With the Bosman judgment likely to prove a disincentive for clubs to carry on with youth development programmes, Chris Hall looks at the controversy surrounding the treatment of young footballers by professional clubs

Terry Murphy, the man in charge of the youth development programme at Arsenal, showed me a chart which illustrates how many players the club have in each position, in each age group, from the youngest players at under-10, to the first team. He uses this chart to plan how many boys will be retained at Arsenal’s centre of excellence from year to year.

On the chart was the name of Matthew Wicks, an unheard of, but talented, 16-year-old centre half, a student at the Football Association’s National School and an England schoolboy international. Wicks’ year group was spotted as having particular potential from an early age, which meant that Murphy was obliged to persuade more boys from the following year group than usual that their fixtures lay elsewhere. However, Terry Murphy also had to erase Wicks from his chart after Manchester United approached the youngster and agreed to sign him on more attractive terms than were on offer at Arsenal.
At the time, Murphy believed these events set a dangerous precedent. Looking at the names for the final year at Arsenal’s centre of excellence, he commented, “I’ve planned this out from 12 years of age, now what could happen if things are not sorted out properly? At 16, I could lose half of that group, and it’s taken me five years to plan that.”
Since then, Wicks has decided to return to London because of homesickness, though not before Manchester United faced two FA hearings, the other brought by Oldham, over alleged ‘poaching’ of young players who have been trained at other club’s FA-authorised ‘Centres of Excellence’. Clubs in the north-west have threatened to stop playing against United’s youth teams in protest at the Old Trafford club’s aggressive recruiting techniques.
However, the danger to youth development officers keen to protect the young talent nurtured at their clubs is now perceived not to come from unprincipled predators like Manchester United, but from a court room in Luxembourg. While the example of Matthew Wicks shows that it is big clubs as well as small ones who stand to lose out under current regulations, the effect of losing their best young players without adequate financial compensation is potentially life-threatening to lower division clubs.
The last thing such clubs needed was the Bosman ruling, bringing chaos to transfer systems all over Europe by eliminating transfer fees for out-of-contract players, and further diminishing the chance of a return on the money small clubs invest in youth development programmes.
Much of the media furore over Bosman has centred over doomsday scenarios for the clubs which rely on transfer fees to survive, but already lower division clubs are suffering. A few years ago, Leyton Orient made a substantial profit out of selling Chris Bart-Williams to Sheffield Wednesday, but last season they faced the prospect of three of their best youngsters signing up for Tottenham’s Centre of Excellence with barely £1,000 compensation per player changing hands.
Big money does still occasionally trickle down to the lower leagues, however. Lincoln City recently sold Darren Huckerby to Newcastle for £500,000, thus guaranteeing four years of youth development at the club in the process. Smaller clubs rely on this kind of windfall for survival, but with buyers now able to wait until a player’s contract runs out, the likelihood of clubs like Lincoln making half a million profit on one player ever again seems remote.
Amongst the chorus of Cassandras forecasting 50 clubs going part-time, 35 becoming extinct and thousands of unemployed ex-professionals are lower division chairmen such as Torquay United’s Mike Bateson, quoted in the Daily Telegraph as ready to abandon his club’s youth policy: “I am damned if I’m going to put my money into a youth system just to let the bigger clubs snaffle up the product.”
But this is exactly what is already happening under the FA’s system of compensatory awards for those clubs whose players sign elsewhere once their centre of excellence training is completed at sixteen. The system allows for an incremental level of payments from £275, rising to £475 compensation for each year spent at a club’s centre of excellence to £60,000 for the first ten games he plays for his new club, plus a further £60,000 if the player makes another 50 appearances for the club.
At a time when a defender on the fringes of the England team can cost £4 million, and Arsenal themselves can pay £2.5 million for a player with only a handful of appearances for Luton Town, clearly the idea of paying a fraction of such amounts for a promising 16-year-old is going to be extremely attractive to many top clubs. Terry Murphy points out the obvious inequity in the present system: “If somebody plays 60 games for the Arsenal first team he’s going to be worth more than £120,000, he’s going to be worth a few million.”
The inevitable consequence is that if clubs, particularly those in the lower divisions, are not seeing a return on their investment, they may choose to leave the training of young players to those who can afford it. Graham Kelly is well aware of the problem: “Certainly, there’s a lot of strong feeling amongst coaches and managers that the clubs need to be adequately compensated for developing young players, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, they’d close down their operations.”
Youth development officers rightly point out that the inequities of the situation were created by the FA and six months after Arsenal’s initial complaint no verdict has been declared and no revised guidelines issued. The FA may well have had their eye taken off the ball by events in Europe, but there still remains no coherent response to the question both issues raise: how are smaller clubs to be financed, if not through fair compensation for the work they do bringing through younger players?
Some youth development officers have suggested putting prohibitive prices on the heads of centre of excellence talent, as a means of warning off cherry-picking Premier League clubs, but with the Bosman ruling on out-of-contract players and the prospect of lower transfer fees, ‘buying’ clubs would simply wait until first-year professionals become available for next to nothing. Others have suggested that extended contracts are the answer, indeed many clubs have had their brightest young prospects sign long-term deals, but how many players can small clubs gamble on in such a way? Imagine if Arsenal had signed Perry Groves or Gus Caesar on ten-year contracts, with no get-out clause.
Carl-Otto Lenz, the European Court’s Advocate-General whose recommendation on the Bosman case started the current debate, has himself provided some suggestions for the future financing of smaller clubs. While declaring that transfer fees were illegal, Lenz stated that a fee representing real training costs was “perfectly conceivable” on a player’s initial change of clubs. More pointedly, he suggested that if Europe’s Football Associations really wanted to help the smaller clubs, they should divide the money from ticket sales and television rights a little more equally.
A lot has been made of Lenz’s ignorance of the organization of football, and this rather hopeful suggestion could be seen as the perfect example of a Euro-bureaucrat naïvely interfering with football. The fat cats surely could not be persuaded to part with a larger slice of the cake, but has anyone within football has come up with a more equitable alternative to the haphazard trickle-down effect on which small clubs currently depend?

From WSC 108 February 1996. What was happening this month

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