It has been reported this week that Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, is hoping to beat off competition from Tottenham and Liverpool for the signature of Ipswich Town striker Connor Wickham. The Magpies boss is hoping to entice the England under-21 forward with the incentive of regular first-team Premier League football, and apparently retains a healthy sum of Andy Carroll’s £35million transfer fee to spend on new recruits, with attacking solutions the highest priority at St. James’ Park heading in to next season.
Pardew in fact signed the precocious talent for Reading at the age of nine, and has monitored the 18-year old ever since, who, according to his club, requires a bid of at least £10million to encourage the Tractor Boys to sell. His coach, Paul Jewell, appears reluctant to let his prize asset depart Portman Road, but admits that a significant cash injection would be difficult to refuse. “I’m not looking to sell Connor Wickham, and I don’t think Connor Wickham is looking to leave,” he announced, before conceding, “if someone came in with a silly offer, and he wanted to go, we would have to listen to it.”
Wickham has scored eight goals this season, each of them since the end of January following Jewell’s appointment, but whether or not he is ready for Premier League football remains open for debate. At the age of 16, John Bostock made the leap from Championship side Crystal Palace to Tottenham in the Premiership, and three years on is still waiting to make his first league appearance for the Lilywhites. There are several recent examples where fledgling footballers have been deluged with an unreasonable volume of attention and subsequent expectations that they struggle to fulfill. Freddy Adu will forever be mentioned in this context but is just one illustration of many before and since who have induced meteoric hype initially before fading in to obscurity.
We must remind ourselves that football is a billion-pound industry, and young determined talent represents the natural resource which motivates clubs and agents to compete for the best quality. This trade has been chaotic for some time, but clubs now recognize the requirement to identify the most impressive competitors from all corners of the globe to avoid being left behind. These players are made vulnerable by their ambitions and are often tempted by clubs, agents and sponsors with the offers of cars, jobs, money and fame. With the exception of Manchester City, the trend amongst English clubs has shifted from auctioning for particular players to aggressively investing in youth. Of course, competition for the finest young talent has been healthy for some decades, but two important rule changes have intensified this situation recently.
The first adjustment is the implementation of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play system, which will, if successful, force clubs to operate within their means. Expensive transfers will become an extravagant indulgence and an organized and productive academy a necessity. The second is the Premier League’s squad rules which were altered last year and have made an immediate impact on transfer activity in this country. Each club is required to name a 25-player squad of which at least eight must be ‘home-grown’ – defined as players of any nationality who have spent three seasons with an English or Welsh club prior to turning 21 – which means having a resourceful academy will increasingly have a direct influence on a club’s ability to compete in the league.
“People are waking up to the fact that this is going to have a huge effect on them,” explained Huw Jennings, academy director at Fulham. “Young players in the English system will become even more expensive and we will see an intensification of what is already a competitive market,” he added. The purpose of both these amendments lies in the motivation towards making all football clubs sustainable, and more English teams are beginning to question the value of an increasingly irrational transfer market. “Investment in youth is central to our club as it directly relates to our long-term sustainability,” said Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive of Arsenal, the club who registered as many as 56 players under the age of 21 for the current Premiership campaign.
The Gunners are renowned for their notoriously gifted academy and are perhaps the ideal model for others to imitate. Manchester City have one of the largest and most expensive scouting networks which encompasses each and every continent, and Liverpool have recently hired Damien Comolli as director of football strategy with the express intent to uncover the most exciting global flair. The Frenchman approved the signings of Turkish goalkeeper, Yusuf Mersin, and Swedish striker, Kristoffer Peterson, at the end of last year, and the arrival of both sixteen year-olds is expected to signal the expansion of Liverpool’s academy with a host of foreign imports.
This scenario is only exacerbated by English clubs’ willingness to spend anything for the greatest. When Spurs finalised Bostock’s contract at White Hart Lane, the club were forced by a tribunal to pay £700,000, with additional payments of £1.25million dependent on appearances and a further £200,000 should the midfielder make his full international debut. This isn’t the only transaction of its kind to take place in England since the turn of the century, but when placed against the rules which govern the acquirement of continental youngsters, it is easy to see why English teams are attempting to lure talent from Europe and further afield. An EU player signed up to the age of 17 warrants compensation which is fixed at €90,000 per year of development, or between the ages of twelve and 15. If the buying club waits until the player is 18, then compensation is stabilized at only €10,000 per year, which makes imports from Europe considerably cheaper than signing players domestically.
Wickham’s future lingers in the balance while his raw abilities remain open to scrutiny. He has shown plenty of early promise, not least for the England under-17 side when he scored the winner against Spain in the European Championship finals last May, but those who watch him regularly feel he still has room for development. His eventual Premier League move is likely to follow an extortionate transfer fee which implies his potential rather than immediate ability, but similar player shifts will become less frequent as the Premier League continues to obliquely guide its managers in the direction of foreign talents.
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