An Indian referee, Crystal John, and an assistant, Ujjal Haldar, were among match officials in Leicester on Wednesday when Bengaluru FC reserves were hosted by Leicester City’s under-19s. Two more match officials from India, referee Harish Kundu and assistant Vairamuthu Parasuram, and Kerala Blasters’ reserves are in England for the Next Generation Cup also featuring five Premier League academy sides and a team from South Africa.
As part of the tour of England, a consequence of the mutual cooperation between Premier League and Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), Kundu has officiated in a friendly between Bengaluru FC reserves and Wimbledon’s under-19 side. FSDL, a joint-venture between Reliance and Star, runs the Indian Super League (ISL), India’s top football competition for men.
“Our partnership is about growing the game in India,” said Neil Saunders, director of football in the Premier League. “Specifically, we have focused on players, coach and referees’ development,” he said, in a Zoom call on Wednesday.
Since it began in 2014, the relationship between the Premier League and ISL has grown, he said. In the aspect of players’ development, it started with friendlies between age-specific teams of ISL clubs and the Reliance Young Champs, said Saunders. It then became a competition between under-14 sides from Premier League clubs and ISL academies before developing into an event where the top two in the first Reliance Foundation Development League play under-19 teams from the Premier League in London and Leicester, he said.
Bengaluru FC won the league for under-21 players and Blasters were runners-up last season. On Wednesday, Bengaluru FC lost 3-6 to Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur beat Kerala Basters 7-0. The final set of games are on Saturday.
“Opportunities to play matches abroad and competitions is key to players’ development and the Next Generation Cup provides those. The third part is social and holistic development as people of these young players,” said Saunders.
“The coaches are also gaining an opportunity to develop skills and benchmark themselves against some of the English coaches,” he said.
Knowledge sharing and best practice initiatives, which were delivered online in 2020 and 2021, will continue, said Saunders, 39.
A former professional footballer and an England futsal international, Saunders was previously head of youth in the Premier League. Apart from trying to develop more home-grown players, the job description entailed working with academies on all areas of youth development. Given that an overwhelming number of cadets don’t play Premier League first team football – a January 2022 report at inews.co.uk said 97% don’t play a minute and that 70% are not offered contracts –there is a lot of attention on education at the academies.
“Our clubs work extremely hard to make sure that all of the boys in the academy system, regardless of whether they become professionals or not, are better off for the experience at the academy. One of the things we do is adopt a holistic approach and that means we support the development of the young person first because we believe that will support the development of the young player. That’s a key pillar on which all of our youth development activity is founded,” he said.
The message going to parents is that if their son comes into a Premier League academy, the club is going to support their development on and off the pitch, said Saunders. “Formal education is one key part of that. We have seen our boys outperform national benchmarks in English and maths in different age groups and more boys taking a broader range of academic options.”
The Premier League academies’ education programme was rated ‘outstanding’ in 2010 and 2017 by UK government agency the Office of Standards in Education, Children Services and Skills, according to the league’s website.
The framework of rules of Premier League academies are shared with ISL, said Saunders.
He said there was no plan to try and help cadets from Indian academies train at Premier League clubs. Fifa rules don’t permit travel for those below 18 and then “under immigration rules, they need to achieve a certain level of performance.”