Jamaica Gleaner / The choice is clear but the options are basically non-existent. If Jamaica wants to give our most talented young footballers the best chance of having successful professional careers, we must stop them from getting emotionally attached to schoolboy football before it is too late. Get them out of the Manning Cup and daCosta Cup mentality before they get to the pivotal ages of 18 and 19.
The longer our best young players continue to cling to that ‘little boy mentality’, the more of them we will see falling by the wayside. We must get it through not just to these young players, but also to their families, communities, and to the schools to which they remain attached. Importantly, they should continue to attend school to develop their basic education, but the ones with special talent should be encouraged to take the gamble and delve into senior club football, which will best prepare them for professional football.
One prominent and successful schoolboy football coach, Emerson ‘Diggy’ Henry, told me recently that he once went on a coaching course in Europe and the Frenchman, former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, told him that what obtains in France is that whenever special young talent is spotted in the French school system, the football authorities take them out of school-level football and attach them to senior professional clubs. He said the reason is twofold. First of all, those specially talented players are developed faster and better by early engagement in senior football. Second, the elevation of the special ones allows the opportunity for other talented youngsters to emerge through the school system.
Initially, it seemed an unfair comparison of what happens in France with what obtains in Jamaica, but the general principle of the development of young players is a universal one. The fact of the matter is that 18- and 19-year-olds should be well advanced in their physical and mental development as professional players, and should not be stuck on winning amateur schoolboy titles.
This action would involve only the very elite players across the local schoolboy spectrum. Depending on the quality available, it could be as few as two or three, and as many as five or six players per season. So it is obviously not a wholesale wrecking of the schoolboy football product. Of course, there are absolutely no guarantees, as there never is in sport. However, it is about consistently giving our best young players the best chance of success within the constraints of an imperfect structure.
MANDATED PLAYING TIME
For this radical move to work though, it must go hand in hand with the senior elite clubs being mandated to give playing time to a minimum number of these young players. The mandate must come from the Jamaican Football Federation, and is necessary in order to keep the playing field level. The harsh reality is that Jamaica will never be able to sustain a major and viable professional football league. It is therefore more prudent, and will ultimately be more beneficial to the clubs themselves, if they become ‘selling clubs’, with a more realistic chance of major income generation to be derived from the sale of these same young players.
Within this recommendation lays the answer to the perennial question of what has happened to all those talented young players who have come through schoolboy football over several years. They played schoolboy football until they were 18 and 19, which was too long and too late for them to then adequately develop to make the needed transition.
It is going to take some doing, and some major social and cultural transformation will be needed, but the choice is ours. If we want the best for the young footballers, we have to do what we have to do to get our players as best ready as possible for the ultra-competitive open football markets of the world.
The almost-perfect example is unfolding right in front of our eyes. The brightest Jamaican spark in the international game, Leon Bailey, was never allowed to get bitten by the Jamaican schoolboy football bug, thanks to his mentor Craig Butler. This is proving to be a move of courage, vision, and genius.