The Great English Talent Race

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.

Sadly, Bale on the left and Walcott on the right was never seen at St Mary's Stadium

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:

“We did everything we could to keep him, it broke my heart to lose him but I think his advisers realised there was money to be made.”

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

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14 Responses to The Great English Talent Race

  1. Tim says:

    Very interesting article, Mr Moruzzi. Just one thought about it being impossible for clubs to keep hold of these players – they could if the players decided to stay. Yes, there is no doubt a lot of pressure from the money men, but it is ultimately their choice whether to take their chance at a big club (and who they appoint as an agent or advisor). The players are taking a risk as well as the clubs, but could this be because the top-flight clubs rarely by players (over 21 at least) from lower league clubs these days?

    And no doubt Southampton fans would enjoy watching Bale and Walcott, but fans soon move on, in my experience. It provides a chance for the next group of young players to come through after all.

    Final point – young players who don’t make it often drift back down the league so fans still get to watch them. I can think of several ex-bright young things at Liverpool at lower league clubs. So while Saints fans may not watch Bale each week, Sheffield Wednesday fans get to watch Neil Mellor, erm I’ve talked myself into a cul de sac there…

  2. Darren Truswell says:

    Good article again Michael, and this is a conversation a few of us have had down the pub before a QPR match.

    Like you say in your article, young players are being snap up from so called”smaller clubs” at a very quick rate these day and as result of this, not only do clubs and fans suffer, but so does the England National side, so why don’t the FA try and do something about this?

    Why don’t the FA impose a rule that states “should a premiership club buy a young promising English player, betwee the age of 16 – 24, then its compulsory that the player must play at least 25 – 30 games in his first season split between cup and league competitions” or something along that format.

    This will make prem teams think twice before buying a talent and letting him spend years going nowhere in the reserves and could also benefit the national side.


  3. Gary says:

    Very difficult to pinpoint a single solution or set of rules to govern this, particularly as clubs, Prem and Football League are primarily self serving groups. If Championship sides had the resource to have a first eleven of international players, would they leave one out to blood a young English player for the good of that player or the National team? Or would the manager look after his own back and go for results over player development? Only one answer there. Not every team is Crewe Alexandra and happy to yoyo up and down divisions, most want results yesterday.

    As for Darren’s point, no way you could impose rules on which players managers can select, number of games they can play. Clubs pay wages, not the FA so these assets are to be used as the manager of these clubs see fit. Can you imagine Drogba and Torres taking turns of sitting out to give Daniel Sturridge his quota of games?

    The reality is that players are potential and nothing more at these ages, Wallcott stalled for 4 years at Arsenal, Bale never set the Heather alight til last year, no guarantee thatvrhe same wouldn’t have applied at Southampton.

  4. Josh says:

    Interesting article but as mentioned it depends on the club. Under Harry Redknapp Tottenham will fire as much money at as many established players they can who they think will improve their squad. Very short-term approach. Where as Arsenal employ a long-term vision, too long some may say, where they look to get top players young and develop them in a certain way.

    Short term is ok if you plan long-term with a certain manager. Otherwise you end up like Newcastle, Man City or Aston Villa have over past few years.

  5. This is a problem, and it goes beyond Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott for Southampton. Their academy, if I remember correctly, has been churning out great prospects for years which have all moved onto bigger clubs as soon as the opportunity comes up. Which suggests that with the right legal framework and decent negotiators that it could become a profit centre for S’oton.

    From the player’s point of view, the risk of injury to a career, and often being the great financial hope of their families, I don’t think it is reasonable to restrain their ability to profit from their abilities. Nor would I if in their position. Nor is such restraint legal under employment law, that is akin to slavery.

    It has to be down to the selling team to negotiate the best deal, assuming they own their rights, so that they profit each time the player is sold on. Such a clause would be easy to insert, and could follow the player around for their entire career. Why not? Like an easement on real property succeeds owners.

    The issue that should be dealt with is in the ability of clubs with great academies, like Southampton, being able to asset their rights and so recover costs and to profit from having youngsters on their books. Adjust the law to give them commercial and contractual control over younger players and this problem largely goes away. If a player requests a transfer, even if under contract, they will be sold. But at least, witness Torres, the club can get a decent return.

    Also, if the buyers are this aggressive and needy the balance in negotiations, assuming the seller has contractual rights over the player, however young, means a decent negotiator can recoup costs and make a profit.

    The secret to being a good negotiator is nothing more than being willing and able to say “no”. It doesn’t sound like the big clubs have that luxury, and given their indebtedness and that levels of debt are rising fast, this situation will not prevail for much longer anyway.

  6. Phil says:

    Did Southampton nurture Bale et al or simply take them fr other ‘smaller’ clubs ? Difficult to take the moral high ground football is a dirty game at all levels and players of any age want to get to the top. I do think though that young players are maybe better off getting game time at a small club than sitting on the bnch at a big one. Ironic how many young players who haven’t made it at a big club suddenly find playing regularly elsewhere actually makes them better players

  7. Nicky P says:

    Mike I have been thinking about this on and off for a few days now and think that is really an excellent subject. There are so many angle’s that this really is an almost endless debate, however I would like to look at a slightly different angle.

    I am an Arsenal fan. I was born in England to an English mother and Cypriot father. I support England but the national team is far from my biggest passion. Is it my background or is it my devotion to The Gooners? I’m not quite sure.

    I would like to explore the case of the national team from the view point of your argument. I believe the latest statistic was that only 33% of the players in The Premiership are English. That is not the 1st 11’s but the number of English players registered in the 25 man squads (as I say I believe this to be statistically correct).

    Taking this into consideration would you not rather see the clubs at the top of the tree buying/poaching young talented British players, rather than bringing young players in from abroad? I for one would rather sign Walcott or Bale than the Swiss lad Shaqiri or Vladamir Weiss.

    I believe if the national team is to improve that it is imperitive that we increase the percentage of English/British players registered in the top league. Yes the fans of the lower league may be short changed as you mention, but the funds can be reinvested into development of facilities, scouting network and into buying players from lower leagues.

    I think there is a good case for the transfer policy of the lower leagues to also recruit from within these shores. I’m not going to list them all but DJ Campbell (Soccer AM yest) for example is a player who has worked his way to the top. He failed initially in the top league but has now worked his way back up and to be fair is doing a decent job in the top league.

    I think the important thing is the lower league teams getting a fair price for their young players. At the end of the day it’s a job, so if another employer is prepared to pay you more money, to work with more talented staff and work in a better facility, then we would all be tempted to leave.

    It will be better for the national team if Jack Rodwell for example is signed by Man Utd, as opposed to Man Utd recruiting from Spain, Portugal or France. Man Utd’s midfield has currently a very British core but Scholes n Giggs r on the way out, Carrick couldn’t even run the midfield against Crawley and that only leaves Fletcher as having a long term future in the engine room at OT.

    If Man Utd sign Jack Rodwell, then perhaps Everton will sign Charlie Adam or another British midfield player? Perhaps United will sign Henderson and Sunderland will in turn replace him with a future England player?

  8. Umbongo Dboer says:

    They is taking libertees by taking young talent and not playing them. I am fan of Blackpool from old times and now we is proper team. Don’t think dat anyone can say we ain’t! We can’t play young guys coz have to stay up. Stay up is more for money than pleasure. It’s proper wrong but we must survive not mess with young kids. Every big team is buying all talent and loaning them to over teams. It’s killing game.

  9. Michael says:

    This is clearly a very subjective issue, and viewpoints are likely to differ if you’re big premier league club or small/medium sized football league outfit.

    There are two main issues – what’s best for players, and what’s best for clubs. That’s why getting the policy right is such a delicate balancing act.

    Thanks for all your comments. Some good points in there and a range of views.

  10. Very interesting article.

    I just wonder about the role of agents in this. I am sure that there are agents out there who look for young talent at a small club, sign them up and then instantly sell them to a bigger club. Agent gets his money and his work is done, regardless if his player gets playing time or not.

    Also, these days a talent is recognised much faster because of media like Youtube and Football Manager (to name a few). As they get spotted earlier, big teams do not want to lose out on a gamble and proceed to sign them as young as possible.

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