Jadon Sancho should be pleased with himself. Disenfranchised with the lack of opportunities at Manchester City, the teenage winger gambled by pushing for a summer transfer to Borussia Dortmund in 2017. He is now one of the most exciting youngsters on the planet.
More will follow. Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi tried to force a switch to Bayern Munich in January, where he would’ve joined Sancho, Keanan Bennetts, and Mandela Egbo in the Bundesliga’s union of English academy kids. The band of British loanees across Germany is larger still. Deutschland has quickly become the choice destination if you can’t leap from a Premier League development squad and into the first team.
But, later this month, Sancho is expected to reconvene with an England squad awash with players that didn’t move overseas for senior action. The reason is simple: below the Premier League is an underappreciated conveyor belt of talent, and one that should be acknowledged by youngsters stagnating in the top-flight abyss of under-23 football.
Seventeen out of England’s last 24-man contingent had experience in the Football League, and that was without EFL-bred mainstays such as Burnley’s three goalkeepers, Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire, and Jamie Vardy, the latter of whom recently retired from the international game.
Gregg Broughton worked at Luton Town and Norwich City, where he shaped the futures of England squad member James Maddison and promising full-backs Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis. He now serves as academy manager of FK Bodo/Glimt, and the Broughton family’s decision to move to Scandinavia is a coup for the Norwegian club.
Broughton has kept a keen eye on youth development in the United Kingdom since working in each of England’s top five divisions and, despite the broad and strong alumni of Football League academies, he is certain that the strongest schooling remains in the Premier League.
“Chelsea, for me, have the best academy in the world. … Fantastic facilities, does everything right, yet these players still can’t break through,” Broughton told theScore.
‘Work with what we’ve got’
The risk of fielding fledglings is often too much for managers of Chelsea and other teams under pressure to deliver titles. But for clubs lower down England’s league system, using the resources they have on hand is a necessity. They can’t always throw money at an issue, so the kids provide squad depth.
This expectation could have a direct link to work ethic, according to Mark Burton, head of Notts County’s academy.
“We’re a lower category club, and I think coaches work harder (at this level),” Burton told theScore. “I might be wrong and I might be dissing Man City and Man United, but, all due respect, Man City and Man United have got really good internationals that they buy in.”
He added: “We have to work with what we’ve got.”
Burton’s impact at Barnsley was huge. He and former academy chief Ronnie Branson recognized the Tykes’ first team was generally populated with big, physical, direct players, so decided to provide something different. Eventually, a stream of ball-playing defenders were knocking on the door of the senior setup.
“We went against the grain. We were going to play. We’ll get players like John Stones and Mason Holgate on the ball, we’ll build from the back,” Burton said, noting wins were rare when playing the gifted bairns of Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, and the two Sheffield clubs.
“We didn’t bother about results whatsoever, our results were getting players to the first team. In about eight years we made £15 million profit, which is astounding for a club like Barnsley.”
Barnsley’s youth coaches could focus on improving individuals. Stones was often deployed in midfield and Holgate, currently impressing on loan at West Bromwich Albion from Everton, was sometimes fielded in attack. It got them on the ball more and made them view the game from a different perspective. Burton believes moving them around the lineup was vital in their development, although Stones’ natural talents took a while to get noticed.
“At Under-16 level they were after Jordan Clark, the kid now at Accrington Stanley,” he revealed. “Man City offered us a certain amount for Jordan Clark – a five-figure sum. They weren’t after Stonesy.”
Clark, along with Aston Villa’s James Bree and Derby County’s Jacob Butterfield, could still end up in the Premier League, but the player who would become Burton and Branson’s most famous Barnsley graduate soon showed the nascent attributes of a serial title winner.
“(Stones) excelled in the Under-18s. You could tell. How he galloped out with the ball, how he was never phased by anything,” Burton recalled. “He plays football now the way he did at Under-18s. He has that composure.”
Luton Town are better than Bayern Munich
The resources and productivity of an academy don’t necessarily reflect a club’s standing in the football pyramid. Broughton says he was “lucky” during his time at Luton Town to have the support of an ambitious consortium – one set to meet its targets of having the club competing the Championship and leaving Kenilworth Road by 2020 – which valued the academy. That outlook didn’t change when Luton sunk into the Conference in 2009.
There was relatively little competition from nearby outfits for young players. So Broughton fended off visiting scouts by ensuring Luton had a strong foothold in the area, part of which included forging strong links with local sides like Crawley Green. He also ensured people were aware of the Hatters’ reputation for producing players capped by their country’s Under-21 or even senior teams, such as Curtis Davies, Keith Keane, and Kevin Foley.
Then, like at Barnsley, Broughton tried to hone a unique footballer for Luton.
“It was really about working with players on one-v-one and two-v-two environments as much as possible. We were one of the first clubs to access the Football League funding to employ a technical skills coach, as that role was called in that time,” Broughton said, crediting the fundamental work done by current Luton employee Daniel Walder and Eizo Sugino, who was on a work placement from Japan.
The funding made available by Luton’s owners allowed an under-11 group to travel for a five-a-side tournament in Switzerland in 2009. Broughton shared a photo from that competition where Jay Dasilva, his brother Cole, James Justin, Frankie Musonda, and George Murray are celebrating a goal against Bayern Munich in the final. Those preteens are now on the books of Chelsea, Brentford, Luton, and a U.S. university team, respectively. Norwich’s Lewis was off the pitch at that point.
They won the showpiece after ousting Werder Bremen and FC Zurich in previous rounds. Manchester United finished 13th. Luton had harvested a town of just over 200,000 and developed some of the best kids in Europe.
Not everything can go to plan. Cauley Woodrow, Tarum Dawkins, Michael Cain, and Dave Moli were tempted from the academy by bigger clubs. The founding of Milton Keynes Dons in 2004 and Stevenage’s 2010 ascent into the Football League put more competition on the playing fields and at regional school competitions.
“Luton definitely would’ve got hold of Dele Alli. They would’ve got hold of Brendan Galloway who’s gone on to Everton and played in the Premier League as well,” Broughton lamented of the footballers who went through MK Dons’ system.
Broughton arrived at Norwich in 2012 but links with Luton remained. Aarons and Lewis swapped Bedfordshire for Norfolk as Broughton looked to boost a production line that had recently dropped twins Jacob and Josh Murphy and goalkeeper Declan Rudd into the senior setup.
Broughton wasn’t just finding players for the beginning of Norwich’s youth cycle. Ben Godfrey was signed from York City on his 18th birthday just over three years ago, and today is a nailed-on starter following a seminal season-long loan with Shrewsbury Town. Maddison was plucked from Coventry City for an initial £2 million in the final few minutes of the same January transfer window and is now a vital member of Leicester City’s midfield. He cost the Foxes £25 million.
Norwich City are reaping the rewards of signing the Football League’s best youngsters like Maddison, Godfrey, Lewis, and Aarons, and also delving into their own academy for kids like Todd Cantwell. The Canaries lead the Championship but Leeds and Sheffield United are in close pursuit. None of the three teams are receiving parachute payments from a Premier League relegation; instead, each is benefiting from intelligent lower-league recruitment and promoting from within.
Broughton left Norwich in October 2017 when he was a victim of a restructuring, but he appreciates the holism that sporting director Stuart Webber and head coach Daniel Farke have implemented at Carrow Road.
“The club is now completely joined up in its thinking,” Broughton noted. “What you have is a coach who believes in youth development, believes in putting young players in the team and knows he can do so in a risk-free environment. The pressure isn’t on him in terms of as it was trying to survive in the Premier League in previous years.”
Finding your opportunities
The Football League isn’t an idyllic place for every footballer. Burton eventually moved on from Barnsley because only their defenders were making the top grade. This can pose one of many conundrums for young players and their parents.
“Some academies might be very good at producing one type of player but not very good at producing a different kind of player, so that’s where I think parents need information to make those choices,” Broughton agreed.
But the Sancho phenomenon has sparked the most discussion about the futures of academy kids, and the exodus isn’t just to Germany. Arsenal have suffered more than most, with Marcus McGuane seeking more first-team chances at Barcelona, Stephy Mavididi leaving for Juventus, and Chris Willock shifting to Benfica. Welsh winger Rabbi Matondo recently arrived at FC Schalke from Manchester City, presumably following the trend set by former colleague Sancho.
Broughton believes the top 10 players in each age group are forced to make serious decisions about their career at age 18 and 19, but it can happen earlier. Jeremy Sarmiento officially left third-tier Charlton Athletic last October for Benfica at 16. Hopefully, Premier League sides will be roused into trusting their graduates to avoid them slipping through the net.
“I think the Premier League clubs will think, ‘Actually, now, we’ve either got to fast-forward this player’s opportunity into our first team or we have to recognize that we might lose them,'” Broughton forecasted. “Players have power at 18 or 19 to say, ‘If you’re not going to play me, Benfica, Dortmund, whoever these clubs are giving young British players an opportunity, will do.”’
Sometimes it might be better for a player’s development to stay in the United Kingdom. Reece Oxford has spluttered since his remarkable debut against Arsenal in 2016 and is currently serving a suspension for lowly Augsburg after he made costly errors, almost scored an own goal, and was then sent off in injury time during a 5-1 defeat at Freiburg on Feb. 23. West Ham United should reassess what’s best for the 20-year-old’s growth.
And the success of talent incubators below the top rung should result in the Football League being seen as a potentially groundbreaking step in a youngster’s career, including Oxford’s. This season’s loans for Tammy Abraham, Harvey Barnes, Harry Wilson, and others to Championship clubs have paid off handsomely, and Broughton highlights some of his old Luton charges who flourished after resisting the pull of Premier League facilities and salaries.
“If they’re 15 or 16, why would you want to move away from an environment where you might get in the first team quicker?” He continued: “If you look at James Justin, I think he’s just played his 100th game. Jamal Lewis has now played 60 games at Norwich. Those players have gone and broken into the first team. Would they have done that if they were at one of the really big Premier League clubs where those opportunities might have been limited? I’m not sure.”
Sancho proved the power that academy graduates yield in the modern game. What Sancho’s Bundesliga shift didn’t prove, however, is that a breakout move can only be to a foreign land. The success of Barnsley, Luton, Norwich, and plenty of others suggests that a transformative transfer for a frustrated Premier League youth could be merely a short drive away.