For all of the money that Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour have invested in Chelsea and Manchester City, the capital that has gone into their training facilities is often overlooked.
That was the case until last week, when City unveiled their spectacular new facilities. The ‘Etihad campus’ cost between £150m-£200m and was the product of a research project that analysed 70 different facilities across all sports in Europe, the USA and Australia, before having 19 prospective designs. Two thirds of that space has been cordoned off for youth development, as well an auditorium, 16 outdoor pitches, three elaborate gyms, hydro-treadmills and a player-care department.
“I’d rather be here than my house,” Pablo Zabaleta lauded.
Chelsea’s Cobham centre, of 2007, offers a similar service, albeit not with quite the same amount of extravagance. Costing £20m, it boasts the latest rehab, medical and media technology with 30 football pitches, cold immersion pools, a hydrotherapy pool and a state of the art medical centre.
These are both centres of technical excellence, platforms of the highest quality to serve the development of young players. But for all of the money and investment that has gone into both club, neither have produced many players.
That highlights the fact that regardless of the buildings from which you hold your players, the key ingredients to developing raw talent surround the culture, structure, and ideologies of a club, from the first team down to the under nines. Equipment means nothing if the process as a whole lacks direction and conviction.
If developing home grown talent has been a problem, both teams have arguably also failed to develop imported talent too. Jack Rodwell’s outburst that young English players should think twice before joining Man City is a telling one. Before his lucrative move from Everton, Rodwell was regarded as one of the best young prospects in the country, but his disjointed and ambiguous time there has seen him stagnate.
You probably won’t even remember the likes of Ulises Dávila Plascencia, Patrick Bamford, or Ben Sahar at Chelsea. All great prospects, failed by the system.
And the later success stories of Nemanja Matic and Daniel Sturridge are the most telling of Chelsea’s impatience towards their academy. There is a surplus of quality to be developed that the scouting departments dedicate their time to, but the system is failing. They can build their factories, but the quality of the homegrown players they produce will only be recognised when there are huge, core changes to both teams.
These failings are a result of the surplus of money that both clubs have. What motive does any young player have of breaking through to the first team when each club has the financial power to acquire any short term target that they desire? Pellegrini and Mourinho find themselves under so much pressure that they cannot afford to blood young players in matches more important than the Capital One Cup. What do they have to gain from doing so?
Read Gary Neville’s excellent autobiography for his harrowing anecdotes of the Class of 92’s integration into the first team to see how carefully Sir Alex Ferguson structured the connections from the first team down to the club’s apprentices. With such instability prevalent at City and Chelsea, it’s incredibly difficult to draw parallels between them.
The resulting consequence of this is the oligarchic outlook that both teams have adopted- and to some success, too. Instead of rewarding the loyalty of young English players over time, they’ll look abroad for alternatives to build a portfolio of emerging talent, talent that is viewed more as an appreciating asset that can then be sold for profit. Third party ownership is vehemently banned in England, but both teams effectively have whole squads of players who are immediately loaned back to their home teams.
Chelsea’s affiliation with Dutch club Vittesse became so strong last year that it was eventually investigated, eclipsed by the fact that at one point they had 30 players out on loan abroad. Some of those players never even left their respective countries to finalise those deal- they just found themselves contracted to a new institution altogether.
The legacy of those system leaves a deeper scratch, as they’ll remain a lack of inspiration from all involved in the process of developing players. What ultimately counts is the people, culture and belief. Until they become the most importance facets of Chelsea and Manchester City’s youth development, those expensive academies will merely remain an impressive yet superfluous framework for nothing.