How important are boys in the development of the girls' game? Discussion among the teams who had qualified for the final tournament in Wales suggested that male opposition has a role to play in terms of honing skills, physical condition and competitive spirit. Wales's Jarmo Matikainen, for example, commented that his preparations had included practice matches against boys' teams. Ditto Finland coach Marianne Miettinen. Meanwhile, Norway boss Jarl Torske explained that, at their elite development academies, the most talented girls frequently worked alongside the boys and that, in each of his country's 18 regions, the specialised 'player developer' works with both boys and girls.
Germany's head coach Maren Meinert also advocates male opposition as a useful development tool but emphasises that she takes great care to seek the most appropriate type of opponents. "We play preparation games against Under-15 boys' teams and, to be honest, we find that we gain greater benefits from this than from playing friendlies against national teams from smaller countries. But we very specifically target U15 opponents. We don't want to play against older boys' teams who are much stronger because all that does is to make you focus on defending and surviving. The aim is to allow the girls to test themselves but also to express themselves in terms of creativity and attacking play."
Meinert also pays attention to a hole in the development net which sometimes lets talented youngsters disappear from view. "We've made a point of looking at girls who've played with boys up to the maximum age of 13 and who then decide that they don't really want to play in all-girl teams and often stop playing altogether. They're sometimes the best players. So we ask the clubs to point them out to us and we try to encourage them to stay in the game."
At a time when many national associations are designing or refining their player development projects, the debating point is whether programmes should be based on a girls-only approach. Or should contact with the boys be encouraged? If so, how should this best be structured to guarantee benefits for the growth of the women's game?
What price experience?
"The girls were pretty inexperienced," commented Mo Marley during the finals in south-west Wales. "We're talking about players with no international experience – and the fact that England had a high enough coefficient not to enter the first round of qualifying wasn't exactly an advantage."
Curiously, England opened and closed the tournament against France and, after the group match, Marley remarked: "The goalkeeper made her debut; a central defender; and one of the forwards. We had a debutant in each unit – and that's a big ask against a team of France's quality. They acquitted themselves as best they could." Her opposite number Gilles Eyquem stated: "Against England, the younger ones were a bit surprised by the physical side of the game, so against Denmark I picked the more experienced players who have played in the top league at home."
In point of fact, the French squad contained seven players who had won the FIFA U-17 Women's Cup the previous autumn whereas, as Marley pointed out, "none of the [England] players had played a World Cup and most had never been to a final tournament. But they were fantastic. They applied themselves and believed in what we asked them to do. They showed exceptional resilience and seemed to grow in maturity."
In terms of age, the 2013 squads were more 'experienced' than usual, with an average of 18.6 compared with 18.06 in 2012 and 18.33 in 2011 – Sweden having the highest average age of just under 19. In Wales, 78 of the players (54%) were born in 1994; 49 (34%) in 1995; and 17 (12%) in 1996.
However, from a coaching perspective, experience is not measured in years and months but rather in international tournaments. "As our U17s hadn't qualified for final rounds, we were a bit short on this," said Marley. "Also, our young players who were in adult squads at their clubs weren't getting that much playing experience. So we had to look three years down the line and work on promoting a gradual rise."
In this respect, the coaches in Wales agreed unanimously that UEFA's youth development tournaments and the expansion of the Women's U17 finals to eight teams are steps in the right direction. Yet the issue of 'experience' inevitably leads back to the age-old question about whether the WU19 tournament is about results or development. One talking point is to what extent experience is a valuable asset on the pitch. Another is whether experience is a key element in obtaining results at this tournament – or whether the WU19 finals are simply an opportunity to gain invaluable know-how.
"Our two star players are not here – and that makes us proud." This seemingly contradictory sentence was pronounced by Norway coach Torske. The stellar duo were striker Ada Hegerberg (born 10/7/95) and wide attacker Caroline Hansen (18/2/95), who had jointly made 11 starts (out of the 12 possible) for Norway's silver-medal senior side at UEFA Women's EURO 2013. UEFA's new player protection norm ruled them out of the championship in Wales – and nobody in Norway or elsewhere would argue against that.
Germany coach Meinert likewise made no complaints about being deprived of midfielder Melanie Leupolz (14/4/94) or striker Sara Däbritz (15/2/95). UEFA's policy of allowing players to participate in only one UEFA women's national team final tournament per season received widespread support from the coaches in Wales. There were, however, some shades of meaning to be drawn. Däbritz, for example, totalled just 33 minutes in two appearances as sub in Sweden, while Denmark coach Søren Randa-Boldt took his squad to Swansea without key midfielder Karoline Smidt Nielsen (12/5/94) whose match action at the senior EURO had been restricted to the last five minutes of the group game against Finland.
According to the UEFA directive distributed at the end of May 2013, the number of minutes played is irrelevant. The text clarifies that "the word 'participate' includes being on a player list for a final tournament. It is irrelevant whether a player has been fielded or not." The fact of being away from home and/or studies for a significant period is evidently a factor to be taken into account over the debating table. On the other hand, Meinert commented that "we also take note that there are players who need tournament experience to continue their development". And for Wales coach Matikainen, "not all national associations have strong league structures, so the international tournaments are the focal point of player development and set benchmarks. We need to be careful we're not protecting the players from the wrong thing."
Player protection is undeniably a prime concern. A talking point, however, is whether it was fair for the regulations to exclude Denmark's young player of the year from the event in Wales? And, even though the youth protection policy is a highly laudable concept, is there room in the regulations for some small print?