Adam Bate questions the perception that recruiting from the lower leagues is a risk
Paul Merson risked being accused of xenophobia when he expressed the view last season that Arsène Wenger had put too much focus on buying from France or Belgium and not explored the home market effectively. While Merson could have been dismissed as a Little Englander, he found an unlikely ally in Italian football journalist Gabriele Marcotti, who noted: "Scouting in the Championship is something few clubs do well." But is the talent really there?
A look at the lower-league PFA Teams of the Year in recent seasons suggests that it is. David Moyes is one manager who has had success in acquiring players who have made their name in the Championship and below. He has been credited as overseeing the development of Phil Jagielka and Tim Cahill, as well as making impressive profits on the sales of Joleon Lescott and Jermaine Beckford.
Speaking in 2008, Moyes said: "We mustn't not look at that market and I am very keen to bring in British boys. That's why we put a lot of effort into scouting in the UK to see if we can find the right players. The knowledge that I had from being at Preston helped me in that. There are a lot of good players out there and we all need opportunities."
But it would be a mistake to think of these signings as gambles. Lescott may have been only 23 years old when he arrived at Goodison Park but he had already appeared in the Championship Team of the Year on three different occasions. Jagielka and Cahill were only a year older and had each featured twice in lower-division representative sides.
Tottenham, with Frank Arnesen and later Damien Comolli as director of football, have gone even younger in their quest to unearth British talent. And yet, both Tom Huddlestone for Derby County in 2004-05 and Gareth Bale for Southampton in 2006-07 had already made their mark – each was the only teenager in their respective PFA Championship Team of the Year. These are players with time on their side, who are used to fast-paced football and unlikely to have problems adapting to the Premier League game.
Perhaps the financial risk lies in leaving these signings too late. Liverpool, with Comolli now as director of football, have recently added Andy Carroll, Charlie Adam and José Enrique to the squad at a cost of around £50 million. All three featured in the 2009-10 Championship Team of the Year. Carroll, in particular, was reported to have been available at a fraction of the £35m Liverpool paid in January following a brief flurry of Premier League goals.
Even when the fee is inflated this doesn't mean buying from the Championship is a mistake. Aston Villa adopted Liverpool's wait-and-see approach when they signed Ashley Young from Watford for nearly £10m after he'd played just 13 Premier League games. Young had been in the Championship Team of the Year the previous season and was also an instant hit at Villa Park – making the Premier League select XI in his first full season there.
This didn't prevent Martin O'Neill being mocked for describing Young as "world-class" after a late winner at Everton in 2008. Following his move to Manchester United, Young has finally cemented his place in the England side and some of the scepticism is beginning to dissipate. Perhaps the problem that he and others who first came to prominence in the Championship face is that while they may do their growing up at a lower level, they are still in the public eye. As such, they don't get to make their mistakes abroad and arrive in this country as the finished product.
However, the relatively high-profile Championship need not be seen as the cheapest option when it comes to Premier League clubs' shopping habits. There can be even greater bargains to be found if you look beyond the second level. England international Matt Jarvis featured in the League One Team of the Year for 2006-07 while a Gillingham player. Even more remarkably, the League Two Team of the Year for 2005-06 included the current England No 1, Joe Hart, as well as Wolves' captain Roger Johnson. All three of these players were subsequently sold for a combined fee of less than £3m. Far from the talent not being there, maybe the English lower leagues are still where the biggest bargains are available to be had.
From WSC 297 November 2011