In many respects the world has got a lot smaller in the last 40 years. Transport and communication has got quicker and easier, and a holiday in sunny Europe can cost you less than a dreary break in Blighty. This mentality of looking abroad over staying in England is a mindset that has stretched far beyond your average 2.4 child family; football clubs are also employing these tactics to sign young players more than ever before.
All of the top clubs in the Premier League have huge scouting networks that can take them all over the world from Abuja to Zagreb. In 2009, then Celtic manager Tony Mowbray declared that he would be looking further afield to find players: “I am trying to expand the scouting system that is in place. We are actively pursuing all parts of the world at the moment, including South America where some players have European passports”. Clubs are increasingly finding themselves left behind if they don’t pursue these widening avenues and a new emphasis is being put on signing promising players at a younger and younger age.
There have been numerous rules imposed by FIFA, UEFA and the FA to encourage teams to develop their academies instead of spending their way to success. They have been effective in the respect that teams now find themselves with stronger youth set-ups. But many of these laws have inadvertently resulted English clubs ignoring English talent for reasons of finance and practicality.
There are two rules that are set to have a big impact on the way that football teams trade in the transfer market. The Premier League’s 25 player squad rule was implemented at the start of the season and states that teams must have at least eight ‘home grown players in their squad. The other rule is UEFA’s financial fair play initiative which will impose European bans on teams who find themselves with large debts and who do not spend within their means.
The two rules together are encouraging teams to buy young players at small prices, with a decline in the big money moves with which we have become so accustomed. Even mega-rich Manchester City said that their capture of Edin Dzeko could signal their last big money signing for the foreseeable future.
However, far from reverting back to the old days of sourcing talent from the local area it is infact proving cheaper to sign teenagers from Europe than from down the road.
When a club tries to sign a young player from another English team compensation is decided by a tribunal if the two parties can not reach an agreement between themselves (and when the selling club is reluctant to let their most talented kids leave and the buying club wanting to pay as little as possible an agreement can be very difficult to come by). A tribunal can often drastically increase the fee of a player, in 2009 Everton were forced to pay a total of £1.7 million for 16 year-old Luke Garbutt – a lot of money for a player without a first team appearance to his name.
The FA also impose a rule on home-grown players which is called the ’90 minute rule’. It states that a youth player must not live further than 90 minutes away from the club which he plays for. While the rule is meant to stop big clubs poaching talent from smaller clubs, it is widely seen as more red-tape preventing young players from developing to their full potential and discouraging the big teams form making moves for English talent.
As a result of the FA’s rule over the transfer of youth players, teams are looking towards Europe where the rules are slightly different.
The compensation which a team pays for a youth player from a European side is far cheaper than what they could have to pay in England. If a player is younger then 17 then a fee of €90,000 has to be paid for every year of development put in by the selling club, but if he is 18 then the amount of only €10,000. It is unsurprising that the U18 sides of many Premier League teams contain a high number of non-English players. Arsenal have 13 non-English players in their U18 squad, Manchester have 13 in their academy and Chelsea have seven. FIFA has imposed a ban on the transfer of players below the age of 18, however this rule does not extend to the European Union where the freedom of movement law applies.
The battle to find the talent before it reaches its peak always been competitive, but with the new rules in place it is due to hot-up even further. Manchester City have a worldwide scouting network which costs them £3 million every year, yet City’s technical director Mike Rigg still deems his youth set-up to be 10 years behind Arsenal and Manchester United. It would be difficult for the FA to change their rules without playing into the hands of the big boys. After the transfer of John Bostock from Crystal Palace, then chairman Simon Jordan was bitter towards the tribunal system for not ordering a larger fee to be paid: “I feel mugged and brutalised, it is scandalous, and this sends a message to smaller clubs. Why bother to bring players through if tribunals cannot reflect the work that has gone in?”.
Young players need to be developed so that they can reach their potential and excel at the highest level of football. However it is difficult to do this without leaving one party feeling as if they have been ripped off, and the lower leagues need to be protected just as much as clubs in the Premier League. But until a middle ground can be reached this foreign trend looks set to continue.