Deepening youth development culture in NPFL clubs

By Clement Nwankpa Jr

The future of the beautiful game is in the youth. Every nation that aspires to excel in international football must evolve a system that ensures regular supply of fresh talents.

Nigeria has won the U-17 World Championship a record five times. Ironically, this has not reflected in the nation's performances at the World Cup. This has led to a clamour for a more institutionalised process that guarantees a regular supply of quality young talents.


There have also been concerns over the ageing players paraded by Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) clubs. The production chain of younger players appeared broken as the same players are recycled by the clubs every season.

"We have to ensure the average ages of our teams are reduced. We have ageing teams and there is a need to freshen up the teams. I also think it has affected our performance in the continental tournaments", LMC Chairman, Shehu Dikko said in a recent interview with the media.

It is a challenge that the League Management Company (LMC) recognized over the years and in 2015, it made provision for clubs in the NPFL to register five players below 18 years outside the stipulated 35 players a club could register for the season. For any of those player under the age of 18 that a club fields for fifteen minutes, the club gets N100,000 and N200,000 if such a player sees 45 minutes of action. These incentives have encouraged the clubs to dig deeper and unearth players from the junior teams.

A club can register maximum of 35 senior players for a season and assign jersey numbers 1 to 35 to such players while those of the U-18 are assigned numbers 36 to 40.

It is one thing to put this rule; it is another to ensure the clubs have a functional system that aids the process. Desirous of making a success of building a structured youth football culture for NPFL, the LMC sought to assist the clubs set up virile feeder teams by organising the maiden edition of the U-15 Future Promises tournament. The 20 NPFL clubs compulsorily fielded teams in the tournament won by Abubakar Bukola Saraki (ABS) FC. Players selected from this tournament recently represented the country in a two-legged friendly against Morocco in Rabat.

Earlier in March, the NPFL U-17 All Stars had featured in the Future Champions Tournament in Gauteng South Africa. The team paraded U17 players picked from the NPFL clubs in the tournament which had U-17 teams of Torino, Athletico Madrid, Spartak Moscow, Mamelodi Sundowns, Club Brugge, Orlando Pyrates, Club Tijuana, University of Pretoria, Football School of India and Bitwest Wits.

The clubs now have an incentive to make their feeder teams stronger and regularly promote products to the main team so as to utilise the U-18 quota.


A survey showed that all the NPFL clubs are taking advantage of this provision. Beyond adding depth and freshness to their squads, it has also helped save cost of purchasing established players. Notably, Kano Pillars latched on this to introduce Nazifi Yahaya at a time the ageing team was in dire need of fresh legs. Yahaya was a standout performer in NPFL U-17 All Stars squad to Gauteng. There are many such cases in clubs such as El-Kanemi Warriors, Nasarawa United, ABS, Shooting Stars and Akwa United that elevated a number of young players to their main squad.


Chairman of the Club Owners Association and Nasarawa United Chairman, Barrister Isaac Danladi believes the exercise has been a success. In his opinion, it has made the clubs even stronger and more viable.

"We are reaping bountifully from this initiative. The first choice keeper of the NPFL U-17 All Stars to South Africa, Mohammed Galadima is from our feeder team. This season, he is pushing seriously to take over in the main team. You need to see him during preseason", Danladi said.

He revealed that the Solid Miners will register six players from the U-15 team that played in NPFL U-15 Future Promises for next season.

"This is something all the clubs should key into. It is one of the best decisions LMC has taken to protect the future of Nigerian football and we should help it succeed. I am willing to go the extra mile at Nasarawa next season. We have to give the youths a chance", he added.


Abia Warriors chairman, Chief Emeka Inyama sees the programme as a masterstroke.

His words: "To say this is a huge success is an understatement. It is the norm across the globe and LMC must be commended for resorting to best global practices. For a club to be truly professional, it must have a functional feeder team and a process that ensures players consistently graduate from feeder to main teams. That is what is obtainable in other leagues where the future is of paramount importance. Ours shouldn't be different.

"For this season, we intend having as many as four U-18 players. At least, two will be promoted from the feeder team to join the two we promoted last season. Here at Warriors, we encourage the youth and this LMC initiative is highly welcome. Any club that doesn't key into it is missing a lot. In the long run, you will find out others have overtaken you. That is the way to go in the modern game."

He continued: "You need to have players who grow up with a club's orientation. It's as if they have this clubs in their DNAs. Wayne Rooney started from Everton and after his sojourn at Manchester United, he has gone back to Everton. It was the same thing with Pep Guardiola and Barcelona. We have to encourage homegrown talents.

"This has led us to set up an U-13 team. The boys are all in Secondary Schools and they train twice on week days and on weekends. The ones in boarding schools join them on weekends. We have established the Abia Warriors Football Academy to be unveiled in the next two weeks".


Elsewhere, Plateau United did not win a historic top flight title with hundred percent established players. They also took advantage of the U-18 window. An exercise, club General Manager, Pius Henwan doesn't regret.

"We can't keep using the same set of players in the league every season. By the way, the ones that are stars today were once like these ones. We played about five last season. There are about two who didn't impress last season. We intend to drop them and promote another two that we have discovered from the feeder team. The prominent ones among those we used last season were Mafeng Pam and Damian Longmiap.

"We have a very strong feeder team and we encourage the team to play tournaments both within and outside Plateau. That is the only way you can be sure the supply is not cut", he observed.

Henwan doesn't believe the boys are too young to be involved on the continent.

"If they are good enough to win the league, they are good enough to play in the Champions League. We will register at least three or four of them for our continental assignment. That is another way to speed up their growth", he enthused.


One club renowned for recruiting the best legs in the land are, two-time African champions, Enyimba International. This time they are not left out in the harvest from the feeder teams. Enyimba Sporting Director, Jude Anyadufu spoke glowingly of the initiative.

"This is a fantastic idea by the LMC. In one of the CAF club seminars I represented Enyimba in Egypt, I had told them about this U-18 initiative in our league while calling on CAF to give such incentives for U-18 players fielded in continental matches. They applauded it and based on that, LMC Chief Operating Officer, Salihu Abubakar was invited to deliver a paper on players licensing and given an award.

"Clubs should dig deep and groom their own players instead of going into the market all the time. One of the U-18 players we registered last season, Ikouwem Udoh is actually benching Chima Akas at the left back. The boy did so well last season and that has made us to start looking at two more players from the feeder team for next season. The two players recommended from the feeder team are Paschal Eze, a central defender and Energy Akwaji, a defensive midfielder. They are with us on our preseason tour and should be involved this season", he pointed out.


Despite being relegated at the end of the season, ABS Director of football, Alloy Chukwuemeka believes the club reaped most from the U-18 initiative last season.

He said: "You know our U-15 team won the NPFL U-15 Promises and we produced the most valuable player in Olusegun Olakunle. You will agree with me that a team that turned in such a result should have quality players. We cashed in on the rules and promoted three of the boys to the main team right away. Playing in the NPFL gave them more confidence.

"As I speak with you, 16 of our players have joined NPFL clubs so we have fallen back on the three players from the U-15 team with additional six from the feeder team, making it nine. Added to the players we retained, this has helped us cushion the effect of the exodus as we strategize to bounce back to NPFL. So I will say the programme has helped us tremendously".

He believes LMC's move was in the best interest of Nigerian football.

"Since we don't have a well structured youth development system, this initiative by LMC is very timely. The NFF and our age group national team coaches should key into this. It has made their task easier", he advised.


Rangers produced the top scorer of the U-15 Promises in the free-scoring Million Koma while central defender Chukwuemeka Egbuchulam captained the U-15 selected to Morocco. There are plans to get these two involved in the main team next season. This much was revealed by Team Manager, Amobi Ezeaku.

"We used one of the slots last season to feature goalkeeper, Chisom Chiaha. We intend using all the five slots this season. We are encouraged by the quality of players in our feeder team", he observed.

He believes the initiative will accelerate the development of the players.

"It is beneficial on two fronts; the psychological and physical development of players. When a player trains with professionals, his morale is boosted. Then physically, his muscles are toughened and his game improves. This (the initiative) is a wonderful idea."

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