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By Sonia Oxley
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - English clubs need to give homegrown players more of a chance because a sanitised approach to youth football is failing to prepare the next generation for first team action, according to former Manchester United defender Gary Neville.
Neville, part of a golden era of United youth products, said promising youngsters seemed to be being lost because they were not given the same chance he had as a teenager to play alongside some of the best players.
"I was playing with Bryan Robson, Mike Phelan, Neil Webb," Neville told delegates at the Soccerex European Forum in Manchester on Thursday.
"There was a real fight. We have sanitised slightly football at that level, we have tried to protect the kids and what we need to do is throw 16/17-year-olds (on) and let them play against men.
"Do 17 and 18-year-olds get that experience that we were able to get? It toughened us up, it made us better. We need to get the best players playing against each other, we need to create a competitive situation for 16 to 20-year-olds so they understand what it's like to play in the first team."
Neville, now assistant coach to the national side, said England should strive to be closer to the situation in Spain, where he said around 63 percent of players were homegrown.
"There's a tipping point we've gone beyond in England that is maybe 20 percent off, we need to give more chance to our own," he said.
"Initially that might create a step backwards ... but the tipping point has gone too far, we are probably harming ourselves a little bit."
He said where the Youth Cup final used to produce two or three first-team players for Manchester United, youngsters appearing in it now were simply vanishing.
"I've watched Chelsea beat Manchester United (in the Youth Cup), I've watched Manchester City beat Manchester United in the Youth Cup semi-finals and finals ... I've seen these players ... where are they?" he said.
"I can't work it out," added Neville, who is now a television pundit. "No one is telling me that there isn't a Gary Neville, a player of equal ability to Gary Neville somewhere in Manchester at the moment.
"The question is, is the talent being produced or is the talent being lost? That is what I can't work out. I think there are definitely pathways being blocked."
(Reporting by Sonia Oxley; Editing by Justin Palmer)