Everyone’s talking about our exciting youth players and there’s some interest in bringing a few of the better players into the first team squad.
In many cases it’s probably too early, but these things are notoriously hard to pin down. You can probably ‘get away’ with using young players much more than people like to think.
Part of this is the notion of experience. Until performance evaluation took over in baseball a few years ago it was common to find ‘veteran’ players being well rewarded for fairly ordinary performance. Meanwhile, good young players were kept in the minor leagues. Then the penny dropped, and teams became much less inclined to pay someone just because they had been in the league for a long time. This hasn’t lead to a younger player base, I don’t think, just a more efficient one. Young players are, it seems, more likely to get a chance, and old players on the downslope are not coveted as they once were.
The notion of experience has in some ways been concocted through self-interest on the part of sportsmen. It figures: you’ve played ten years, your athletic capabilities are not what they were, you can’t do what you used to, what have you got left? Experience! Intangibles that seperate you from those dangerous young players!
It’s easier for coaches, too. With an experienced pro they know where they are. If Mark Schwarzer made mistakes it was ‘one of those things’; if David Stockdale made the same errors it was proof that he was ‘not ready’.
Lots of coaches prefer experienced mediocrities to young mediocrities. There is a belief that if you ‘rush’ a player you will somehow destroy him. While that has some truth, a counter argument might be that it will accelerate a young player’s development.
How much harm can it do to the team? Honestly, the current season has been about as bad as it could be, and we’re among the oldest teams in the league. If we’d stuck someone from the U21s into the team every game this season how many fewer points would we have? I don’t think it would have made that much difference at all.
What, exactly, are the failings of young players supposed to be? Are they supposed to be reckless? Prone to bad decisions? Bad at taking instruction? Likely to do something daft when the pressure’s really on? I think those are human failings rather than young player failings. You can coach a young player in the same way you can coach an older player, and if a youngster is indeed slightly more risky on a game-to-game basis, maybe the trade-off is still worth it in injecting energy and interest into a dull, dull, team. It also lends the possibility of developing a team identity: you have an award winning U21 team and manage to keep them together in the senior team then there you have some intangibles! There you have something that might give Fulham fans something to cheer. It’s not easy, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but let’s not pretend it’s impossible, either.
It could even help. The home crowd won’t give a young player a hard time. Quite the opposite. And it’ll be seen as an encouraging concession to the future; a sign that we are trying to build a club rather than patch one together every season and hope it’s not going to fall apart.
Now is a time for being bold. No sense in doing anything daft but we won’t be able to attract the best youngsters if we get a reputation for never using them. We shouldn’t waste the current strength we have down the age groups, nor, for that matter, the weaknesses of the senior team. It’s an ideal opportunity to change the direction of the club.