... But say sponsorship key to its survival
THE Jamaica Football Federation's (JFF) Under-21 League has routinely come under criticism since its inception in the 1999/2000 season.
The chief complaints levelled against the JFF/Premier League Clubs Association (PLCA)-run competition is the high cost of running the competition alongside the Premier League programme.
Considered by many as a waste of time for young players who should be focused on senior football, others bemoan its low standard and have called for it to be scrapped.
However, following last season's competition, a number of Premier League coaches have voiced their support for the league, calling it a transitional aspect of the Premier League which should be properly harnessed.
Harbour View and Portmore United continue to lead the way in helping young players make that transition and have won the premiership with predominantly Under-21 players.
Harbour View's coach Donovan Hayles praised the league, saying it is a great opportunity for young players looking to break into the top competition. However, he believes the PLCA is not doing enough to educate the public on the purpose of the Under-21 league.
Hayles described the league as an extension of the Premier League squads — a reserve league for young players trying to break into the senior teams.
"They get regular match practice under competitive situations so if you have a strong Under-21 team it's up to you to utilise those quality players in the Premier League," he said.
"It's an excellent league... a part of the Premier League squad is constantly gaining experience so that when the coaches look to bring in players... they can look to these players," he explained.
Portmore's coach Calvin Lewis also endorsed the league, pointing out that Portmore always use it to 'blood' future talent. He also sees it as a feeder programme, but believes teams in the top flight should place more emphasis on its development.
"If you look at Portmore and Harbour View, they spend a lot of time developing a good Under-21 programme and Arnett Gardens this season did a very good job and you can see the fruits of that," he said.
"It's the philosophy of Portmore United to make the seniors and Under-21s one team... and most of our squad is made up of Under-21 players... every club in Jamaica should look at developing their Under-21s," he said.
Arnett's Paul 'Tegat' Davis also sees the Under-21 as a feeder tree for his senior team as he used a number of those players in his lineup.
"We have played our Under-21s in the Premier League and have got good results because they wanted to show their senior counterparts they were capable of playing up to standard," he stated.
The main obstacle confronting the league is sponsorship. Of the 12 years the competition has been in existence, only the 2006/2007 season was officially sponsored — by Coca-Cola.
Meanwhile, Hayles argued that separating the Under-21 from the Premier League is a mistake and organisers must make them into one package. He said the premiership will always generate greater interest and support and the latter league can, therefore, benefit from the spin-off.
Lewis acknowledged that the clubs face financial difficulties, which he identified as its Achilles heel.
"The problem most clubs have is financial... game preparation is the same for both teams... so it's not easy sustaining the Premier League and the Under-21 together... That's why the league needs sponsorship," he said.
Davis argued that if the clubs are able to support the Under-21 League financially, both leagues will improve.
"It's very difficult because it has no sponsor and the clubs have to give these players something to encourage them... so the league needs something or somebody to support it...," he said.
While the quality of the league has also come under scrutiny, Hayles insisted a lot of Manning Cup and daCosta Cup players struggle to hold their own in the competition.
He says such criticism is unfair and the country's best young talent should make the league their priority in advancing their careers.
"Manning Cup don't have the quality of our Under-21 league; what it has is more publicity, so it will appear that way... All over the world, you don't find top-quality young players playing schoolboy football; they play in their country's top leagues because that's where their real development is," he said.
Davis echoed those sentiments.
"At 17, 18 or 19 a player should be thinking that he wants to be playing professional football so they can be seen by scouts who are on the lookout for talent," he said.
The three agree that despite its shortcomings, the Under-21 League serves a vital purpose. Hayles believes that with changes, it can improve and suggests organisers allow four players over the age limit to be eligible to play in the league.
"Players who are not getting much playing time in the first team and need game time could play in this league," he said.
Lewis agrees that the league is relevant, but reiterated the need for sponsorship.
"If you look at the big clubs in Europe, they have from U-9s to U-21s and that's where they feed from. They develop and sell players because it's cheaper... that is what this Under-21 League is for," he said..
Davis summed ups by saying the league is the best avenue for players wanting to progress to the Premier League.
"I don't think they can scrap this league because if they get rid of it, they will have to think about something to replace it... all it needs is sponsorship," he said.