The mark of a good tournament experience is perhaps best reflected in the weeks that immediately follow it. If the afterglow remains, it is usually a sign that something special has taken place, something that will stay with those who took part for days, weeks and months.
The NextGen Series falls into that category. For all its minor faults - and there were some - this elite European youth competition has been a success. It remains in its infancy, and yet its second year produced matches of real quality, uncovered potential stars of the future and created moments of drama, tension and excitement.
It remains in its infancy, and yet its second year produced matches of real quality, uncovered potential stars of the future and created moments of drama, tension and excitement
Even now, many of Arsenal’s young stars still talk fondly about their European adventure, remembering some of the highlights of a thrilling campaign. They reference the backs-to-the-wall win against Athletic Bilbao, the atmosphere at San Mames, the character shown to knock out Inter Milan. They laugh about the time a team-mate’s tracksuit bottoms set on fire. They grimace as they reflect on their semi-final exit at the hands of Chelsea.
They travelled to Greece, France, Spain and Italy. They played in some of the continent’s most revered stadia. They also struggled with some poor pitches. There were questionable refereeing decisions, red cards and much more to deal with over the course of seven months. But most importantly, this thrilling crop of youngsters tasted a European club competition for the first time, and all the highs and lows that come with it.
Terry Burton had the task of navigating the Club’s youngsters through this new terrain, and he was pleased with what the tournament offered. “The aims beforehand were to see us up against top-class opposition. It is still very much about performance, and seeing what your players look like against the best from around Europe.
“We played Athletic Bilbao, Olympiacos, Marseille, Sporting Lisbon, CSKA Moscow - we don't play those teams on a regular basis. So NextGen have provided very good under-19 opposition, which is a vital age and I think they’ve got the age groups right.
We played Athletic Bilbao, Olympiacos, Marseille, Sporting Lisbon, CSKA Moscow - we don't play those teams on a regular basis. So NextGen have provided very good under-19 oppositionTerry Burton
“The way the opposition play, the way they move the ball, the way they defend - you can take a lot from that. Against Sporting [in the third-place play-off] one of the key things we got out of it was their closing down. They are things you have to cope with at the time, and then learn from later.”
For NextGen Series co-founder Justin Andrews, this second season was about expansion. The inaugural competition had seen 16 teams competing, but the 2012/13 campaign saw that number raised to 24 as the likes of Juventus, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain joined Arsenal in entering teams. After a hectic seven months, he told Arsenal.com about his pride at how it has unfolded and his hopes for the future.
“It has been fantastic, there are always bumps in the road but this is a brand-new European tournament,” he said. “The first season was about making it right for football, getting the games programme right and looking at how and if it would develop players.
“It did that, so the second season is about expanding that experience and sharing it with other academies. The football has been brilliant, when you see the teams preparing for it you can see how seriously they take it. The product itself has been the highlight, bar none.
“We came from nowhere, we arrived on the scene like a flying saucer and nobody knew what it was and here we are two seasons later and the press talk about us, the fans talk about us and it is spoken about around the globe. For us as an organisation that is incredible. It is a real high.”
However, there have been problems along the way - not least the quality of the pitches. Arsenal had serious concerns about the state of the turf during the group stage game at Marseille, while the pitch was so waterlogged during the last-16 tie at Inter Milan that it was scarcely believable the match went ahead. Even the pitch at Lake Como for the finals weekend raised eyebrows. So can NextGen take control over that next season?
“When Arsenal played in France, Marseille chose that pitch,” Andrews said. “They are not a small club. People talked about that pitch and the Inter Milan pitch, but they are not a small club either and that game was played at their training academy. The referees and officials made the call to play that game.
You're not going to get manicured lawns everywhere you go... you are going to come up against opposition that don't have the quality of pitch that you doJustin Andrews
“We do look at the standard of pitches, some teams play in main stadia and some don't. Going forward, you would like to gain more control.
“At the same time, the players are going to come up against this. You are not going to get manicured lawns everywhere you go in football, it is just not going to happen. You may want to play 4-3-3 and system football that suits you, but you are going to come up against opposition that don't have the quality of pitch that you do. That is just European football.
“These boys have got to learn that life is not like that, pitches aren’t like that all the time. You have to adapt.”
A far greater problem for Andrews and NextGen is the imminent arrival of Uefa’s very own under-19 tournament, to run concurrently with the Champions League. How much fear is there that this could blow NextGen out of the water?
“I think it’s more of a concern to the clubs - what happens if you do not make the Champions League?” Andrews replied bullishly. “No club can guarantee it will be in the Champions League season-on-season. The general consensus from the clubs that we work with is that they would rather risk playing 12 games in a season, i.e. NextGen games and junior Champions League, than none.
“We are looking at the age group - I think with EPPP and under-18s and under-21s, a lot of the English clubs may like to play older boys. It doesn't work as well in Europe sometimes, Barcelona have Barca B, Sporting Club de Portugal have just entered the new reserve league system. It is changing all the time and we have to adapt to that.
“But the most frustrating thing about the situation is that to hold a tournament, whether it is over two days, one week or one year you have to get Uefa's sanction. We did that through the Football Association and put a lot of time and effort into making sure our application was as articulate as it could be and within the guidelines and rules that they set. They congratulated us and they put us in their magazines to celebrate the invention of NextGen.
“But I don't think it was disseminated through Uefa and once they realised the size of NextGen, they thought they had better do something to counter that. It is extremely annoying for us that our European governing body, which gave us the blessing to go ahead with the tournament, has decided to compete with it.”
Despite his concerns, Andrews remains optimistic about the future and has even talked about taking next season’s finals weekend out to the Middle East.
“Tournament football is about experience,” he said. “You have some really great football in NextGen and places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar - where we have global broadcast - want eyeballs in those locations. It would be a nice marriage.
You have some really great football in NextGen and places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar - where we have global broadcast - want eyeballs in those locations. It would be a nice marriageJustin Andrews
“It could be seen [as incongruous to take a European tournament outside Europe]. But you could also look at it like a warm-weather break. I think it is good for the boys to play in different environments. It is something we have definitely looked at.”
That is an issue for another time. Andrews and NextGen’s more immediate task is to try to see off the challenge from Uefa. But Burton for one hopes that having put so much time and effort in over two successful seasons, this new tournament can stay in business.
“It has been a very good experience,” he said. “They just need to look at the standard of the pitches, because we have had two or three that have not been good.
“But the quality of the opposition has been good and they have done extremely well behind the scenes, the people who make sure your experience is as good as you want it to be. I hope they continue to run the competition.”Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source