This week was all about the elite side of European club football as the Champions League resumed, but it was future of English football that the Premier League was trying to champion on Monday when it announced plans to overhaul England’s academy system. The football modernist’s view is that young players need to reach the top clubs as early as possible in their careers in order to maximise their potential. It’s a theory backed up by some weighty evidence in the form of World and European Champions, Spain, with the majority of their first XI supplied by Barcelona’s much vaunted academy. That’s fine as a theory, but it’ll take more than that to convince me that entrusting the future development of England players to the Premier League is without risk.
The argument that coaching is in need of an overhaul is harder to dispute, but I see no reason why players cannot flourish at a smaller club with a high quality coaching set up. Watford’s Harefield Academy is starting to bear fruit, and shows what can be done without Premier League big money.
Premier League squad sizes have ballooned in recent years. Many of those that aren’t registered as part of the first team squad of 25 players are young professionals trying to make the step up. Maintaining a large talent pool doesn’t come cheap, but clubs are essentially speculating on potential that will evolve into a genuine asset. The risk of missing out is too great, so the biggest clubs are engaged in a no holds barred fight to accumulate the best young talent.
This trend is important because it has an impact on both players and clubs. Player sales may bring much needed revenue to the selling club, but regardless of the financial scenario, it is almost impossible to prevent a player from leaving a football league side or less successful Premier League club if one of the big boys come knocking. I might be taking a selfish position here, but I think fans of the selling club are often getting short changed. For example, I’d be interested to know how Southampton fans feel about Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale who had barely started their first team careers before they were sold (20 appearances for Walcott; 40 for Bale). I know they had plenty of board room issues at St Mary’s, but if I was a Saints fan I’d be gutted I didn’t get to see Bale and Walcott playing together for a season or two.
It’s bad enough that players move on after a handful of first team appearances, but now they’re moving before they’ve even pulled on a first team shirt. Football has changed, so the odds are more heavily stacked against clubs with smaller resources than ever before. If they can’t keep hold of their best young players before they’ve even turned pro, then what chance have they got?
Only yesterday the papers were full of excitement at Liverpool’s teenage wunderkind, Raheem Sterling, who they signed from QPR. Now, QPR aren’t exactly short of few bob, but they too were powerless to prevent the player moving, as explained by QPR’s head of youth development, Steve Gallen:
Sterling hadn’t signed professional terms with QPR, so ultimately there was nothing the club could do to prevent him leaving.
The case of John Bostock is a similar and often cited example. Considered to be a talent with huge potential, he made his debut for Crystal Palace aged just 15 in October 2007; months later he was off to Tottenham following an acrimonious transfer. Four years later, Bostock has recently returned early from a loan spell for the second time in his career. He is still young and could yet flourish at Tottenham, but it raises the question of how he would have developed had he remained at Palace and experienced a gradual introduction to first team football.
Bostock and Sterling’s transfers are examples of the aggressive scouting of players before they sign first year professional forms. This can obviously save the buyer a significant fee in the long term, for example, Sterling cost £500k, and Bostock around £700k, compared to the £5 million Arsenal paid Cardiff for 17 year old Aaron Ramsey. Watford lost Harry Forrester – a highly rated England youth international - to Aston Villa under similar circumstances. He was already on the fringes of Watford’s first team squad as a teenager. Now aged 20, Forrester boasts seven appearances on loan at Kilmarnock as the sum total of his first team experience.
The argument that players will improve more quickly in the surroundings of an established Premier League set up is flawed. Theo Walcott is undoubtedly talented, but only now, five years after his transfer, is he starting to prove his worth consistently. If there has been problem with Walcott, it has been his inability to impose himself on a match, not his technical ability as a footballer. But it’s difficult to accumulate much needed experience at a club like Arsenal when the stakes are that much higher. The fact he is starting to fulfil his potential may owe much to the patience and attitude of his manager, but few Premier League managers share Arsene Wenger’s enthusiasm for developing young players. It makes me wonder where Walcott’s career would be had he signed for a different club in 2006, like Chelsea, for example?
It sounds incredibly naive and old fashioned to think a talented young player might remain at a smaller club until they were ready to move on. It used to happen; Paul Gascoigne played almost 100 games for Newcastle; Gary Lineker made almost 200 appearances for Leicester; and John Barnes had six years at Watford before his transfer to Liverpool. In the current climate you could not envisage any of the above completing more than a season before being snapped up by a bigger club. Is this because we know more about developing talent, or is it simply because the stakes are so much higher and money talks?
The Premier League is presenting its plans as a blueprint to get the best out of English talent. I’m just not buying that. Yes, we can improve coaching a great deal, but excuse my cynicism if I think the Premier League clubs aren’t going to make developing English players their number one priority. Young English players at the biggest clubs will run into the same problem they always do: limited first team opportunities. Can the improvement in coaching and development really be achieved alongside the high stakes winner-takes-all mentality of the Premier League? And what effect will it have on the Football League if fans are denied one of their most universally appreciated joys – being entertained by home grown players?
The transient nature of most modern football careers mean those players that represent their original club are always likely to command a higher status with fans, and those that are exceptionally gifted even more so. Sadly, when a real talent comes along at a football league club, its fans had better make sure they catch a glimpse while they can, because the way things are going they’re unlikely to have many opportunities. But don’t take my word for it, listen to this guy:
“It has become all about resources. Clubs can now buy so many players that 10 or 20 guys who could be top players elsewhere cannot play.” Johan Cruyff