I have read a number of articles on the Relative Age Effect (RAE) in youth football. Most of this research uses the quantitative approach, a numbers game. It looks at what has happened rather than what could happen. It is well documented that players in representative international teams and professional clubs have higher numbers born in the first quartile of the year. This could be September to December for schools in England and January to March for countries that date age groups by calendar rather than school years. It is common for scouts, coaches and teachers to recognise that the older players are more advanced (across the four corners) than their fourth quartile contemporaries. Not surprising really when there can be anything up to a year in age difference and subsequently short term advancement in levels of development. Short term is the key word here. The problem is that we may never know the impact of this short term difference in development as over the longer term at the moment, those born in the latter part of the year are the players most likely to 'drop out' of football (and other team based sports) because of a perceived weakness in skill, strength, size, speed or other areas of development.
The FA attempted to look at the affects of 'birth bias' in it's recent review of youth football. This appears to have been a step too far for some and the proposals have been dropped from the overall review process. The idea was to have schools and grassroots youth football with two intake dates, September to August (the current system) and January to December as a way of shifting and spreading the RAE more evenly. It would have been interesting to see what happened because of this shift. Would it simply move the problem? Would it actually prove that a large number of footballers born between July and September have been neglected and cast aside simply because they have missed out on nine months of practice? Does this result in always playing catch up and subsequently being lost to the game? For now we will not know and I for one am disappointed as I feel it is an area that needs a more pragmatic, practical research approach.
So what can be practically done? It would be intriguing to be involved in a practical approach at some point in the future, but, until then I thought I would share what this approach may look like.
1. Using existing recruitment practice, take a group of Under 9 footballers and commit to developing them over a period (preferably through a defined physical maturation period) using a consistent methodology, a consistent group of coaching and sports science staff and have this group act as a 'control' group. It would then be interesting to see the birth bias in this group. Are the majority of players in the September to December birth range?
2. At the same time, identify a group of players who are playing in the grassroots game but are considered not to be ready for recruitment into an Academy Under 9 team. Ideally, these players would be in the third and fourth quartiles (April to end of August) and would act as the 'experimental' group. Again, commitment to development using the same methodology and same coaching and sports science staff through the same time period for those in the 'control' group.
This may be seen as simplistic but has it ever been tried? It would be difficult for any club to take this on as a proposal because of the obvious financial, practical and logistical difficulties but surely somebody with the will and the way could have a go?
I for one would be intrigued by the outcome. Would the bias disappear over the period in question? Would one group be identified as being more advanced than the other at the end of the period in time?
What I know for sure is that instead of having a group of around 16 players who have developed together using a consistent methodology you would have another 16 who have done the same thing without being considered not 'good enough' and therefore lost to the game for nothing more than the month of the year they happened to be born in. From a practical and some might say selfish point of view, the club in question would then have a group of 32 to make their final decision on with regard to moving into the later stages of the youth development phase and into the professional development phase. You never know, the majority of them may come from the 'experimental' group.