As someone who has been fortunate enough to see behind the scenes and inside the dressing room of U20s games, I often think about the jump that young players make from youth and development competition to first team environments, with all it entails.
There are subtle differences and profound differences; different coaches, a different dressing room but most of all the ramped up pressure of the first team environment is the single greatest difference.
For young players, going from a context where development and teachable moments are key, straight into an environment where almost everything matters less than victory clearly presents a challenge. Combine that with a jump from playing for a few hundred entirely encouraging ‘friends, family and staff’ spectators at development level to running out in front of thousands where for some, mistakes are unacceptable and even the most subconscious of body movements – as innocuous as brushing hair out your eyes – can be interpreted as a personality flaw, then you can begin to see why so many kids sink rather than swim.
One argument would have it that young players that struggle in pressure situations simply aren’t good enough and that this is simply the rules of the road. For some football people and many fans these callow 18, 19 and even 20-year olds, must be fully formed adults in the way they approach the game.
Never mind that these youth prospects are still orientating their way through their formative years in life and are likely to make mistakes of attitude and poor decisions both on and off the field as they work out who they are as people and personalities.
Another argument, and one I happen to agree with, comes on the advice of a hugely respected former youth supremo. It is that sometimes you need to remember that they are still just boys and sometimes more pressure won’t help them to cope any better.
I am reminded of one young player who moved on to better things after being cold shouldered during his first major injury at a point when inclusion and his receiving the comforting arm he needed around him would have worked wonders and would have been the right and moral thing to do.
Unable to train with his teammates during his rehab, this player felt isolated and unloved. Yet a simple word from management and teammates would have made all the difference at a low point. Fully recovered, the player now has an international call-up to look forward to and his new club, rather than the one that initially developed him, are enjoying the benefit of his progress and his status as both an on-field and burgeoning economic asset.
In the stands of course, fans have a right to express themselves. However, 18-year-old lads should not be punching bags to be pilloried because they misplaced a pass or because the supporters doing the frothing are displacing latent working week or personal life frustrations onto them.
Almost every fan if asked, would parrot the response that when a young player is struggling we should be encouraging and helping not hinder their progress. The same supporters who respect the wise words of certain coaches become conveniently amnesiac when it comes to demanding something that a player wants to give but for any number of reasons can’t.
Recently, Scottish Championship side Dundee United announced the extension of Jamie Robson’s contract. A target of Southampton not long ago, Robson made his United debut in September 2015 and has played 68 times for the club, scoring two goals.
The young left back has suffered a loss of form and apparently confidence in a difficult season at Tannadice. Off the field issues and the pressure of playing in a team who budget-wise should have romped the Scottish Championship took its toll. The reaction on social media to the contract extension was strong. You can read the responses for yourself but “Get him to f**k!! Bad bad player” was depressingly, pretty much the gist.
— Dundee United FC (@dundeeunitedfc) May 22, 2018
Jamie Robson is 20 years old and was in fact one of Dundee United’s winning-est players last season. However, he is dealing with the pressure change from development to first team, in what has been a phased introduction to the first team, that has also involved a loan spell at nearby Brechin.
However, the current situation at Dundee United ensures that pressure rather than patience has become the order of the day. What nurturing does young Robson deserve some might ask? Surely it is a case of sink or swim in this man’s world?
I’d say, show me a teenager or a 20-year-old that hasn’t made mistakes? It’s nigh-on impossible.
And I’d add that culturally, econonomically, football-wise this scorched earth approach to ‘blooding’ young players, that emanates from the stands, is at best counter-productive and at worst actively damaging. It harms the club’s results, its players’ transfer values and their reputation as an organisation that provides a suitable home for talented teenagers to progress. Faced with a toxic environment, parents of in-demand schoolboys will likely look to explore other options elsewhere for their child’s development.
So, it is worth restating: what gain can be made by piling pressure on young players your club has developed?
As a bare minimum football fans should consider the investment their team has made in these young men. Should that be risked because a culture of negativity prevails? Remember the player that was criticised and mismanaged who left for better things? He became an unrealised asset at the club that invested money and time developing him after he was driven away to the benefit of another club.
And it goes without saying, every manager, coach and scout can reel off their long list of names, those players that collapsed beneath a weight of expectation and consistent fan criticism and were lost to the game. That is and should be a source of shame.
The stakes are high for every club developing players and specifically so in the straitened financial circumstances of most lower league clubs throughout Europe. With that in mind, and the pressure boys experience naturally in the jump from development to first team action, why on earth would any sane individual compound this by adding undue and ill-formed criticism and pressure?
Thankfully the solution is simple and it starts with those in the stands. It is time to get off these kids’ backs. Indeed, to have these kids’ backs and inject some positivity wherever negative impulses seek to prevail.