For many supporters, there has always been a perceived, idealistic way to run a football club. The dreams of not just lifting trophies, but seeing the local boy come good, parading it around the ground. There is a certain satisfaction to seeing clubs taste the riches of football’s success, with an element of the squad that they have forged and evolved themselves, which is hard to put into practical terms. To craft your own success and to achieve silverware through shaping your own philosophies is perhaps, the paragon of glory in the beautiful game.
But there appears to be a reason why the concept of developing your own, title-challenging team in-house, is esteemed in such merit. The likes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘Class of 92’ and Pep Guaridola’s golden generation may never be replicated ever again, but are the pressures of success and economic gain in the Barclays Premier League, stunting the progression of youth development for all teams chasing success? Because for all the talent and money invested in the likes of Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea’s youth set-ups, the results just haven’t been there. Can you really not have your cake and eat it?
It’s important to not get too carried away with the concept of a football club winning a Premier League title or European Cup with a starting XI that all began life kicking about in the youth team and waving season-tickets around. Of course, in both the examples used of Ferguson and Guaridola’s immortal teams, there have always been experienced foreign heads and expensive signings adorning them. But the point is that they were always the layers on top, not the foundation. Manchester United and Barcelona have developed both the cores of these teams respectively. They weren’t just a team of assembled Galacticos strung together for millions of pounds.
Likewise, it is also important to not look sneeringly upon teams who do not have the resources to create such a wonderful youth set-up. Make no mistake about it, Barcelona’s fabled La Maisa academy isn’t particularly cheap to run, with estimates ranging up to £9million a year. That may seem cheap to some and around the cost of a half-decent striker in the transfer market. So why would you possibly choose to sign someone like Stephen Fletcher for a similar fee when you could try and replicate the system that produced Lionel Messi et al?
But this is precisely the issue that could be proving the stumbling block for the likes of Liverpool and Spurs. The echelons that sit between the realms of Europa League and Champions League football are amongst the most volatile in the Premier League. Of course the stakes aren’t as high for a football club staring relegation in the face, but the need to reap financial rewards are treated with as much urgency as the need to prevent them at this level.
Tottenham Hotspur’s revenue has increased some £48million from the season ending 08/09 to 10/11. You don’t need an economics degree to figure out what caused that spike. Champions League football is football’s Zeus and all clubs will bend over backwards for it.
But the problem with the Europa to Champions League badlands, is that there is no real means of security. As Tottenham found out when they qualified, you just have to keep investing, as everyone else around you keeps getting stronger. There was no time to splash £9million on a mini La Maisa when Rafael van der Vaart was about for similar money. Although you could argue it backfired for King Kenny anyway, where was Dalglish supposed to find the time to give Jack Robinson a run of games? You can’t risk it when Jose Enrique is about for decent money. The pressures of success and reward are harming the development of youth team products.
After winning their first Premier League title, it will be interesting to see how Manchester City, who bestow one of the better academies in the league, nurture their younger talent. Because it is a lot easier to integrate youth into a team like Manchester City’s, than it is for Spurs or Liverpool. The more often you’re winning or cruising to victory, the less pressure and risk there is on giving one of your academy starlets some game time. Cup competitions like the FA and Carling Cup begin to get treated, rightly or wrongly, with less importance and younger players get more first-team game time. Issac Cuenca is a good example of this at Barcelona and although he benefitted greatly from a year at Sunderland, Danny Welbeck at Manchester United.
Likewise, one of Chelsea’s youth products, Ryan Bertrand, made the step up in the Champions League final, but what does the future hold for him this season? Josh McEachran is one of the jewels in their youth development crown, but with all their investment to push on for a title push during this close season, is he ever likely to settle in the first XI?
And then there is Tottenham Hotspur. The financial gain of Champions League football means investment was put into the team this summer with the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Hugo Lloris, Moussa Dembele, Emmanuel Adebayor and Clint Dempsey coming in. But where does that leave the likes of Stephen Caulker, Tom Carroll and Harry Kane? The Lilywhite’s hold an extremely talented youth side, as demonstrated in their performances in the NextGen tournament last season. But with the economic pressure of the Premier League, is there likely to be a steady first team path for any of them?
This isn’t to say that young players aren’t breaking through at these clubs, because they are. But the point is, for all the investment and talent that lurks in the ranks, not enough are making the step up. It could well be that Financial Fair Play encourages more focus on in-house production. But the pressures of monetary success are stifling youth production and if you’re a young player with a choice of clubs, maybe your fate is better served at Crewe Alexandra, than the boys chasing European riches.
How do you feel about the state of youth development at your club? Do you dream of producing more of you’re own talent? Or are you happy poaching someone else’s? Tell me what’s going on, follow @samuel_antrobus on Twitter