Dale Jennings and Jack Harper setting a trend
30 March ~ Two of Britain's finest prospects are currently learning their trade overseas, out of the spotlight at elite academies with a proven track record in youth development. Dale Jennings left Tranmere Rovers in July 2011 for Bavarian giants Bayern Munich, while Jack Harper is one of the brightest prospects in the Real Madrid Under-17 team. Liverpool-born Jennings joined the Tranmere youth system at 15 and broke in to the senior team at 17, making 30 appearances during 2010-11 before being awarded the League One Apprentice of the Year award.
Quick and two-footed, Jennings scored his first goal in his third game – a 20-yard strike to secure a 1-0 win against Bristol Rovers – but his brace in a 4-2 win against MK Dons a few weeks later proved to be far more significant. Dietmar Hamann was making his final appearance for the opposition and provided a glowing recommendation of Jennings to Bayern Munich general manager Christian Nerlinger, in town to speak with Leighton Baines. Tranmere rejected the offer of a trial but a bid of £600,000 was accepted, a deal that could eventually rise to £1.8 million.
European giants signing a League One starlet briefly generated headlines, with Tranmere manager at the time Les Parry keen to stress the significance of the transfer. "I don't want to overstate it but this is one of the biggest transfers in a long, long time. I know money-wise there have been bigger ones but you'd really have to rack your brain to think of an 18-year-old player from England who has been taken to one of the European giants like this. It is a massive, massive move for Dale, for Tranmere Rovers and for English football."
Jennings, now 20, regularly features for Bayern Munich 2 in Regionalliga Bayern, the German fourth tier. His first season was blighted by an ankle ligament injury but he has since eclipsed the number of games he played for Tranmere and recently scored in a 2-2 draw with FC Augsburg 2. Breaking in to the senior side may be an insurmountable task but the coaching and experience he is receiving should prove invaluable.
The progress of Harper would appear easier to assess, having signed a new five-year deal with Madrid just before Christmas. Born in Spain to Scottish parents, Harper has been earning rave reviews performing as a technically gifted and competitive attacking midfielder in their academy. Having initially trained with Sevilla and Almería, Real offered a three-week trial which resulted in an initial 12-month deal in 2009 and tuition at a private school situated near the training ground. Having scored 25 goals last season, Harper is among the top scorers again this campaign and only turned 17 last month.
Harper's father John has revealed that he hopes the club's commitment to his son's development will allow him to flourish. "Jack left home at the age of 13 to be schooled by Real but at that age you never know how it will go in terms of development. But now he has the security of a long-term deal. Jack can now chase his dream of playing in the first team for Real as the contract underlines the club's belief in him."
Harper has already outlined his desire to represent Scotland and was first called up to the Under-15s team in April 2010. He has regularly attended training camps since and has confirmed: "Even though I live in Spain, I feel Scottish, so I want to make my family proud and play for my country." Although there is plenty of scope for a change of heart further down the line, Harper senior is adamant that his son will stand by his decision. "It will always be Scotland for Jack, I'm old school. I've told my boys their dad would love to see a Scotland cap on his mantelpiece one day."
During his tenure as England manager, Fabio Capello was keen for the FA to groom Jennings as an international star of the future and Stuart Pearce is monitoring his progress, with England keen to replicate the impact of Canadian-born Owen Hargreaves, a previous Bayern academy graduate. Scotland are also hoping to prosper with an exciting array of young talent emerging, led by Harper. British players are traditionally reluctant to widen their horizons and develop overseas but the progress of Jennings and Harper may help change the entrenched status quo and encourage a more adventurous outlook in future. Scott Johnson