Football academies were introduced by leading clubs in a bid to identify and nurture talented players from as young as eight years old. The 9,000 or so boys up and down the country, who currently fill the ranks from the Premier League to League Two, are desperate to succeed, but the reality is that only a handful will make it to the top.
However, tucked away in its Hertfordshire home, is a rare success story at Championship side Watford – who are celebrating a memorable landmark, after the club's 50th academy graduate made his first-team debut in last Saturday's 0-0 draw with Coventry City at Vicarage Road.
Britt Assombalonga, a 19-year-old striker and former non-league loanee with both Ryman Premier outfit Wealdstone and Blue Square Bet Premier side Braintree, is the latest in a long list of promising footballers fresh off the Hornets' production line, now looking to make strides in the English game.
"It's always a fantastic day when one of your boys makes his debut but for him to be the 50th makes it that little bit more special," enthused Watford academy boss Nick Cox in a recent interview with BBC Three Counties Radio. "Everybody who has been involved over the years is delighted, definitely."
Cox, who has worked at the academy in various roles for the past decade before taking over as head last summer, has hailed the club's youth development system as a major success in light of Assombalonga's breakthrough.
"His story is in keeping with the traditions and the DNA of this club," he continued. "He came through the community scheme very late as a 17-year-old, then progressed into the academy before going on to make his debut.
"So that really encompasses everything this club is about with regards to youth development and being a family club. It's a good story to hit 50 with."
Watford's current academy set-up has been in place since 1998, soon after the release of a landmark report by former Football Association technical director Howard Wilkinson, with Manchester United and England international winger Ashley Young the club's most high profile success to date.
Young joined Watford as a schoolboy, and made his Hornets debut in 2003 before signing for Aston Villa four years later. After four successful seasons at Villa Park, the 26-year-old moved on again, heading to Old Trafford to link up with the reigning Premier League champions in a reported £17million deal last summer.
The January transfer window also provided a Premier League move for England U21 international striker Marvin Sordell, who left Vicarage Road for an undisclosed fee to join Bolton Wanderers on deadline day, while fellow academy graduate Adrian Mariappa continues to be linked to a host of clubs, with Arsenal and Newcastle believed to be weighing up potential bids this June – further highlighting the quality of players being produced at Watford’s academy.
Before academies, most clubs had 'centres of excellence' for talented young players, but the pinnacle of football education came at Lilleshall Hall in Shropshire, a boarding school for England's elite 18 players, selected in trials at the age of 14. Graduates include Michael Owen, Joe Cole, Scott Parker, Wes Brown and Jermain Defoe to name but a few.
"The Lilleshall model was very efficient," Wilkinson recalled in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. "Apart from the huge difficulty and inequity of selecting 18 players at such a young age from the whole of England."
The aim of academies, he says: "To establish a similar model to Lilleshall, but to do it locally and therefore the process of selecting would be fairer because you would have a large pool."
The current FA rule is that players aged 8-11 must live within 60 minutes travelling time of the training ground, while 12-16-year-olds have a maximum commute of 90 minutes. Watford have certainly utilised their catchment area on the outskirts of the country's capital as they continue to flourish in their youth development.
Another important aspect of helping young players make the transition from youth and reserve team football into the senior side, is the way in which the Hornets have made good use of the loan system - a tactic that other clubs looking for similar results from their academies could do well to emulate.
"We make it clear to the boys that there is a stigma attached sometimes to going out on loan, in that you're sent out because you're not needed any more," Cox added. "Here, it works very much the other way.
"We see it very much as part of the boys' development - a stepping stone from playing development games to professional games, where three points are vital and crowds are going to scream and holler at them, so it's something we'll continue to do.
"I don't know where we would rank with regard to the number of debuts, but I'd be very surprised if there was another club to hit 50 in the last 12 years."
Watford certainly seem to have found their winning formula, as they look to protect the long-term future of football. Long may it continue.
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