The suburb wunderkinds

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How South London is developing the brightest youngsters in football

England is continuing their tradition of creating young prospective football players and after units in Manchester and Merseyside, a new factory can now be found in South London.

What does Catalonia have in common with South London? Social disparities, perhaps. Political mayhem, maybe. Incredible football talent, definitely. In January 2016, The Guardian chief sports writer Ronay coined the expression “the concrete Catalonia” to define South London youth’s footballing talent. Three years later, comparing Barcelona’s La Masia to Southwark and Lewisham indeed does not seem that out of place.

Two decades ago, Ian Wright became one of the first players from South London to thrive in the Premier League. The Woolwich-born striker featured in the Team of the Year thrice, was top goal-scorer in 1992 with Arsenal and understandably became an icon of the 1990s. 20 years after his retirement, his influence is still present in youth football academies in south London. This is not even about all his social achievements, notably empowering young black players to believe in professional football, but his daring, flamboyant and imaginative style of play that has inspired today’s young South London talents – Jadon Sancho (Dortmund), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea) and Reiss Nelson (Arsenal), to cite a few. Their very similar style involves constant dribbling, trickery on the wing and blistering pace, and this is no coincidence.

According to Gavin Rose, founder of the London branch of the successful Aspire Academy, a culture exists in South London where a player “who has flair and takes risks with the ball” is tagged as being a good player. Growing up respectively in Kennington, Croydon and Walworth, the three teenagers were brought up in an environment that encouraged skill moves. This even helped them become fan favourites later on as every fan likes witnessing a cheeky nutmeg or roulette at the top level. Furthermore, coaches here are focused on honing skills the player already possesses. Camberwell-born strikers Abraham (Chelsea) or Lookman (RB Leipzig) were not forced to adapt to playing on the wing because of “tradition” and Charlton-academy-graduate defender Joe Gomez (Liverpool) was straight out motivated by his coaches to essentially break the norms and show that south London also creates defensive-minded players.

A few days ago, Crystal Palace revealed plans to develop a £20m academy centre in the suburb of Beckenham, located in south-east London, not far from Bromley and Croydon. Palace intends to catch up to the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Charlton by attracting talented youngsters and nurturing them into top-tier superstars following the example of homegrown Wan-Bissaka, who joined Palace at the age of 12 and was subsequently sold for the impressive price of £50m to Manchester United. Chairman Steve Parish claims that south London’s dense population and love for football is what explains their desire to make it to the top. However, he also admits that it’s the will to “get out of their situation”.

Unfortunately, this might be why south London is unrivalled nowadays in terms of youth development. It often is the players’ background that forces them to grow and mature much quicker than their counterparts from other areas: the common story of “Football to escape poverty and crime”. A reality is that mostly black players come out of these academies as a reflection of the area’s demography. However, that also enables unity, with children having relatable role models with the exact same background as them. Similar to the cases of the Brazilian favelas or Parisian “banlieues”, teenagers in Lewisham or Southwark become independent from a very young age and make life-changing decisions at the age of 17. Considering that the favelas produced Rivaldo, Robinho or Neymar and that the banlieues around Paris produced Thierry Henry, Vieira and Martial (though dozens of other examples exist in both cases), there seems to be a culture of tenacity, bravery and sheer willpower connecting the kids from those three areas.

Even so, the stereotype of English players never or rarely playing abroad is now well and truly broken, especially thanks to London academies. Growing up in cosmopolitan London, young players do not fear foreign leagues as much as before – Sancho, Nelson and Lookman all played successfully in Germany in 2018, while Brockley-born Panzo and Lewisham-born Maja also enjoyed spells in France last year. Parisian banlieues and Amsterdam’s academies might still be creating today’s most talented youngsters, but South London is set to discover tomorrow’s.

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