Frank de Boer Is Breaking The Barrier For Academy Players At Palace
The Frank de Boer era at Palace has started woefully. Defeats in each of the opening three Premier League games leaves the Eagles nineteenth heading into the international break and the team are yet to adjust to the Dutchman’s ‘total football’ philosophy. However, if there is anything at all positive from the former Ajax boss’ short time in charge, it’s his willingness to promote the club’s young players.
Palace’s history is engraved with success stories from the club’s academy. In the last two decades, the club can boast Wilfried Zaha, Victor Moses, Clinton Morrison, Ben Watson, Nathaniel Clyne and Wayne Routledge from its production line. Each have had accomplished careers in the top tier of English football. Others, such as Sean Scannell, Jonathan Williams and Lewis Grabban, have enjoyed fruitful spells in the lower divisions of the Football League pyramid.
However, the frequency of first team debuts has stalled since promotion in 2013. In the Championship, plenty of Palace managers were keen to promote from within. When appointed in October 2007, Neil Warnock’s aim to decrease the average age of the first team squad led him to asking Under 18s boss, Gary Issott, for the club’s best young players to join the senior side’s training sessions.
Warnock handed no less than six first team debuts in his first season and the club still qualified for the Championship play-offs, proving success and promoting youngsters is not necessarily a case of choosing one or the other. While many made their debuts in 2007-08, others had already made their mark in previous years and were by then key players. Watson and Tom Soares were ever-present in midfield and Morrison, having returned to Palace two years earlier, netted his 100th goal for the club on his way to becoming the club’s leading scorer that season. Moses, Scannell and Lee Hills debuted that season and were also important. To make the play-offs that season with a team so reliant on the academy, and to only just miss out on promotion, was a huge success for the academy and one that was years in the making.
Four years later, Dougie Freedman took similar steps with the youth system, although under slightly different circumstances to those of Warnock. Freedman already had prior knowledge of the set-up having worked as an academy coach towards the end of his playing career. During his time in charge, he handed debuts to Williams and Kyle de Silva, among others, as an alternative to transfers when money was an issue in the early days under the ownership of CPFC2010.
Since promotion, though, low risk and survival has been prioritised over the academy. It’s fair enough when the cost of relegation is vast, but the club’s youth system risks falling further behind its London and Premier League rivals, particularly having been downgraded to a category two academy, playing matches against its Championship and League One equivalents. It was far easier to judge a player’s ability four years ago when the Under 21 side, now Under 23, clashed with Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Now they settle for game time against the likes of Bolton Wanderers, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest.
Ironically, the closest the academy came to repeating its previous glory was when Warnock was re-appointed in 2014. Jake Gray and Sullay Kaikai were given debuts in the League Cup but nobody came close in the Premier League. It wasn’t until January 2016 that the four-year wait for a league debutant was ended when Hiram Boateng played against Swansea City but the midfielder has not featured since. Instead, Kaikai made his league bow four months later and has since appeared sporadically.
Now under the guidance of de Boer, there seems to be a drastic change of attitude towards the academy. De Boer already had a reputation for trusting young players before his arrival in South London, having handed debuts to many now well-established players during his time at Ajax. Included in de Boer’s illustrious list of Ajax debutants is new Palace defender Jairo Riedewald, along with the more familiar Tottenham Hotspur players, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen.
Six of the Eagles’ Under 23 players travelled to Hong Kong for the Premier League Asia Trophy, with five featuring in the games against Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion. Perhaps this was largely due to the sheer lack of depth in the first team squad but de Boer’s comments throughout pre-season suggested that he planned to use the club’s young players as much as possible.
Despite not travelling to Hong Kong, Jason Lokilo has been the academy’s success story of the season so far. The DR Congo youth international impressed against FC Metz before featuring against Schalke at Selhurst Park. The diminutive forward then made his competitive bow in the League Cup against Ipswich Town, ending the twenty month wait since Boateng’s appearance against Swansea.
Lokilo is the most likely to be next in line for a league debut having made the bench in the opening three games, and he probably would have already made it had Palace not been so poor in the early few weeks. Palace have found themselves in need of a goal in each of those matches and de Boer has opted to use the more senior substitutes that have been available.
The former Anderlecht man’s rise to the first team has shocked those who watched him play regularly in the academy. Lokilo has rarely stood out in the Under 23s since his move from the Belgian side, even being demoted to the Under 18s midway through the 2015-16 season.
However, Lokilo’s competent displays for the senior side prove that some players are more suited to first team football than academy football. There have been plenty of other examples of this at Palace in recent times, the most notable being Nathaniel Clyne rated as second choice right-back behind now-Merstham player Michael Abnett in the Under 18s, but it’s a truth that many previous Eagles bosses have tended to ignore. No Palace manager in the last five years has had the courage to gamble with a young player and see whether they are capable of handling the step up. De Boer has changed the game.
Promoting players to his first team squad is not the only impact de Boer has had on the academy in his short time in charge. The Dutchman also ensures the academy sides play with the back three system that he has tried to implement at first team level. The Under 23s played with a 3-4-3 throughout pre-season while Paddy McCarthy’s Under 18s had already begun to use a 3-5-2 system last season and have continued to do so this campaign. This enables the players to understand their role in the system and to be better prepared if they earn a call-up to the senior side.
De Boer also took charge of the development squad’s victory against Maidstone United in pre-season and watched from the stands against Merstham. His hands-on approach with the academy topples anything any previous manager has done since Freedman’s spell.
Freedman’s return to Palace is a big positive for the academy. The former striker has taken up the role of Sporting Director and part of his job will be to oversee the youth system. Freedman had a big impact on several academy graduates, including the likes of Zaha, Moses, Scannell and Williams, and his presence will be beneficial to the current crop of talent.
The academy still has a long way to go before it reaches the heights of a decade ago and it needs to return to category one status as soon as possible. There is clear evidence that there is improvement, such as players being called up to their national sides when previously Palace had gone several years without youth internationals. Lokilo and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have been capped by DR Congo at youth level, while midfielder Nya Kirby has regularly been involved in England squads at different age groups. Players lower down the academy age groups are also beginning to gain international recognition.
While de Boer’s reign could soon come to a premature conclusion if negative first team results continue, if he’s to have any legacy it will be that he tried to cease a barrier facing academy players at Palace. Any future replacement would have to continue the work de Boer has started.