, where clubs will benefit from successfully taking players to higher professional standards. Which means that players will find a wider cross section of higher development opportunities than they will in what is a small marketplace with limited space as Gibraltar is.
Few would also venture to argue that club level youth football development in Gibraltar, except for rare cases, is below the standards many of the players migrating to Spain will encounter.
However, importantly few clubs have shown much interest in setting down strategies which will develop their youth football development programmes to attract players and keep them, or to even progress them through towards a pathway in the professional game. Let alone try and compete with what teams in Spain are offering.
Instead, many teams have used junior and youth teams as platforms to provide some senior players with additional earnings, or in some cases compensation for earnings they would get at senior level but which their amateur or semi-professional contracts means they wouldn’t get directly.
In some cases, a lack of a proper youth development strategy has meant that teams have been managed by volunteers such as parents willing to get the minimum coaching certifications to ensure teams have a coach. Clubs benefiting from the funds which are given for the existence of teams.
Few league clubs have ventured to provide highly qualified coaches at a level which would further their youth development plans beyond the minimum coaching levels.
All this even though some clubs have been charging high registration fees, well above the costs for the registration fees to play in youth leagues and kits.
Importantly, whilst clubs have been investing heavily in senior player salaries, including at times paying anywhere from £750 to £5000 per month (or more in some cases) for players, many especially among home grown players where football is their second employment, there has been few instances in which qualified youth coaches have been hired to manage junior and youth teams and develop youth strategies into the future.
The trend has seen clubs claim that a lack of funding and a lack of qualified coaches or qualified coaching opportunities are the main reasons for this. However, in seven years of asking, most clubs have given little evidence of having a youth strategy, beyond that for teams from Under 18 to Under 23.
There has also been a reluctance to offer reasons as to why funds from the senior teams are not divert towards funding to improve coaching levels at junior and youth level which many believe would strengthen senior teams in the long run. Many pointing towards the cost of maintaining a senior team competing for top places as the key factor.
Whilst there has been many experts highlighting how youth football can become a key economic generator for clubs, whilst at the same time affording a feeding ground for future talents into senior squads, local league clubs still shy away from implementing youth team strategies beyond the basic outlines which provide only for the current season and not the long term.
Clubs who have managed to implement some form of youth development strategy, and consistency in coaching have seen some successes, this especially seen in clubs such as Lincoln Red Imps which has seen many players feeding into their senior teams. And many more feeding into senior squads at other clubs.
The general rule, however, has been for most clubs to look towards the governing body to set development programmes rather than having their own which would ultimately become a feeder system to their senior teams and in many instances enhance their own business.
This season clubs will be faced for the first time with an opportunity to invest into increasing the levels of coaching with the Gibraltar FA providing coaching programmes which will allow for those interested to attain the highest levels possible. The idea being to address concerns that not enough opportunities were being given. Also, to address concerns that not enough qualified higher than minimum level coaches are present within the leagues. Officials hope that by taking up the opportunity it will feed through down into the youth ranks and provide higher level coaching for youth players not just senior teams.
Questions will also be asked from clubs as the requirement levels from those responsible for junior and youth players will be much higher which adds to the responsibilities of those taking on the roles. The emphasis being on the protection of children, therefore investing to make youth football a value-added asset.
This should open the doors in many ways in reducing the use of senior players assigned these roles to merely supplement their income by adding greater responsibilities on them and ensuring the roles are taken more seriously than seen in the past. In recent years some players, paid pocket money fees, were observed merely turning up for matches and providing little else, especially within some junior teams.
The investment into youth development at club level has also come into question in recent years from the mere presence of clubs such as Calpe City who themselves are not registered members of the Gibraltar FA, and therefore unable to benefit from any of the youth funds provided to other clubs. Yet the self-funded team continues to attract players and grow in numbers whilst offering players opportunities to develop.
Calpe City, whose membership into the Gibraltar FA has been blocked in recent years by the very regulations which was supposed to protect league clubs, has raised questions, especially among parents, as to why some of clubs funded via Gibraltar FA youth funding are unable to provide similar effective youth development programmes for their players.
Whilst the concerns over a growing gap between elite players and the rest will continue whilst some issues are not addressed, the biggest concerns seem to hinge on whether league clubs themselves will address concerns that they themselves are not addressing the concerns by improving their offering.
Although the concerns do not reflect on all clubs, with just eleven league clubs in the Gibraltar league, any small number of clubs is enough to have a dramatic effect by further reducing opportunities in what is a relatively small pool of players compared to other leagues. The fact the concerns are directed at most clubs, except for two or three clubs does not abode well for Gibraltar football.
Concerns over facilities due to Gibraltar’s geography will never be resolved fully due to a lack of space to create more facilities. However, the coaching standards afforded to youth football can be addressed.
Whilst clubs continue to hold the responsibility for youth football, with players registered to clubs under their responsibility, what seems clear is that the Gibraltar FA cannot effectively do much unless it implements stricter regulations forcing clubs to provide services they might not be providing. The only other options are to offer programmes such as the EYPD. However, to extend it to a wider cross section of the league would require for additional coaches, additional allocations and for the association to place players further under their umbrella and away from clubs.
Implementing regulations restricting who is selected into national squads based on what leagues they play, although seemingly an option some would like enforced, would not be possible. Not only would such regulations be seen as discriminating against players opting to further their careers outside Gibraltar, but it would also effectively force players to have to stay playing in Gibraltar and reject opportunities abroad if they aspire to play for Gibraltar. An option no association should be willing to enter.
Whilst the latest youth development programme launched by the Gibraltar FA seems to be looking at improving what’s on offer, what seems clear is that the pathway towards resolving concerns will still be a difficult one to transition through. It will also be a pathway in which historical bickering between the association and clubs, and between clubs themselves will resolve little unless all stakeholders work in unison towards the one goal. The blame-game should be parked after now nearly a decade in the professional game and the many lessons that have been learnt from mistakes and successes. The sole objective should be to better Gibraltar youth’s football opportunities.