The State of the Game: Andy Kellett & the Under 21 Premier League

In the first part of a new series, Hugo Greenhalgh reveals why the Andy Kellett move is a damning indictment of player development in English football…

Anecdotally, it’s a brilliant story. Local boy gets shock move to European giants. It is little wonder Andy Kellett thought Manchester United’s move for him was a ‘wind up’. Theories did the rounds that Jim White had misread ‘Sheffield’ as ‘Manchester’ on Sky Sports News. The whole matter seems totally implausible, yet beneath the surface Kellett’s loan actually serves as a damning indictment of youth football in this country.

The January window saw seven young United players head out on loan to clubs in the Football League. This is where the emphasis now lies with youth policy for the big clubs; the U-21 Premier League offers little in the way of a challenge as the players are simply competing within their age group. Conversely, the Football League allows them a test outside their comfort zone, both mentally and physically. They get the chance to work with more experienced players than their contemporaries in the youth team and compete against tougher, stronger opponents.

It then becomes a win-win situation for the big clubs. The players either prove themselves capable of performing at that level and will be given a chance in the first team (see Harry Kane) or sold for a small fee to a lower division. For example, Arsenal academy product Benik Afobe impressed in his latest loan at MK Dons and was sold to Wolves this January. On the other hand, if the loanees don’t look up to it, they can be released with no real loss other than a sentimental one.

For these reasons, when Bolton Wanderers made a deadline day enquiry about bringing in Saidy Janko on loan, United couldn’t say no. Janko is a Swiss defender, touted as one for the future and was named as Reserves Player of the Year last season. However, his departure alongside that of Marnick Vermijl, who was sold to Sheffield Wednesday, left United U-21s manager Warren Joyce a little short of bodies and consequently asked for Andy Kellett, a player who United appear to have been monitoring.

With just a handful of senior appearances at Bolton and half a season on loan at Plymouth Argyle to his name, Kellett won’t be challenging for United’s first team. Like the senior side, their U-21s are currently 3rd in the League and Joyce will use to Kellett to strengthen their push for the Title. He can play as a left back or on the left of midfield, and his goal for Plymouth against Northampton in December hints at the skilful footballer he could become.

Even with Louis van Gaal’s record of giving youth a chance, Kellett is unlikely to feature in his plans. Bizarre as his loan move is, in reality it would never have come about if United’s more valued young players were not gaining experience elsewhere. The recent examples of Nick Powell and Wilfried Zaha highlight the difficulties of being a young player at a big club. Powell arrived at United from Crewe on the back of much hype and spent his first season in the U-21s. He then went on a season-long loan at Wigan, earning many plaudits for his performances. For all that expectation, Powell has had a forgettable start this year and was sent back early from a loan to Leicester with accusations of a poor attitude and training habit.

Similarly, Zaha’s time at United has been something of a nightmare. A Ferguson purchase, David Moyes didn’t really know what to do with him and nor has van Gaal. He was left in the lurch, a pawn in the hands of an administration far too great to ever get one’s own way. Now back at Crystal Palace, Zaha is hopefully young enough to rediscover some of the ability that made him so desirable in the first place.

It’s these cases that highlight the issues of player development in English football. The ages of 16-21 are a crucial stage in any person’s life, both in a footballing sense and an individual one. These young men, some of whom haven’t even completed puberty, are asked to make life-changing decisions about their careers, alongside balancing their family routines, education and health. As mentioned in James Ducker’s recent investigation into young footballers for The Times, almost 55% of 15-18 year olds who were rejected by clubs suffered problems such as depression, anxiety and loss of confidence or turned to alcohol and substance use within a month of being released. It’s a vulnerable age group and one that deserves more attention.

Consequently, it is little wonder the League 3 idea was floated. A system that would keep young players more rooted to their parent club, allowing them to develop within that particular consistent ethos but also competing against older, more physical opponents sounds utopian, but it is one that League 3 would have allowed. Of course the damage that a League 3 would do to the football pyramid is sufficient reason to scorn the idea. However, the current system where clubs are so reluctant to let players develop within their own youth teams isn’t working.

Ultimately, this will be a great experience for Andy Kellett. As Bolton manager Neil Lennon has pointed out, “It’s an opportunity for him regardless of what happens”. He’ll be exposed to the setup of one of the biggest club’s in the world, train alongside a team of International footballers and see first-hand the methods of Louis van Gaal. However, this fairytale story is in danger of papering over deeper problems with player development in England.


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