The cry is going up from almost every level of football in this country. It’s certainly no preserve of Sheffield United supporters to bemoan a lack of leaders, a concern of which this column’s regular readers are more than aware.
But don’t stop to puzzle. One major reason is pretty obvious when you think about it; pampering. Not so much of the senior players, though they are well rewarded and sometimes obscenely so, but of the kids who seek this road to fame and fortune.
And then they get it too early. Not so much the fame but often the fortune, or at least enough to bedazzle visitors to academy car parks.
There is no bigger distraction to dedication and, yes, ambition than to arrive... before you have arrived. Or at least that’s what some of the youngsters could be forgiven for thinking.
And it’s not their fault. Because what they are being denied, above all things, is sharp remedial treatment. In short, a good old-fashioned b******ing.
Speak to just about any coach on the professional circuit and that is the one thing all the PC “protection” guidelines, some of it well-meaning but much of it utter claptrap, prevent them from administering.
So, as night follows day, we have fewer characters, not enough leaders, not enough “talkers”, too many who hide from pressure situations. Mainly because, long before 2015, football (society generally) had gone soft.
Don’t take my word for it. Jamie Hoyland is a former Sheffield United player in the Premier League, an experienced coach and now an international scout for the FA who checks on opponents for England manager Roy Hodgson and vets the performances of internationals, current and future.
“Some kids these days have got everything before they’re 12 or 13,” Jamie tells me. “They’re never once told they’re rubbish or words to that effect. People say ‘you’re a dinosaur.’ But my era produced some great players and characters, reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 1990 which is the best we’ve ever done in my time.”
Hoyland, who joined Dave Bassett’s top flight Blades that same year, believes the current United team is “massively missing leadership.” But he quickly adds: “It’s a generic thing.
“I look at some players and ask a simple question: do they enjoy it? Why don’t they play with a smile on their face?”
Again, that lack of personality. What we need here is balance. Some of the treatment of apprentices in a bygone age could be cruel and wrong. Somewhere in between lie methods that are neither too harsh nor too soft. Neither extreme can be right.
It’s no wonder we are not getting players through at the top when there is little competitive football other than tippy-tappy academy stuff – until kids are sent on loan to the Championship or lower leagues and sink before they can swim. Witness the Arsenal youngsters who drowned at Hillsborough recently.
So it’s brilliant that a start has been made down the right track here in Sheffield with arguably the world’s only youth tournament for young teenagers at professional clubs.
You Are The Ref’s Youdan Trophy, celebrating the birth of cup football and expanding in July ‘16 to include Under 14 teams from Liverpool and Crystal Palace among others, is adjusting the balance with both Sheffield clubs on board.
As Liverpool legend Mark Lawrenson said at the launch: “Academies are looking for technique and tactics. The great thing is that this is a competition - and that brings pressure.”
A little of the real world, and with it the excitement that brings, surely cannot go amiss.