The sport of football is easy to play, doesn’t require much by way of expenses on necessary equipment, and is available to play throughout the country. From all of the children who play football, the best are selected and asked to join the academies of professional clubs; few will decline this offer.
But, from there, very, very few make it into the world of professional football. It was recorded that, of all the nine-year-old boys to enter into an academy, less than 0.5 percent would become a professional footballer or make a living from the game. Furthermore, only 180 of 1.5 million players in organised English youth football at any one time will get to the Premier League as a professional.
Despite the vast availability of football, the idea has been posed that the location of a young player will impact their chances of going on to become a professional footballer in the Premier League. Over the decades, you can see trends of top players emerging from certain areas of England, such as the London area and the North West. Time and again, these areas yield great footballers.
Each location in the UK brings with it many variables that could impact a player’s ability to develop their skills and eventually get spotted. Many socioeconomic factors will influence aspiring young players, as will the availability of playing space – such as caged pitches or parks – training facilities of local clubs, and the general fandom of football throughout the family and the local area.
So, by investigating top-flight English footballers of the past and present, we shall explore how much geographical location can affect the prospects of young talents, and if there are football hotspots in the country.
Does geography really change how you kick a ball?
There are two primary factors to consider when analysing how a player’s geographical location influenced their rise to the top: location as a youngster and the location of the academy/youth set up that developed them.
Going through 53 of the top English footballers in the Premier League, some trends certainly developed. Firstly, the East of England and the South West don’t develop top players in their academies. While a handful of the players in our sample pool are from these areas (Jack Wilshere, Nick Pope, Jack Butland, Eric Dier), none of these players were developed in academies within the two regions.
From the sample, not a single player hailed from the East Midlands area. Despite how ‘football mad’ the North East is deemed to be, only three of the top English player pool comes from the region. But, these players kept within the area to develop their skills, with Jordan Pickford, Fraser Forster, and Jordan Henderson all coming through North East academies.
The South East, bolstered by many of its cities’ proximity to London as well as outlying cities that focus on youth football, mainly Southampton, spawned six top players and developed nine. Five of the six from the region developed their skills there, with only Ben Chilwell moving to Leicester to hone his craft. The likes of Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling, Ryan Bertrand, and Adam Lallana all moved from the London area and into the South East as youth players.
Despite these departures, London is still a hotbed for talent. Its massive population at over 7.5 million is one of the reasons behind such a relatively small area producing so many top footballers – more people equals a higher chance that one will emerge as a top talent – as well as the wealth of clubs and youth programmes in the area. 12 top players originate from the nation’s capital, while the London area developed eight at its academies.
Yorkshire and the Humber boasts nine top players from its region and developed eight of its own – all of whom are from the area. Only Gary Cahill, originally from Dronfield, left the region to develop his skills. The West Midlands also has a strong showing with five players from the area and six players developed there. Jack Butland and Gary Cahill moved to the area while Daniel Sturridge left for the North West.
As far as numbers go in this current batch of top English Premier League players, the North West boasts the mightiest of claims. A whopping 14 are from the North West with a total of 17 developed in North West academies. Not a single top player from this pool and the North West sought development and reached this level elsewhere, with Nick Pope, Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling moving up north.
The North West and London certainly dominate but not as much as they used to. Looking at a set of the top 50 greatest England footballers of all time, you can see that London was far more dominant than it is now, while the North West was also very big for producing and developing talent.
While the likes of David Beckham, Bobby Charlton, and Duncan Edwards are famed for their progress through the Manchester United youth system to become legends of the game with the Red Devils, they don’t hail from the North West. Even back then, the North West was superb at developing top talent, forging 15 of the 50 all-time greats in its academies. With 12 of the 50 from the North West area – only two of which developed elsewhere (Colin Bell, Geoff Hurst) – the area has a history of popping out top talents.
So many of England’s best players, particularly from the generation just past, hail from, and developed, in London. With 16 of these all-time greats spending their youth in London, and the area developing 17, the capital earned a reputation for unleashing great footballers.
Keeping in theme with the present day, the East of England and the South West post lowly numbers among all-time greats, with only Terry Butcher, Bobby Moore, and Cliff Bastin coming from the regions. Conversely to the modern day, the South East also appears quite weak among the greats. Only Ted Drake was from the region and developed there, with Alan Shearer coming down to the Southampton academy.
A shift in power has been seen between the modern day and that which produced Premier League-calibre English footballers in the past. Former powerhouses for producing English talents, such as West Ham United, have fallen by the wayside. Others, like Manchester United, Southampton, and Arsenal have remained titans on the scene, while Tottenham Hotspur and Everton have emerged as great developers of young English players.
England’s football hot spots
As seen in the data above, London and the North West are still hotbeds when it comes to spawning talented young English players. London has subsided when it comes to the development of the players, while Yorkshire and the Humber, the South East, and the West Midlands has upped their game.
When it comes to Premier League teams, there is a clear distinction between the big clubs with huge academies and the somewhat smaller clubs that focus on youth player development and promoting from within. There are also the big clubs who integrate their best youngsters into their first team and have done for a long time.
While the gargantuan clubs with huge academy programmes don’t always bring their young players into their own squad, some players find their way back to the Premier League with other clubs. Manchester United have academy graduates sprinkled around the top two divisions of England but also have a few in their first team. Manchester City, on the other hand, no longer tend to promote from within. Southampton, what could be seen as a purely grassroots team, had a decent number of graduates playing at Premier League level, but can’t compare to what Manchester United has produced.
As for England’s potential 2018 World Cup squad, while there’s quite the range of players to choose from, the team – quite surprisingly – looks to boast a lot of players from Yorkshire and the Humber. Kyle Walker, John Stones, Danny Rose, Jamie Vardy, Harry Maguire, and Lewis Cook are strong candidates to get a ticket to Russia. All are from the Yorkshire and the Humber area, and they were all developed in the region.
Befitting the trends uncovered, London and the North West are also expected to have a strong showing in the England team. The South East is certainly on the rise, though, with the likes of Dele Alli, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, and Chris Smalling from or having been developed in the area.
The impression is that English Premier League players tend to come out of Premier League academies, and there is certainly evidence to back that up. For the 2016/17 season, the number of minutes given to academy graduates in the Premier League was recorded to reveal the dominance of the North West.
Across the 20 teams of the Premier League, 44,055 minutes was played by graduates of the Manchester United academy. The next closest was Tottenham, whose graduates saw 21,668 minutes of action. Although they don’t keep many of their youngsters, Manchester City ranked third with 16,226 minutes garnered by their graduates. The Saints clocked in fourth with their graduates getting 14,340 total minutes of game time.
However, there is also a case to be made for the now-Championship team Sheffield United. With 13,564 minutes played by the likes of Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, and Phil Jagielka, the products of their academy are still proving their worth. But, the top class academies and the draw of Premier League clubs certainly appears to be creating a gap between the teams in the top flight and those below.
Naturally, it’s not just the football club that influences a young player. The region’s love of football and subsequent support from primary and high schools can be major factors. In parts of the country like the North West and North East where football is almost ingrained in everyday life, if a child gets an offer from a top club, the schools will most likely support them however they can. Former Watford Academy player Eddie Oshodi said that, due to all of the training, he couldn’t pursue a more fulfilling education, and was allowed to take nine GCSEs and a BTEC rather than 11 GCSEs and A-levels.
Something can also be said for opportunities in certain areas. Looking at a map of the most deprived areas in England – the poorest areas of England – a study in 2010 revealed eight of the top ten were in the North West. Three areas of Blackpool, two areas of Liverpool, and an area of Manchester made the top ten. Living in deprived areas can inspire a child to break out as best as they see fit, and football can often be seen as that avenue. In his autobiography Being Gazza: Tackling My Demons, Paul Gascoigne notes that his decision to pursue football came from his family struggling to earn money.
Despite the many obstacles in their way, footballers can buck the trend and emerge from new areas of the country. Take the phenomenal story of Jamie Vardy, for example. His famed run from Fleetwood Town to Leicester City to becoming a Premier League champion is the stuff of legend. Sir Alex Ferguson picked up Chris Smalling from Maidstone United as a successor to the great Rio Ferdinand. Ryan Sessegnon has continually rejected the advances of the Premier League to continue to improve with the team that developed him, Fulham.
Then there’s also Marcus Rashford, who battled his way through the crowded Manchester United academy to become a first team player. As a club, Arsenal continue to prove the value of young players, integrating their young stars into the team each season. This season, Edward Nketiah saved them in the EFL Cup, with the 18-year-old Londoner scoring twice in their 2-1 extra time win over Norwich City.
What part of the UK creates the best footballers?
Creating a top-class footballer; is it better for the young player to emerge from an urban, somewhat shoddy environment and aspire to bigger and better things? Perhaps. Many children in poor environments seek to escape from their everyday life. Football can often grant them this. Through this pursuit, many become good prospects, and so advance to youth set ups. But the best footballers have to not only have a desire to succeed but, also, the mindset.
Said by Sir Alex Ferguson to be “the saddest case” he saw as a manager in his autobiography Leading, Ravel Morrison proved that talent doesn’t carry a player. The legendary manager said that Morrison couldn’t overcome his inner demons to capitalise on his world-class talent. The Englishman was said to have deep-rooted issues, was in trouble with the law regularly, and spent his spare time with the wrong people.
It’s not just negative influences that can draw a hot prospect away from the game, though. Michail Antonio was blocked by his mother from signing for Tottenham Hotspur at age 14 and told to focus on his education. Antonio went to college and eventually signed for Reading and debuted at age 19. He is now playing as one of West Ham United’s star players.
The aspects of each local area will have an impact on a child’s prospects, how they spend their free time, and what their parents allow them to do. But, ultimately, every case is based on the individual’s decision. Many of the top English players right now come through the local ranks. With so many opportunities for careers in England, it’s understandable why prospects and their parents in lower catchment areas like the East of England or the South West wouldn’t avidly pursue a route to the biggest academies without scouts finding the talent first.
Whether it’s the location and the environment that is created, the density of teams in the area or the lack of scouting in the historically weaker areas of the country, location does appear to influence a player’s chances of making it to the Premier League.
Youngsters who grow and show talent in London and the North West tend to find their way to a big local club. Having some form of facilities and training in the area is a must from an early age, as is the support of the family and school, and it appears as though these two regions provide it all in abundance.