Developing local young talent used to be the way forward for Millwall, but they can no longer see the point. Paul Casella takes up the sorry tale

After a close-season tribunal judged that teenage starlet John Bostock’s sale to Tottenham Hotspur was worth just £700,000 to Crystal Palace, their owner Simon Jordan decided it was time to look for a buyer for his club. And he wasn’t the only south London chairman to question the point of developing homegrown talent this summer. Last season Millwall lost youth hopes David Amoo to Liverpool, Sam Walker to Chelsea and Tom Kilby to Portsmouth for combined fees of £400,000. They were all products of a youth set-up that an ailing third-tier club could barely afford to run. The club’s American chairman, John Berylson, was so enraged by the size of the fees that he closed the Millwall academy.

The decision was completely understandable given that Berylson had just sunk a further £3 million into the club’s black hole of financial losses. Perhaps more importantly, he felt let down by a system that allows other clubs’ scouts to wander around at training grounds poaching the best young talent with promises of relocation and employment for whole families as well and riches beyond their wildest dreams. 

In the late 1970s, south London boasted the best youth development systems in England. Palace won the FA Youth Cup in 1977 and 1978, Millwall in 1979. The Lions are rated ninth in overall FA Youth Cup performances, having won the competition again in 1991 and finished runners-up in 1994. During this period, players such as Kenny Cunningham, Ben Thatcher, Phil Babb, Leon Cort, Neil Ruddock, Steven Reid, Lucas Neill and Mark Kennedy were developed through the Millwall system, while others such as Paul Elliott, Rio Ferdinand, Ian Wright and the Wallace brothers joined the club for a while before moving on.

By the early 1990s, English youth development was deemed to be a long way behind the rest of Europe so the academy system was introduced to redress the balance. Some, though, suggested this was also a way for the biggest clubs in the country to safeguard their status at the top of the tree. Whether by design or not, the requirements for staffing levels, indoor pitches and even medical and schooling facilities quickly made the system impractical for almost any club outside the ­Premier League.

Most clubs below the top level maintained their more modest but work­able centres of excellence, while Millwall, along with a few others such as Peterborough and Crewe, added significantly to their running costs. A top-of-the-range academy with scouting networks around the world can cost more than £2m a year to run, while a Championship level set-up able to meet the licensing criteria is said to involve around £700,000; it is unlikely that a budget version would cost less than £250,000.

It certainly worked for the Lions, who were able to compete with the best when it came to ensuring that each age group within their academy had the best local talent available to them. Crucially, through a well established scouting network, they were able to grab a few players released by other clubs at the time of professional contract signing at the age of 16. This provided a means of building a squad that won a Division Two (now League One) title and made four appearances at Wembley, including in an FA Cup final, in seven seasons.

This rapid progress imposed financial demands with which the club couldn’t cope. A downward spiral began in 2004-05, the season after that FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United. As youth production is all about potential rewards, it was considered a key area for cost-cutting. In the five years since they played a UEFA Cup tie against Ferencvaros, Millwall have had four chairmen and six managers. The latest boss, Kenny Jackett, was asked to oversee an academy that was a shadow of its former self. Jackett, whose previous job was as a coach at FA Youth Cup holders Manchester City, was able to scoop up a few cast-offs from his former club, but Millwall were no longer able to grab the best local prospects before Arsenal or West Ham saw them. The new system will mean we may never again produce players of the calibre of Tim Cahill or Teddy Sheringham, who would surely not have joined Millwall’s centre of excellence if there was a better funded academy nearby. 

From WSC 261 November 2008

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