x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

More Watts and Sterlings can light up this NextGen series

The event that has unearthed 'potential stars' in just two years is finding many suitors, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Tony Watts, third from right, scored the matchwinner in Celtic Glasgow's 2-1 shock win over Barcelona in the Champions League. Scott Heppell / AP Photo
Tony Watts, third from right, scored the matchwinner in Celtic Glasgow's 2-1 shock win over Barcelona in the Champions League. Scott Heppell / AP Photo

When 18-year-old Tony Watt fired Glasgow Celtic to a memorable and unexpected victory over Barcelona in the Champions League group stages last November, two men in England let out a whispered whoop.

Justin Andrews and Mark Warburton, the founders of the embryonic NextGen Series, were already well aware of Watt's prowess in front of goal, having watched the Scot score twice against Barcelona's youth team during the inaugural Under 19 tournament the previous season. Now, however, Watt had done it again, but this time against the Spaniards' first team.

"It was amazing; probably one of our proudest moments," Andrews told The National.

"The thing about it is that our tournament is giving these boys the chance. The managers watch them play and they can see the boys are ready. Guys like Tony Watt and Raheem Sterling [of Liverpool], it gives them a chance and that is of incredible benefit to the clubs."

Watt and Sterling are far from the only success stories with roots in the inaugural NextGen season, which launched with the objective of replicating the Uefa Champions League by providing the continent's finest young players with the opportunity to regularly face other quality clubs from around Europe.

When Inter Milan won the tournament after beating Ajax on penalties, the Italian side's president, Massimo Moratti, was so impressed he promoted the youth team coach, Andrea Stramaccioni, to the first team.

"Inter Milan were playing Juventus away that day in what is a massive game in northern Italy, but Moratti turned up in London to attend our match instead," Andrews said. "Then, off the back of Inter's win, he fired [Claudio] Ranieri and gave Stramaccioni the job for his performance in our tournament. For me, that was incredible."

Andrews and Warburton launched their youth champions league in 2011 with 16 teams involved. This year, they expanded the competition to 24 clubs. From next year, the hope is to continue growing and expand to 32 teams.

"I will not miss a game, believe me, "Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager said, before his club began their debut campaign at the start of the 2012 season. "I will watch every game because I want to see what other clubs have, what is going on and if there is an evolution with some players."

As well as numerically, NextGen is keen to expand geographically too. Talk of a NextGen Asia series is premature, Andrews said, but the Englishman will visit the Middle East this week in the hope of tying up a deal to host this season's semi-finals and final either in the UAE or in Qatar in late March.

"We have had a lot of calls and interest from the Middle East as NextGen has grown," said Andrews, who notes players competing in NextGen this year are likely to be hitting their peak in 2022, when Qatar hosts the Fifa World Cup.

"I don't know why, but we seem to have hit a note in the region. Maybe it's because potential stars of tomorrow compete in it or maybe it's because we are quite fortuitous in that if we are invited to play outside Europe, we can. A lot of the other competitions can't do that."

He added: "We have been through the levels that you have to go through in the UAE, the steps you have to take to get to the right people; and I think we are making positive headway."

As The National revealed last year, the UAE had expressed interest in hosting the 2012 final, but teams were keen to play the inaugural final in Europe.

Now, however, Andrews is confident a deal - which he said would involve a hosting fee in excess of £1 million (Dh5.82m) and global television and press coverage - can be struck.

"Two key things have changed," he said. "We spent about two years conceptualising and then one year making sure it was right for football and that the teams would engage in it. That was really successful - beyond our expectations.

"I mean, we thought we would be playing in training grounds, but by the end the clubs were pushing us to play in main stadiums: Anfield, Wolfsburg, Villa Park …

"Secondly, last season, NextGen was an unknown quantity. Now, the fact the players really enjoy it and the clubs get value out of it, it's given us a lot more sway, so we can say 'What about playing in the Middle East?' and they are more receptive."

Last year's NextGen final was held in London and attended by around 7,000 spectators, while earlier this year, Tottenham Hotspur's group clash with Barcelona attracted more than 15,000 fans, as well as being watched on television in Europe by 655,000 people, according to Eurosport.

"As it stands, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and two European cities have shown interest and now it's a matter of deciding which host city would be the best fit," Andrews said. "We are hoping to have everything confirmed within three weeks."

Which will coincide nicely with the resumption of Celtic's - and Watt's - Champions League campaign. Another whoop is in the offing.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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