Chris Ramsey points at the cracked screen of his touch-pad where two pyramids represent the priorities of the first team and the development team. The first team’s pyramid is pointed side down. At the bottom, the least important aspect of the first team is the individual. In the middle is the team performance and at the top, the widest segment of all, is the result. The development pyramid is inverted. Here the result is the least important aspect, then the team performance and then, broadest of all, is the individual. And on this notion rests the crux of Ramsey’s philosophy.
Now Technical Director at Queens Park Rangers, Ramsey arrived at Tottenham in 2005, working under John McDermott on a newly inaugurated 12-year plan of technique-focused youth development. That plan has now reached completion in spectacular style: Harry Kane is one of Europe’s hottest strikers, Danny Rose has become one of the nation’s finest left-backs and Harry Winks has broken into the England side alongside former Spurs youngster Jake Livermore. A host of fresh names await in the wings: Kyle Walker-Peters, Josh Onomah, Cameron Carter-Vickers and perhaps the jewel in the crown, the exciting Marcus Edwards.
Ramsey was there almost every step of the way, rising up with the players from the academy and eventually working as the assistant manager under Tim Sherwood as Kane broke into the first team. But it hasn’t always been easy. For Ramsey, as the pyramids demonstrate, the development of the individual comes first. Not the result.
“When you’re in the first team, you have to win,” Ramsey tells ESPN FC. “If you play terribly and still win, people will forgive you. But in development, the performance is for the player; the result is for the coach. If I want to win more than I want those players to develop, sure, we might win the youth league. But eventually, those players won’t make the grade.”
Clubs and supporters take great pride in the results of their youth teams, citing their trophy hauls as evidence of their club’s wisdom and far-sightedness. But Ramsey believes that emphasis is misplaced. He mentions with pride one youth tournament in which Spurs performed well but finished seventh. Barcelona, who operate with similar emphasis, finished eighth.
“You get these young coaches and they think ‘I want to be [Jose] Mourinho, I want to be [Antonio] Conte’ but are those managers the best role models for developers? No, because their parameters are different to our parameters. They’re trying to win the game, they’re not trying to develop players. They don’t care about that.”
“When I go and coach the Under-11s and we lose, their coach might think ‘Oh, that Chris Ramsey’s no good, we beat them 5-0.’ But we’re focused on developing. I might be telling my players just to express themselves.
“We do a thing where we manipulate things so if the game is getting too easy, we change it so they can only play on their wooden side. Or we’ll take somebody off. Simulate a red card or take somebody off as if they are injured. Or play two at the back, I see youth teams now putting on players in the 88th minute — what’s that about? Their coach might be saying, ‘We’ve beaten him!’ But what I’m saying is, you’ve not beaten me. You’ve not helped your players.”
At the end of the 2004-05 season, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy brought in coach John McDermott and tasked him with revitalising the youth development programme. McDermott brought in Ramsey and they laid out the plan. Ramsey repeatedly stresses that Spurs’ success on this front is a group effort brought about by the efforts of many people, including Perry Suckling who transformed the way the goalkeepers play, Richard Allen who excelled in recruitment, as well as Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand, who oversaw the final stages of development.
The focus was firmly upon technique. Young players were recruited or retained for their technical ability, not physical attributes, and up until the age of 10, technique was the primary focus. Progression was partly dictated by a strength based capability assessment, meaning that smaller players might be held back, but generally it wasn’t until the age of 11 when the players moved around the pitch to assess their positional strengths. At 14, players with as many as six years of
“Because you’ve got technique, you can be moved around,” says Ramsey. “We teach the principles of defensive and attacking play, but we work mainly on attacking.”
But it was Ramsey’s approach to matches that caused the most consternation. Defensive tactics were considered counter-productive. If an opposing team, for example, had a devastating left-winger, Ramsey would pointedly not protect the right-back by bringing in support from another player to double-man the threat. He wanted his right-back to be exposed. He wanted his right-back to evolve.
“We picked systems to allow the players maximum one vs. ones all over the pitch. The way we played, there was no hiding place. You always get the ball. You are always working. So we’re not putting holding midfielders in. We’re just letting their forward get the ball so that our defender has to defend. So when you do work on tactics when you’re older, it’s easier because you’ve been brought up having to cope without them.”
Not everyone understood. Parents, appalled that their offspring weren’t winning trophies, complained. But so did other people within the club including, on occasion, unnamed first-team managers. Fortunately, Levy resisted the urge to make changes, which was always Ramsey’s biggest fear.
“That’s the problem. People stop halfway through something like this and then start again. But what do you want? Do you want to develop players or do you want to win matches? I’m not saying it’s all right to lose. I’m not saying that at all. All players want to win. You pick two teams from a primary school and they’ll all want to win. I’m saying that the priority is to develop.”
Ramsey reaches for the touch pad again and pulls up the team sheet for a youth game between Brentford and Arsenal in 2005. Arsenal lost the game on penalties and the result caused a stir in the development community. But only a handful of Brentford’s players went on to play lower or non-league football; the majority never made the grade and slipped out of the game. By contrast, Arsenal’s team that day featured the likes of Alex Song, Fabrice Muamba, Nicklas Bendtner and Henri Lansbury.
“Who won the game?” asks Ramsey. “Twelve years on, who cares?”
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.