Indiana XI

There was a time when all I knew, or cared to know, of Robert Indiana was his LOVE piece. Similar to the execrable "Keep Calm & Carry On" it has been hijacked and demeaned to a point where any sight of it is greeted with nothing but sincere contempt.

A few Novembers back I was at MUMOK in Vienna and saw his Der Mond piece and adored it. Digging deeper (and purchasing a silly expensive coffee table book on the cheap via eBay) I found some of the most enjoyable art I had yet come across. The book is adamant that Indiana was on the fringes of the POP ART scene and while he fraternised with Warhol and others he kept his distance. Still, he fits in with his contemporaries like a drunk at a bar.

Were someone to ever ask me the irritating question "What is art?" I would respond "A representation and, deliberately or not, an exaggeration of real life". This is what Indiana is to me. The world became filled with loud colours, bold slogans and countless signs and Indiana made his own versions.

As a dedication to this great man I saw it fit to bastardise his Numbers series by assigning the traditional football position to each number. If I ever have the money or the will I may get these printed and adorn my wall with them.

The Kids Aren't Alright

Take a FA coaching course and your tutor will likely be a seasoned academy coach full of anecdotes on the inner workings of the pro game. There are lots of good ones but perhaps the most memorable was how around seven years ago there were three bright, young midfielders who were considered the future of the game. Each one possessed incredible technique - the sort of player the England national team was crying out for. There were murmurs that the three of them would propel the country to future tournament wins.

Their names are familiar to most football fans but for wildly different reasons. John Bostock made a controversial move to Tottenham before aged 16 and has now disappeared in the Belgian second division. Josh McEachran has been loaned out like a library book and currently resides at Vitesse in the Eredivisie. His highest aspiration is likely a mid table premier league side now; only the delusional could expect him to have a future at Chelsea. Jack Wilshire is a starter for a perennial Champions League side and the England national team. While far from perfect he has unarguably made it.

Looking at their career statistics is telling. Playing more competitive games early in a career will likely result in a better player - but that is hardly a revelation. Top sides seem to have come to the conclusion that the only way to combat this is to ship their starlets out. However, McEachran’s and Bostock’s combined completed loan spells average a mere 11 league appearances a season. While these minutes are certainly helpful developing a player is more nuanced than simply playing and the loan clubs will never be as invested in this arduous and tricky process as the parent club.

For a footballer to improve and mature they must have good games and bad games and understand what they did differently in both cases. The coaches will sit them down and talk them through their performance, what is expected of them on the pitch and what they want to see more of. They need to grow accustomed to the pace and strength of the top level and understand how to adjust their skill set to it. This is how we all learn; trying something new, failing at it, practicing and then mastering it.

Evidently this is impossible if a player is flittering in and out of a side and with the money spent in the premier league and the pressure to win it can become nigh on impossible for young players to get this chance. Think of Liverpool's Jordan Ibe who has impressed on loan spells at Birmingham City and Derby County. When he returns he will be competing against Lallana, Markovic, Sterling and Coutinho. His appearances will be severely limited and if he does get a run of games the slightest downturn in form will see him dropped in favour of a more experienced and expensive player. This issue is amplified tenfold at clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea.

But you do not have to look far to see clubs vindicated by their patience and perseverance. Remember Aaron Ramsey’s early struggles at Arsenal or Jordan Henderson at Liverpool, a club he will be captaining next season. Both of them had incredibly ineffectual patches where fans were clamouring for their benching. Now both are among the first names on the team sheets.

However, the real tragedy in all of this is not young English players failing to fulfill their potential at bigger clubs but which young English players are failing to fulfill their potential. The top clubs, those with the hardest path to the first team, cherry pick the most talented, technically gifted and athletic kids in any given area of the country. The result is our brightest and best youngsters get stuck in youth systems where first team opportunities are limited to FA Cup 3rd round substitute appearances at best. This is the reality. As a country we are so enamoured with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney that we forget how depressingly rare they are.

England's 2014 World Cup squad featured players from 17 academies - and that might as well be 18 as Liverpool were clearly not responsible for Ricky Lambert's rise to the national team. This demonstrates quite how useless the big clubs, with their state of the art facilities and pick of the best coaches, are at bringing young players through. Fans of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham often wonder just what is the point of the academies. When the result of all that expenditure and time is the very occasional first team player and filler for League Cup games then wouldn't the money just be better spent buying these players instead?

A change has to come. New rules governing the movement of players under the age of 18 would be a start, but plenty of 19 year olds transfer to big clubs only to become mainstays of the u21 team. Limiting an academy to certain postcodes is another option but if secondary schools cannot enforce that then I doubt the FA can. Mandating that players in a squad must play a certain amount of minutes otherwise they become free agents is a little draconian and probably contravenes many laws. Anyway, those for whom the rules are made are always adept at bending and breaking them in ways the lawmaker could not have foreseen.

What is more likely to succeed, and yet far harder to execute, is a change in approach. Our far from unwarranted hagiography of the Class of '92 helps to ingrain the false notion that that particular journey to the pinnacle to football is probable or likely. Similarly we look at the academies of Barcelona, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Feyenoord and imagine English equivalents without any real appreciation of the otherworldly greatness of these institutions. Furthermore, as long as Spanish, German, Dutch and Portuguese teams' B-sides are playing in the equivalent of the English football league and Italy continues their dual-ownership system we will remain fundamentally and profoundly different. Still the FA persist and after Spain and Germany's recent success on the international stage attempts have been made to copy their "models". In reality all this has really translated to is a focus on coaching technique to the detriment of other vital football skills, most notably defending. This is infuriating for many reasons but mostly it begs the question why on earth would what works for them work for us?

The last few years has seen the likes of Jermaine Beckford, Charlie Austin, Gary Hooper and Grant Holt make their mark on the Premier League despite starting their careers at non league level. When they were grafting away playing 35 matches a season in the Isthmian Premier, their contemporaries in the academies were on their 3rd loan spell at Chelmsford Town. While these stories are the exception it shows the potential we have at our disposal. Indeed, this is one of the many reasons why Greg Dyke's half-baked plans to introduce B-teams into the football league system was so offensive and idiotic. England has 92 league and over 500 non-league clubs capable of offering competitive matches to youngsters in their own stadiums in front of loyal fan bases. With some help these clubs can become an enormous nursery for young talent as they have already proved they are capable of doing.

The FA has fortuitously noticed that facilities and coaches are needed and their most recent proposals aim to remedy this. While this will undoubtedly help it is vital for the FA to act strongly against the present status quo of big clubs squandering talent. In suggesting the formation of a B-Team League the FA have admitted to the existence of this problem and with a proposal so rash they concede that it is a large one.

Here's a simpler suggestion; let's push our talented youngsters towards the academies of clubs where they can realistically expect to regularly play for the 1st team not long after their 18th birthday. Ensure these clubs have the requisite facilities and coaches to accommodate and develop them. Provide these clubs with adequate protection so they are capable of keeping hold of their best and brightest. Be frank with young players and their parents; help them understand that a jump to a Premier League side at an early age is unlikely to be beneficial despite what other, self interested parties are saying.

This approach will not cost the world, which is important as perversely there is hardly any money despite the billion pound television deals being signed. Nor does it try to introduce a grand philosophy, our brand of football is not particularly philosophical and wistful sentiments rarely achieve much. Above all it utilises what we currently have and aims to help those clubs who have failed to reap the rewards of modern football. Instead of tiresome big ideas a more pragmatic, short-term solution, such as this, is needed.

Aside from benefitting individual players such a shift could have massive ramifications for lower league sides. Consider Joe Allen. Born in Carmarthen, he entered the Swansea academy system at the age of 9 and made his league debut at the age of 17. There is nothing to suggest that there was any interest in the future Premier League player from top sides when he was younger. Perhaps he was a late developer or maybe he simply slipped under the radar. Regardless, he stayed with Swansea until he was 22 before following Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool.

So what did Swansea get from Allen in his 13 years with the club? 150 appearances across League One, the Championship and the Premier League where his style of play perfectly suited the system that took them to the top flight. The £15million raised from his sale enabled the club to buy Michu, Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez and Ki Sung-Yueng - players who further cemented Swansea’s Premier League status as well as leading the club to its first significant silverware in the League Cup. You would expect that Swansea are generally pleased with how it has turned out.

There is so much potential for players and teams alike in England's storied football pyramid. If the Joe Allen Story became prevalent then English football will improve across the board. Higher quality football will lead to larger attendances and the huge injections of cash will provide financial security to precarious clubs. The FA likes to think big but before they start talking about winning the World Cup they should focus on making sure players like McEachran and Bostock, those who were once thought of so highly, don't become "what if's".

SEVN RUM

I have a likely unwarranted amount of respect for brand designers. While normal folk enjoy the splendour of Constable's landscapes I adore a really damn fine piece of design - words and shapes placed pleasingly on a page fills me with undue joy. After spending a few weeks learning the ins and outs of InDesign and making a swanky CV this was my next "project". Admittedly:

  1. It's rife with faults and errors - dodgy sizing, misalignment etc
  2. It's not great, can't imagine the makers of SEVN RUM (brewed in Bristol by the River Severn by the way) would be thrilled with this
  3. It looks like it could have been done on Microsoft Word

But still:

  1. I had a ball doing it
  2. The anchor is two number 7s turned upside and I'm really bloody proud of that idea

Baby steps to start with but I'm already planning the next fake company to make a brand for.