The prime ages of professional footballers has steadily increased in range over the decades with the advancement of sports science and technology. These days a player is considered to come of age as early as their early 20’s and hit their peak at roughly age 25/26. This is why youth football – from as early as under-12 right up to under-20 is such an important part of players’ development, because immediately after that, they are expected to be on par with senior professionals and hit their peak just a few years later. With that in mind, it must be asked; are we getting the most out of our high school players? Is it time to rethink schoolboy football?
The schoolboy season runs from September to December (COVID notwithstanding), during which the best teams – that play for the longest – are involved in around 20 games at the high end of that spectrum. Teams that fail to progress through rounds play about 10 games, give or take. As a launchpad for these players to get into the senior level, playing anywhere between 10 – 20 games does not nearly adequately equip a player to do that. The situation becomes even more desperate when you consider that these players then go into National Premier League clubs hoping to get a look in. A system should instead be established whereby these high schoolers can stay with their schools and get sufficient development because they are working with coaches who know them and will play them regularly.
One way to do that would be extending the season, but how? A simple solution (so to speak) would be to do away with the tournament format for the main competitions and instead use a league format. Assuming it sticks to the pyramidal structure of division 1 being the top league, it has to be decided who plays in the first and second divisions.
The Dacosta Cup could have three leagues given their large numbers. Conversely, they could have a different format altogether and play in conferences much like American sports do. Realistically, there could be a Eastern and Western Conference but also a Central Conference. Like in the MLS, a conference champion is crowned and an ultimate champion is decided amongst those.
The advantage of this is that every team gets a chance to play an equal amount of games against teams of a similar level throughout the season. So instead of a maximum of 10-20 games for a moderate to good season, every team is guaranteed around 40 games for the season. And that’s not including cup competitions. The players would be in training for longer and play more games which has the potential to improve them further than the current design.
If each division has between 20 and 24 teams, that’s a maximum of 46 games to play. That would take the season from September to about March, with a consistent schedule.
Now here’s an idea out of left field; again the key point here is to leave schoolboy football itself as is, so instead of changing the game, we add to it. What’s more, this is a more targeted approach.
A while back I wrote about some lessons Jamaica can take from Belgium to develop it’s football in a similar way to the number 1 ranked team in the world right now. One of the things they did was to create institutions for developing promising youth talent. Now Jamaica realistically doesn’t have the same resources to get that done quickly, but here’s what could happen if we think innovatively.
Using a similar module, the best players can be identified and placed within a sort of regional community team. This team will be coached by an approved youth coach (with the relevant CV and/or qualifications) and use a facility within their region with the best infrastructure as their base of operations. Those teams can compete against each other outside the typical schoolboy football season. The teams will feature the best and brightest young stars from their region; and cater to all levels not just Under-19.
The number of teams may be dependent on the amount of coaches available but if we even have four of those teams in place, that’s 100 young players receiving specialized extra training in addition to their school careers. An intuitive like this would require the Jamaica Football Federation’s inclusion, they would provide the qualified coaches, and sponsorship for whatever competitions those youths play in.
It’s by no means a straightforward task, and it would likely be difficult to implement any or all of those; but it’s not harder to implement than it is to watch Jamaica’s youth being wasted year after year and embarrassed on the international stage constantly. To get the most out of the players in schoolboy football as it is now, might mean changing everything about it at present.