While Wayne Rooney was cursing at a camera in the glamorous city of London wearing the world renowned red of Manchester United, in Spain another Englishman was leading and teaching a talented and hardworking group of youth players. John Gontier, who Premiership Talk profiled back in February, is the brains behind an exciting project that is helping to shape the future of English football.
As the Academy Director at Spanish club Racing Portuense in the small town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, Gontier is developing a new skill set and new playing style for some of England’s long lost youth prospects. Whereas the likes of young Wayne Rooneys and Joey Bartons were busy hitting the clubs and getting into mischief, the academy at Racing Portuense is offering these young players a chance to grow both personally and professionally.
Gontier himself is no stranger to the football scene. Having played for Watford’s Under 18 side, Gontier has now been in Spain for 24 years, coaching and managing youth players before finding himself the Academy Director at a third division club in Spain. Having failed to make the grade in the professional ranks, Gontier knew the feeling well of wanting to prove himself at the next level. It’s this empathy that, combined with his footballing knowledge, has motivated him to give released youth players a second chance in a warmer environment.
One of the most common complaints about the current state of English football is that far too many Premier League players are from continental Europe and from elsewhere around the globe. With so many foreigners in the league, the English national team has failed to match their World Cup success of 1966, and the current crop of players failed to live up to expectations as they crashed out of last summer’s World Cup at the hands of bitter rivals Germany.
In response to these criticisms, the English Football Association has launched a wide array of grassroots initiatives. Without many clubs buying into the push for English youth as players such as Danny Welbeck see their spots taken by foreign recruits like Javier Hernandez, not much action has been taken to meet the goals set forth by the FA. The youth academy at Racing Portuense, however, is turning words into action, and has already gained widespread support from the relevant football authorities.
“Clubs in England are outsourcing, especially over-16 players, from all over the world,” John Gontier told Premiership Talk. “This means that in the last two years the English players have to compete against the best in the world and hundreds get released every year.”
With so many players released prematurely, Gontier is giving them a second chance.
“Many players are just late developers and get thrown out after their clubs have spent much time and money on them,” he said. “This not only shatters their dreams but in many cases having dedicated so much time to football, their studies have been affected.”
The academy, unlike some of the FA’s initiatives, has already produced results.
“I brought over two players last summer – Kingley Grandison (Manchester City) and Carl Sibson (Nottingham Forest),” Gontier pointed out. “This was the start to now get the LFE (League Football Education) to name us a placement club after the visit of John Barton and Roger Gibbins, both ex-profesionals who were impressed and convinced our club in Spain can be of great benefit to young English players.”
Without a doubt, this youth academy is unlike all the others. While clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal have prided themselves on their excellent youth academies, there have been far too many ignored cases of failure. Even the high profile youth products such as Federico Macheda have seen limited success in the top leagues, despite all of their raw talent. Macheda now finds himself struggling in the Italian Serie A with Sampdoria, perhaps due to an unpolished game and a playing style that lacks diversity (lucky for him, time is still on his side at this point).
At Racing Portuense, English youth players get a unique chance to blend their English upbringing with the vast footballing talents of a country like Spain. This fascinating blend of hard-working, hard tackling football and fluid passing and dribbling leaves players far more dynamic than their domestic counterparts, and remains a core focus of Gontier.
“Knowing the system in England and in Spain and being the Academy Manager at Racing Portuense made me decide that Spain, the world champions, has what is lacking in England,” Gontier said exclusively to Premiership Talk. “This is probably due to better weather conditions and the coaching is more ball centered than in England. This is what’s lacking in the English game, and the FA’s new book on grassroots football, The Future Game, aims to change, and in fact Spain is mentioned as being the right model.”
Despite the FA’s best efforts, Gontier’s unique perspective perhaps gives him the best view. “I, however, think the right model is combining the qualities of the English game with that of Spain to help create the best,” he added.
The Racing Portuense youth academy project is already off to a great start despite its infancy. Under Gontier’s leadership, the academy is already competing with the likes of Glenn Hoddle’s acclaimed Spanish youth project, and with twelve new recruits on the way in August Racing Portuense is set to make a major splash.
“The project proper is due to start in August with the arrival of 12 players who will come with the collaboration of the LFE via their player placement programme,” said Gontier. “English clubs are sending me reports on players they will be releasing and they will be looked at in exit trials as well as on DVDs to select those with the best of English qualities but seen to be lacking on-ball skills, which will be Spain’s input to their game.”
The lucky selected players will receive more than a chance to be coached by some of Spain’s – and England’s – finest. A thousand miles away from home, these youth players will have the chance to develop into the best footballers and the best professionals they can be, within the warm climate of a small Spanish town. Here, they’ll go from being boys yearning for success to men on the path to success – whether or not that includes battling amongst English football’s elite.
“Apart from being coached, they will compete in a league in which skills on the ball, the passing game, is deep rooted,” Gontier stressed. “El Puerto de Santa Maria is a small town and the players will have a chance of going to local schools to talk to students. The Spanish students will practice their English and the young English players will not only learn the Spanish language and culture but also see how social bonds helps all other facets in life from respect to discipline.”
Here at Premiership Talk, we’re very excited to follow the progress of John and his academy. Racing Portuense is looking for sponsors and investors in their Nextstars project, and potential partners would go a long way towards helping the future of English football.
To get in touch with John and his team, or to let us know that you’d like to see more coverage about this exciting project, leave a comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.