How did your time in Italy influence your approach to coaching young players?
There was a greater level of professionalism in Italy: players were far more conscious of having a lifespan in the game, rather than merely obtaining their next contract. They were also a lot more serious about looking after themselves, especially their diet, which is something I have tried to convey over here.
You started at the Arsenal Academy in 1996. What are the key things that have changed since then at the Academy?
Fewer players come in from the local pool of talent. We're battling against all the modern things that are around for teenagers, and we can suffer because they are less hungry as a result. On the plus side, the money spent on academies is phenomenal and the help that these kids get, to mould them into good professionals, is far superior to what it used to be.
Do you view video games and social media as modern distractions?
Well, look, when I was growing up in Dublin I played for a young boys' club. We trained maybe once or twice a week and played on the weekend. When I wasn’t with the football club I would practise on my own because I didn’t have anything to keep me at home - we weren’t staying at home with a video game or on Facebook. That has been a negative for the pool of players that once existed in the British Isles and you can see why we have to broaden our scouting system to cope with that.
What about the club as a whole: what does Arsenal do differently that’s changed to when you first arrived?
The facilities are brilliant compared to what I inherited. We’ve got our facility up in Shenley that can cater for the scholars when they leave school [at age 16 to 21]. They get a real insight into exactly what’s needed to break into the first-team squad. The manager has contact with them and will sometimes take over their training sessions.
In the past, the schoolboys haven’t really had their own training ground but we had Highbury across the road, which had an indoor training area. Now we’ve got our own training pitches in Walthamstow, an indoor training area and even an artificial surface. We’ve got beautiful pitches, good dressing rooms, and classrooms where players can do their homework. The change has been amazing.
Do you think the increased income of the club over the years has prompted more of an influence on the youth set-up?
Arsenal have always been big on youth. George Graham’s teams were all built from homegrown players, which is something that is now part of the tradition at the club. The board have always been very supportive and aware of the significant amount of money needed at youth level.
What are the key attributes do you look for in a player?
Around 25 years ago it was all about speed, because speed means power, which can be fashioned into strength. Nowadays there is a greater emphasis on technical ability and we look to improve people’s technique through our methods of coaching.
But there is also football intelligence, which is an indefinable thing. It’s difficult to teach things that are instinctive, like knowing where he should be or who he should pass to. The other thing – which is very much the deciding factor – is personality and desire: we definitely can’t teach that.
Are there any players that you just knew would be special?
We knew with Ashley Cole and Jack Wilshere. I'm not surprised that Cole has played almost 100 times for England and Wilshere will go on to have the career he deserves, once he fully overcomes his injury.
Ashley Cole in 1998: He'll go a long way
Who’s next on the production line?
We’ve got a few, but I can’t name anybody because I don’t think it would be fair. I didn’t name Wilshere or Cole, so I'm not gonna start now. There’s already a lot of pressure and they need to concentrate solely on working and training properly.
What’s Arsene Wenger’s role on developing the playing style of the youth team? Is the same brand of football taught from the top down?
The way Arsene plays football is the same way I could play football, so we're very compatible in that sense. We need the young players to be familiar with the current system because the manager might come to me one day and ask if there’s anyone ready for the first team.
What’s deemed an impressive conversion rate at youth level? Is it still considered a success if players end up playing their first-team football somewhere else?
We don’t have targets. That’s not the way we think because it’s a bit like that saying about buses, you wait for ages and then three come along at once, like Emmanuel Frimpong, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere have for us recently. At the moment we’ve got those three players in the first-team squad, but we might have to wait a little while until we get the next two or three. Nobody says to me we have to transform a player every year, or that Arsene has to pick someone from the Academy with each new season. You want to create an Academy that pays for itself, so of course if players who don’t quite make it with us are sold and go on to make careers for themselves elsewhere then that can be a success too, but if the players don’t make it then they’re sold.
Jack Wilshere makes the breakthrough in 2008
You must feel good on a personal level when you see likes of Jack Wilshere in the first team?
It was super when Wilshere picked up his first England cap, but it was also great for me to see Fabrice Muamba play in the Premier League for Bolton and Birmingham.
Do you agree that English players are technically inferior in comparison to their European counterparts?
It’s the FA and Premier League’s duty to ensure that the academies are doing things right, which is why we have the new Elite Player Performance Plan. It’s important because everybody’s standards are being raised, but if you want to play like Germans or the Spanish, then you need to change the culture of English football.
Do you think English football places too much emphasis on pace and power?
I don’t think our football produces technical players, so that’s really the challenge for the FA. The facilities won't change our players, but the way we play football will. The majority of games in England are battles. Now, people might say that’s English football, but it’s not going to win you World Cups or European Championships.
What’s the overall philosophy and vision for the future in terms of the Academy?
The philosophy of the Academy is one that reinforces the idea that you will get your chance. We haven’t got a blockage for our young players so there is a clear route to the first team, but you have to be good enough and you have to be professional. People know that whether we sign a young English player in their teens or a German boy like [Serge] Gnabry at 16, he’s going to get his chance if he’s good enough. I think that’s what makes Arsenal an attractive option.
In an ideal world, would it be better to have the entire starting XI made up of players who came through the club?
Other than at Barcelona, it’s incredibly rare in modern football. The thing about Barcelona and Real Madrid is that they can sweep up everyone but we have to compete with West Ham, Chelsea, Tottenham – and that’s only in London. The biggest obstacle initially is convincing them to come the club in the first place. If we can acquire them at an early age, then because they’re treated very well, they're more likely to stay when they grow up.
Interview: Sam Delaney, Portraits: Shamil Tanna, November 2012. This is online-exclusive material but for theJanuary 2013 issue FourFourTwo went behind the scenes at Arsenal, speaking to the men that matter as they reveal their master plan for success at home and abroad, including Arsene Wenger, Ivan Gazidis, Thomas Vermaelen, Santi Cazorla, Kieran Gibbs, Ken Friar, OBE and Liam Brady.
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