MK Dons - Saturday 3rd September 2011

In European football last week it was all about the Champions League and the Europa League draws, but another competition had already begun the week before that, that being the inaugural NextGen series, a new European football club cup competition for under-19 footballers. The competition, somewhat surprisingly having been dreamt up by of all people former Watford academy manager and current Brentford sporting director Mark Warburton, this season comprising of in Group 1 – Barcelona, Celtic, Manchester City and Marseille, in Group 2 – Liverpool, Molde, Sporting Lisbon, Wolfsburg, in Group 3 – Ajax, Aston Villa, Fenerbahce and Rosenborg, and then finally in Group 4 – Basel, Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham Hotspur.

Those teams playing each other home and away in normal format over six games up to the end of November with the top two from each group then qualifying for the finals event, with the finals pencilled in to be played in Abu Dhabi, the traditional hotbed of European football if I remember rightly, in January 2012. Those finals seeing the eight teams play a knock-out format although each team will play three matches to determine their final placing between first and eighth, which doesn’t sound much like a knock-out situation to me but maybe I was scratching my name in the desk with a compass when they were discussing that bit.

It’s the normal blurb you would expect on the NextGen website as well: “For young talents The NextGen Series represents the unique opportunity to experience all aspects of a competitive, large international tournament. The challenges they will be facing, like adapting to unfamiliar styles of play, prolonged periods of travel and “two match weeks”, will help them when making the transition to the first team. For football fans the tournament is a great opportunity to watch young talents in the making and to experience the new football stars of the future.”

That’s for the only clubs invited into the competition of course, although the choices this year were apparently influenced by the quality of each club’s academy. With that in mind though plans are afoot to increase the competition to a 24 club format for the 2012-13 season, no doubt so the other big boys looking in who want to play, like AC Milan, Chelsea Manchester United, Real Madrid to name but four can all jump aboard. Manchester City apparently the major players in the development of the tournament having last year played Ajax in a friendly in Amsterdam.

As far as player ages are concerned, the rules on the NextGen website state that: “All players must be born on or after January 1st 1993 although 3 players are allowed who are born on or after January 1st 1992. The inclusion of the 3 older players is an ‘option’ for each participating club and not a stipulation.” So, even with my mathematics I think that makes it a definite 15 of your 18 matchday squad players allowed that are going to be aged either 18 or 19 during the first stage of the tournament, and then some of those 15 perhaps being 20 by finals time.

One question for other clubs, mainly at our level though, is with Aston Villa, Celtic, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham already involved, with surely other big boys to follow from Britain, is where does that leave us all as far as loan signings are concerned? We had quite a few of those signings of that age last season who we probably wouldn’t get in the future, certainly during the first part of a campaign, as they will be required to play in the NextGen series by their clubs, and with four substitutes available instead of the normal three it could mean that even more youngsters are needed for the competition.

But, now with only five substitutes allowed on a Football League bench is there going to a requirement for clubs at our level to have as many as loan signings as they have previously had anyway? So, could it be a situation that ends up suiting big clubs as far as their youngsters getting stronger opposition experience is concerned, while for lower league clubs it makes little difference in the long run? Who knows at the moment is the sadly all too obvious answer but the situation of having a European competition that is by invitation only does rather fill me with a little bit of fear, the Champions League is rigged towards the big boys enough already without starting to totally exclude clubs who have actually won their league title.