A baseball player’s career is usually well mapped out. He plays through his youth, then either enters a draft after High School or after he’s done three more years at College. (This in itself is something of an issue for baseball teams when selecting young players, the idea being that the College player might be more of a known quantity but perhaps might be less likely to be a surprise superstar).
When the player is drafted he enters what’s called the farm system, the minor leagues. There are a number of levels here, the idea being that the player will keep playing and keep progressing until he’s ready for the first team.
Even the best players (most of them anyway) need a bit of seasoning in the minors, and it’s usual for a player to spend time at three levels before getting into major leagues. A young player, drafted from high school, will almost certainly need time (and perhaps more than one season) at various levels.
This is Derek Jeter, who has been one of baseball’s greatest players while winning a lot of games and championships with the New York Yankees:
This is pretty much the fast track: Jeter was ‘rookie of the year’ in his first season up, e.g. the best young player in baseball, hitting an impressive .314.
The point here is that Jeter needed those years of development to get to the point where he was ready to hit .314. Had he been promoted earlier he’d have adjusted, but baseball is such a game of skill that he’d have struggled. You need that incremental improvement through the levels, you need to not be rushed (unless you can clearly handle the level you’re at) and you need to keep progressing, too. Derek Jeter clearly did that and became a star.
Now football and baseball are very different, but I wonder if we don’t mess things up quite horribly with our young players.
What, for instance, has Pajtim Kasami gained from this season? He is seen to be a good prospect and played against stiff competition from a young age. This, in football, is generally considered to be a good thing, but is it?
His senior football career so far:
18 years old – 10 games for Bellinoza
18/19 – 14 games for Palermo
19/20 – 6 games for Fulham
Alex Kacaniklic is 20 now and is playing well for Watford. But until this spell, he had only played in reserve games. He’s doing well, but is it right that a promising young player has played only 10 senior football matches at this stage of his development? 20 isn’t young really.
The reserves league last for about 20 games, and features a mixture of development squads, players on rehab and who knows what else. It’s a start but it’s not competitive football.
I appreciate that these things don’t happen overnight but equally, good footballers don’t just happen.
Brede Hangeland was a regular at Viking when he was 20. Danny Murphy had played 132 times for Crewe by that age. Moussa Dembele started at Germinal Beerschodt at 16 and seems to have been playing regularly in his teens. Aaron Hughes was playing for Newcastle at 18. John Arne Riise was playing for Monaco’s championship side at 19. And so on.
If we’re really serious about youth development my sense is that we need to get our players actually playing football. I’m sure the academy and development teams are terrific but elite talent needs time to grow into elite performance, and that surely means more loans earlier in players’ careers. If that means sending 18 year olds abroad to what we might term lesser leagues then so be it. There’s almomst no point in Pajtim Kasami’s current career arc, and the sooner we stop dangling these players and waiting for them to magically be really good (then being disappointed when they’re not) the sooner we might actually have a young player come through the ranks and contribute meaningfully.