It doesn’t look like Gareth Barry will ever get the chance to measure his skills against Brian Laudrup. The rain that washed out Chelsea’s game against Aston Villa on October 31st, and Laudrup’s decision to quit Chelsea just two months into a three-year contract, meant the 17-year-old was spared that particular examination. But nevertheless the recent histories of the two players are linked. Their respective transfers, both in the news this month but at opposite ends of the price range, offer hints about the way teams may have to be built in the future.
Laudrup decided for personal reasons that he and Chelsea weren’t cut out for each other. Like Paul Merson, David Unsworth and Dion Dublin, but unlike players in any other era of football history, he was able to engineer a move simply by saying he wanted to. Naturally some accused him of disloyalty, and the Sun put it all down to the influence of his wife Mette, just as Unsworth had been pilloried for paying attention to his family as well as his career. But talk of loyalty or disloyalty misses the point. Like everyone else, most footballers have always tried to do the best for themselves, first and foremost. It was only the restraints of the wage and transfer systems that kept them “loyal” in the old days.
Barry’s transfer made the news because Villa were ordered to pay Brighton up to £1 million in respect of Barry’s development. Brighton were happy with the outcome, although Doug Ellis generously argued that Barry’s current value owed everything to his 16 months at Villa and nothing to the previous years at Brighton. “When he was at Brighton he didn’t get any international honours at all,” Ellis pointed out helpfully.
Brighton were lucky to get their money. On the same day the tribunal awarded Charlton only £50,000 for the transfer of Jay Lloyd Samuel, also to Villa. The difference between the two was obscure. Charlton claimed that the tribunal had been misled by Barry’s high profile, pointing out that Villa had been found guilty of making an illegal approach to Samuel, but not to Barry.
Alan Curbishley, despairing of the perceived injustice, speculated that Charlton might eventually have to abandon their youth scheme if £50,000 was the most they could expect for a youngster moving to another club before signing a professional contract.
It’s a fair point. But the example of Laudrup suggests another reason why investing in a youth policy might be worthwhile even if some of its products are whisked away for less than their true worth. For now that players have so few legal impediments to organising a transfer, managers have to think of other ways to keep them within the fold if they want to retain any semblance of long-term team planning.
One obvious strategy is to pay them lots and lots of money. It works, but it has its limits. No one has an inexhaustible budget and, as Laudrup showed, there will always be cases where money is not the only consideration in a player’s desire to move. The other option is to invest so much (and not just financially) in developing young players that enough of them are good enough to break into the first team at an early age and stay there.
When players come through together they tend to want to stick together. The youngsters who make up Manchester United’s Coca-Cola Cup team could no doubt be playing first team football elsewhere, and inevitably the ones who fail to make it to the top at United will have to move down to progress, as, for example, Ben Thornley has at Huddersfield. But for now they are happy to stay, not just because everyone wants to play for Manchester United, but also because they want to play with their mates. And they know that if they are good enough, like Wes Brown, Alex Ferguson will give them the chance.
Other clubs prospering in the Premiership, such as Aston Villa and Leeds, can point to similar success stories on a smaller scale. And, strangely enough, Chelsea themselves offer supporting evidence too. Although their squad has been flooded with top quality imports, the home-grown players have so far shown a remarkable reluctance to quit. The likes of Eddie Newton and David Lee seem in no hurry to move on just yet. No doubt they are being well rewarded for their appearances in the reserves. But the idea of playing for the club that brought you up still seems to exert a surprising pull.
The players’ new-found freedom sets managers daunting new tasks. But, deprived of the coercive power of the old transfer system, the new order is in fact a truer test of real managerial qualities, not just for the people we have traditionally called managers, but also for the boards with responsibility for wages, contracts and long-term strategy.
Marshalling a steady flow of new talent through the ranks and creating a system and atmosphere that encourages players to stay surely requires more genuine managerial skills than wav- ing the wad at fly-by-night superstars, whether British or foreign.
Of course not everyone can win things with kids, but then not everyone can win things by buying expensively abroad either. Far be it for us to suggest that Alan Curbishley or anyone else would be having a quiet snigger about Chelsea’s misfortune with Laudrup. But if he wanted a reason to continue with the club’s youth policy, he surely need look no further.
From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month