NextGen Series represents future of football

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The NextGen Series is a European football tournament like no other. It heralds an exciting new era in competitive club football that features the next generation of world-class players, who have been trained and nurtured by some of the greatest domestic sides on the continent.

For football fans, the tournament is a great opportunity to watch young stars in the making, and to get a unique glimpse of the brightest up and coming talent.

But, more importantly, for the players and their clubs, it represents an opportunity to showcase their skills in a challenging environment, as they look to adapt to new styles of play, and prolonged periods of travel in unfamiliar surroundings. It is a new wave of development, to help fast-track a talented youngster's journey from youth football through to the first-team.

In 2008, the NextGen concept was nothing more than a 'what if' moment. What if the biggest clubs in England could pit their youngsters against those from Europe's elite clubs, in an U19 version of the Champions League?

The creator, former Watford Academy director Mark Warburton, sought a contemporary way of giving promising players the necessary experience needed to best prepare them for life in the professional game, aside from the substandard state of youth and reserve team football.

The ongoing success of the FA Youth Cup provided the inspiration, with the importance of a competitive edge pivotal if the new tournament was to take off.

"The key issue was how do you change a youth programme performer to first team performer," explained Warburton in a recent interview with Future Stars. "Usually these guys are a long, long way from reaching this point.

"The idea was how do you prepare boys better for that transition. One of the key factors was the quality of the opposition which they face week in, week out, facing far bigger challenges makes them better prepared.

"In my previous role with Watford Academy we used to take our boys to Valencia, Lisbon and their reaction to games against international opposition was fantastic.

"That made a huge impact on their individual technique, ball movement, team formations, [and] also gives a big boost of confidence, when you successfully perform against international teams - it is so much easier to cope with a domestic game."

After months of planning, speculation, trials and setbacks, Warburton's dream became a reality. In August last year, four teams from England, two each from Holland and Norway, and one club from Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Scotland, Switzerland, Turkey and Portugal came together for the kick-off of the 2011 NextGen Series.

Featuring clubs like Liverpool, Barcelona, Marseille and Ajax - the inaugural tournament promised a gala of European football, from sides not just famous for producing good players, but all with a pedigree of success. It provided some memorable moments.

Tottenham smashed Inter Milan 7-1 in the group stages, before the Nerazzurri blended tactical discipline with raw ability to cruise to the final, where they faced the competition's entertainers Ajax, who had eliminated Liverpool 6-0 en route.

The Italian's held their nerve in a tightly contested affair that was decided by a penalty shoot-out, after 120 minutes of football left the two teams deadlocked at 1-1. A thrilling end to a fascinating tournament.

Barcelona striker Jean-Marie Dongou claimed the top-scorer prize with seven goals, and excited many with his boundless potential.

The competition also threw up several other stars, including Ajax's Viktor Fischer and Liverpool's Raheem Sterling, while Rosenborg's Mushaga Bakenga and Sporting's Joao Carlos Teixeira both earned big-money moves off the back of the tournament.

So, where does NextGen go from here? Well, it was announced yesterday that Arsenal are the latest high-profile team to sign up for next season, joining Chelsea, Olympiakos and Paris Saint Germain alongside last year's entrants who will compete in the 2012-13 series, with a view to expanding from 16 to 24 clubs.

AC Milan, Athletic Bilbao, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid have also been mentioned as clubs to complete the line-up - a group that looks to take the competition from strength to strength.

The Gunners will be the seventh British team joining, alongside original members Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Celtic, with Chelsea the other team set to debut.

Designed to replicate the Champions League experience, clubs are required to play NextGen games either at their home stadium, or lower league alternatives, with cheap tickets available to encourage big crowds and create a better atmosphere.

There are also strict squad rules, with a maximum size of 18 players - 15 of which must be under the age of 18 - and only three a year older.

The original idea, and concept of the proposal, sold itself. But, like all things new, there was always an element of doubt as to how popular the tournament would prove to be. On current evidence, NextGen could be the future of football as we know it.

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