It’s easy to say that football academies just don’t work. However, the whole issue is far more complex than do they or don’t they.
Do you remember the excitement surrounding the signing of Claudio Marangoni some thirty years ago? An Argentine signing for Sunderland. He might as well have been from outer space. It was virtually unheard of in living memory at the time to sign a foreigner, ie non British player. Everyone can remember Claudio, because of the stir he caused. His performances were in stark contrast to the fanfare of his arrival. Everyone remembers him. Can anyone immediately recall the identity of the second overseas player or indeed the third? Moreover can anyone recall how many overseas players there have been at Sunderland in the intervening years. A countless number, yet Sunderland have probably had far less than the average number of imports.
The point is this. Thirty years ago, our first team was all British. Mainly English and Scots. In the ranks that Marangoni joined back then there were a host of local lads who played regular first team football at around that time Mick Henderson, Joe Bolton,Tim Gilbert (RIP), Rob Hindmarch, Gary Rowell, Kevin Arnott, Shaun Elliott, Wilf Rostron (signed but never mind), Alan Brown, as well as Stan Cummins (who was a signing rather than home grown). There are doubtlessly a lot of others. These lads were either home grown by us or other English clubs. Go back a few years earlier or move a few years later and the same demographic appears.
That’s no longer the case. We currently have (and I have surely missed some), 1 Belgian, 2 Ghanians, 2 Paraguayans, 1 French, 1 Dutch, 1 Argentine, in our squad. The only home produced player appearing regularly is Jordan Henderson. Critics of the academy system have rightly condemned the shortage of first team players produced over the last 20 years with some justification. Kieron Brady had a promising but short lived career, Michael Bridges, Dickie Ord, Jordan Henderson, Micky Gray, Grant Leadbitter, Craig Russell are the most successful. Over a 20 year period there are a few more but the numbers are not large. If you are worried now then you should be because the numbers of graduates from the academy making the grade are likely to fall even further.
There is so much money in football these days that it’s just too easy to sign a player for monopoly figures. The young prospect who might take a year and a half to develop into the finished product gets three games to prove himself. There’s just no time and no patience, because the cost of failure is so high. Get relegated and any asset of value will be sold, including the promising youngster. The bigger clubs swarm like vultures at burgeoning talent. John Bostock was developing very nicely at Crystal Palace. He made his debut a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday and played only four games before Spurs snatched him from the club that had spent time and effort developing him. All they received in terms of a fee was an immediate payment of 700k for one of the brightest young prospects in the English game. Since joining Spurs he hasn’t played a single first team league game but has appeared nine times for Brentford and in four games for Hull at the start of this season. Prior to going into administration, Palace’s then owner tried to sell the club, so incensed at being so short changed as he saw it by the outcome of the tribunal as well as the attitude displayed by both Bostock junior as well as his father.
It’s questionable about whether this is the care and nurture that a young player needs. Furthermore is 700k adequate compensation to Crystal Palace who spent seven years developing his talent, and ended up going into administration at the tail end of last season? I don’t think so on either account. Bostock is still only 18 years old, so he has time on his side. The Crystal Palace youth system is a good example to look at because they have had what seems like a production line for youngsters who have broken regularly into their first team for many years. Victor Moses (since signed for Wigan), Sean Scannell, Nathaniel Clyne, James Comley, Keiran Djilali, Nathanial Pinney, Kieron Cadogan and Lee Hills are examples of the success of the Crystal Palace academy. In 2009 of nine second year students, seven of those players were offered professional contracts, with five being given first team debuts by then manager Neil Warnock. The policy has been to recruit all the best players from within a five mile radius of Selhurst Park. The huge urban population of south London provides a great many options. The Football League rules only allow clubs to sign players under the age of 12 who live an hour’s drive away. Between the ages of 12 and 16 that increases to 90 minutes. The academy status allowed them to play against PL sides such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, West Ham, and Fulham. Had they down graded to a Centre of Excellence they would be battling it out with QPR, Millwall, Gillingham and Brentford.
In Sunderland’s case the 60 and 90 minute radius would take you part way to Belgium and Holland. Very few kippers or haddock have made the grade at a PL club (apart from Billy the Fish. Ed) Geography counts against Sunderland, and it’s just too easy to think that the academy system isn’t working. Like any system it has to be managed and part of a wider plan. The league rules was an issue that Roy Keane raised during his time as Sunderland manager. It’s not clear whether the club has developed a strategy to deal with this geographical anomaly, and I’m not at all sure what the implications might be for clubs in sparsely populated areas with fewer league clubs, such as in East Anglia, or in the West Country. Crystal Palace despite being in London, do not possess the same financial clout as their capital city rivals, so they have worked hard to develop a successful academy which is dependent on the establishment of an effective scouting network in their own backyard. Add that component to their commitment to youth and history of blooding youngsters and you can see why it has reaped such huge dividends.
The sale of Martyn Waghorn has prompted a great deal of debate on both the nature of modern football as well as the purpose and success of the academies. Although the two cases seem to be miles apart. 3M was paid by Leicester to secure the services of a player widely regarded as one of the best strikers in the Championship last season. That’s quite a hefty fee compared to the 700k compensation received for Bostock. The Bostock case illustrates the success of the Palace academy whilst demonstrating the challenges that a less wealthy club face when they face the Premier League predators. In the case of Waghorn, the consensus view is that he was sacrificed albeit with some reward to effectively part finance his own replacement. Twenty or thirty years ago, Martyn Waghorn would have been a regular in Sunderland’s first team. Not today. In an ideal world, Waghorn could have been loaned for the season to virtually any club in the Championship. He would have improved any one of them. He would have come back at the end of the season stronger and more polished than he left. Unfortunately that was not to be.
For this season at least, the outcome for both players is likely to be the same. They’ve both dropped down a division, where great things will be expected of them. Unfortunately, neither will grace the first team of the clubs who taught them their trade. The question which remains of course is whether an academy can be judged as failing if it produces good young players, even if they end up playing for someone else. These two cases show that it’s a thin dividing line between success and failure. The challenges, threats and opportunities faced by the academies differ as much as the clubs themselves differ. Each has a unique situation to which it must adapt for its own survival as well as the host club.