Former Manchester United and England striker Andy Cole is the second-highest goalscorer in Premier League history.
I was fortunate to have a choice of clubs when I was a 14-year-old schoolboy who’d just been selected for the National Football School at Lilleshall for outstanding talent. Scouts were coming to my house and me being my stubborn self, I didn’t want to speak to them. They weren’t from my world. There was Sheffield Wednesday and my hometown club Nottingham Forest. I went to Forest but didn’t like how I was treated there. And there was Arsenal.
When I saw that they had local inner city boys in their first-team, I felt like I could see a pathway into first division football. So my career began at Arsenal and as an apprentice, I would clean the away dressing rooms. When Arsenal played Forest, Brian Clough would see me, plant a big kiss on my cheek and say, ‘Ah, young man, this is the one from Nottingham who got away’.
Arsenal had Paul Davis, Michael Thomas, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Martin Keown, Paul Merson and Martin Hayes. They were mostly working class Londoners, mostly Arsenal fans. I loved playing with them. There was never any doubt when we played Tottenham or Chelsea or West Ham at youth or reserve level how much that game meant.
At Newcastle I played with Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Peter Beardsley, Robbie Elliott and Steve Harper, mostly Geordies who supported Newcastle. That added passion and feeling to the team I played in.
At Manchester United I played with Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Manchester lads who’d supported United all their lives. When we played Liverpool and Manchester City, I knew exactly how important it was to beat them. City weren’t even rivals then, yet these lads wanted to destroy them.
Local boys add value to any dressing room. They’re fans with boots on, the ones who know better than any others what it means to play for the club. Their family still live among supporters, their mates go to games home and away, they’ve played against rivals since they were 10. It’s all positive.
Mark Noble at West Ham, John Terry at Chelsea, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher (yes, I know he supported Everton as a kid) at Liverpool. Look at the Catalans at Barça, Francesco Totti at Roma. They’re a reference point; they understand their club on its deepest level.
I’ve met plenty of great foreign lads in football and embrace English football’s worldwide appeal which sees me recognised in Singapore or Soweto, but there has to be a space for a local boy and I’m worried that fewer and fewer of them are reaching first teams in the Premier League.
It saddened me when Daniel Welbeck, a Mancunian United fan, left them a year ago. Like the other names I’ve mentioned, he was a success story who’d grown up at the club. He had the pace that the current United attack needs, but he was allowed to leave because he didn’t score enough goals. I can see that argument, I told Danny myself that he had to be more selfish in front of goal. But clubs should still have a connection to the local community. If not, then a key part of football is lost. Welbeck thought long and hard about when he left United, do you think Angel di Maria is doing the same today?
Fewer local players are getting into first teams because fewer are coming through the ranks. Clubs cast their nets wider and top Premier League outfits now recruit youth from around the world – though I sense some do it half-heartedly. There’s not the conviction to develop youth because it’s a long process and often easy to buy ready made talent who’ve made the errors inevitably associated with being a young player elsewhere. They do that because everyone is under pressure for instant results.
That’s a shame. There are fewer opportunities for English players and that affects the national team, but clubs also have to work with failing youth systems.
I’ve watched my son Devante come through Manchester City’s system. It would have been nice for them to have a Manchester lad in their first-team, but there are none. And I’ve watched Devante play in numerous under-21 games which don’t prepare you for being a professional footballer – so he had to go on loan to improve, to play in front of proper, hostile crowds against professionals battling for their win bonus.
The under-21 league replaced reserve-team football. It’s failing and doesn’t prepare you for the physical and mental stresses of the next level. Games are virtually non-contact, with fouls given for minimal transgressions. I see 21-year-old lads at United or City with big egos and big contracts. They think they’ve cracked it. They haven’t done anything in football. They play in state of the art academies – but no talent makes it from there to the first-team.
When I played reserve football, I was up against big name pros coming back from injury or ones who’d been dropped to the reserves and didn’t want to be there as they found it degrading. Which made them more likely to take their anger out on you. It was really hard, but while I’m not one to live in the past, it prepared you so well.
In the 90s, Arsenal won league titles, Manchester United won league titles and Newcastle United came close to winning league titles, all with teams featuring local boys. And that, sadly, has gone.