We're salivating at the thought of the Champions League returning this week, so here are five games to look forward to. How will Liverpool cope against Real Madrid?
Twenty questions on twenty goalkeepers, one for each of the teams in the Premier League. Maybe not as easy as it sounds...
Andre Villas-Boas had only been at Chelsea a matter of weeks when he issued a scathing attack on the ineffectiveness of our reserve team football. Whilst the Portuguese manager's solution of inviting the 'B' teams of our largest clubs to play in the lower leagues was largely met with derision and dismissal (although David Moyes admitted he was a convert), the point rang true. The reserve game had simply stagnated, allowing imported flops and over-the-hill has-beens to play a half-paced game at a training ground on a Wednesday afternoon, teams littered with youth players crippled by the lack of meaningful competition.
Four Premier League clubs (Manchester City, QPR, Stoke and Tottenham) didn't even enter teams, and the success of the inaugural NextGen series (essentially a Champions League for the U19s) had emphasised just how far English clubs had fallen behind European rivals. Liverpool, England's most successful team in the competition, lost 6-0 in their semi-final home leg against Ajax.
Gerard Houllier, one of the masterminds behind France's Clairefontaine academy, also shared his concerns: "In England you lose a lot of players between 18 and 21. The two countries who are failing are England and Italy. I knew one or two players at Aston Villa who did not have enough games to play at the top level. Between 18 and 20 there is nothing."
Perhaps it has slipped slightly under the radar given the overpowering coverage of the Olympics and Euro 2012 this summer, but something radical has happened in English football. The relevant authorities have actually listened to concerns, and instead of simply burying their suited selves into the sand, significant changes have been instigated. And instigated quickly.
On August 3 it was formally announced that the Premier Reserve League will cease to exist, to be replaced by a new Professional Development League 1, to be commonly known as the U21 Premier Reserve League. A similar U18 league will also be created, and the system will be mapped across the Football League, additionally creating Professional Development Leagues 2 and 3. Teams are ranked according to the categorising of the club academy (a categorisation that will be re-assessed every three years). The competition is not optional, and participation from all 20 Premier League clubs is therefore confirmed (although Wigan, QPR and Swansea will be in Professional Development League 2, sitting outside of the U21 Premier Reserve League.
The 23 clubs in the U21 Premier Reserve League are split into three groups. After a double round robin group stage, clubs will be promoted and relegated between the three groups for the second half of the season, with the aim of ensuring competitive football and closely-matched games throughout. At the end of the season, a play-off style knock-out competition will take place between the winners of Groups 2 and 3 (Qualification Groups) and the three top teams in the Elite Group to determine the overall winner.
Matches must be played between Friday and Monday, demonstrating increased relevance, and games will be played at lower-league stadia rather than training grounds. Chelsea, for example will host their U18 games at Staines Town and the U21 team will be playing at Brentford's Griffin Park. In addition, each U21 team must play at least two games at the home stadium of the club, allowing young players to perform in venues and atmospheres to which they must become accustomed. Discounted tickets will be available for all games to persuade families to watch the teams, hopefully attracting those that could otherwise not afford to visit Old Trafford or the Emirates on a match day. Finally, rules dictate that in the U21 league, three over-age outfield players and one over-age goalkeeper may be used, a stipulation that allows for injured players to make effective returns from a lay-off before first-team action.
This all makes me a very happy boy. These teams are now effectively playing in their own right. They are not playing opposition solely on a regional basis, and their standings are not determined by the performance of the senior team within their club. Youth players are not only provided with a competitive arena in the FA Youth Cup and, vitally, competition is enhanced. Our young players can only improve their technique, fitness and mental fortitude, so crucial in player development, by continuously testing themselves. Such a structure provides the initial platform.
The limiting of over-age players may also persuade clubs to trust in more in the development of youth rather than 'playing safe' by signing established players. Take QPR for example, who have 29 players within their first-team squad, not a single one of which will be eligible for the U21 team. There will therefore be 11 individuals (Kieron Dyer and ten more, a cynic may assume) that are not even selected for the match-day squad in the Premier League, all vying for three outfield positions to play any sort of competitive football on a weekly basis. Surely clubs will therefore look to offload these players, or be dissuaded from offering long contracts. Meanwhile, scouts from Football League clubs can gain additional insight into potential loan targets. The Professional Development League will not solve the issue of stagnation within clubs, but it will pass on the buck of this stagnation to the established players rather than those under 21 years of age. The next generation, we can hope, will be better protected.
A final aim of the new structure is to introduce the ethos that for a club to be an efficient and successful conveyor belt of talent, all age groups must be utilising the same training systems, formations and playing styles. It seems an evident assumption, but is certainly not happening within all clubs. Examples such as Barcelona's La Masia and Ajax's De Toekomst systems are the dream, the nirvana of youth development, and both are based on the principle that eight-year-olds should be operating in exactly the same system as Xavi and Iniesta in the senior team. Practice makes perfect, as the adage tells us.
There is still more that could be done. I would personally like a live screening deal to be agreed (the most likely would be an internet-based deal for games to be streamed via an official website) rather than games simply being shown on Liverpool FC TV to an audience of 10,000. An abolishment of the Carling Cup and a Europa League place provided to the winner of the Professional Development League would also be fantastic, although I suspect that is fanciful in the extreme.
However, now is not the time to dwell on the 'what might bes' and the 'what I wants'. It is the time to appreciate that whilst there is plenty to criticise about the Premier League, Football League and Football Association it seems that, at last, there has been an agreement to all pull together for the good of the national team. Coinciding with the opening of St George's Park National Football Centre in Burton, there are reasons for optimism.
It is not going to immediately augment England's performances. Clubs will not suddenly change their policy from signing established foreign players for disgraceful sums of money. And it is a long road to successful change. But this a step in the right direction, something we should all celebrate.