Stick or twist

Mark Brophy isn’t surprised that both clubs and players take the big-money gamble on promising teenagers

I wouldn’t recognise Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Southampton winger, if I saw him in the street. Thanks to the footballing gossip columns, I know that he’s 17 and the same kind of hot property Theo Walcott was in his Saints days, supposedly worth £10 million and interesting the very biggest English clubs. Ipswich’s Connor Wickham, perhaps better known, is another to be the subject of speculation on a close-season transfer. Should either make a move this summer they will be embarking on a well-trodden path.

Barely a season goes by without top clubs elbowing each other aside to sign the youth du jour. Aaron Ramsey, John Bostock, Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph have all moved as teenagers from the lower divisions to clubs expected to be in the top half of the Premier League in recent years. The varying success of such players prompts the question of whether they would be better off staying where they were.

The easy option for all concerned is to jump when the big offer comes along. Everyone is aware of the risk in signing a young player based on their potential when there can be no guarantee it will ever be fulfilled, including the club receiving the bid. No comparable offer might ever come in again and the sensible thing to do for most lower-league clubs is to grab the money as quickly as possible. James Milner, having moved from Leeds to Newcastle at an early age, later pointed to his wish to do what was in the best interests of his club as having overcome his initial reluctance.

It’s surely common for clubs to encourage their starlet to go with the flow in this way when they consider an offer to be a fair one. For their part, the players themselves also have a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to maximise their earnings, work with better players and receive the very best coaching. Add to the mix ambition, ego and the possible whisperings of an agent keen to make a percentage and the alacrity with which most deals are completed is explained.

In most cases, however, the player is giving up at least a good chance of regular first-team football in exchange for a long spell in the reserves or even the academy side. Much is made of the folly of throwing youngsters into first-team action too early, so in the case of the small or late developer this might even help. But a player headhunted by a top club at 16 or 17 years of age by definition isn’t a late developer. Almost without exception they have already shown enough of their talent in a first-team setting to get the scouts interested in initially. Players such as this need to be stretched to aid their development, not placed in a comfort zone of age-restricted competition while those late developers begin catching up.

Alterations to the academy system proposed recently by the Premier League and covered in WSC 290 might change the dynamic of the relationship between Premier and Football League clubs. Early developers are liable to end up at the big club they eventually do now anyway, just earlier and without the fee changing hands. Those players who drift into mediocrity at a big club now would still do the same under the new system, just without the public ever becoming aware of them. Probably the only benefit for them would be the removal of the pressure of the fee.

Unfortunately lower-division clubs will miss out on the dual boost of some top young players in the team and their eventual sale. A fair number might thus end up gaining the first-team football such players have always required to aid their development as a result of these new proposals, but not in the way envisaged by the architects of the plan. The likelihood is that they will end up at the kind of lower-division club they tend to leave at an early age under the current system, but only after their top-flight coaches decide to release them.

Even top-quality coaching is only useful if it results in first-team performances. The deciding factor on whether to move should always be the likelihood of breaking into the first team, different in each case. But telling a young player they won’t make it and shouldn’t even try. Young footballers are constantly reminded of the importance of ignoring setbacks and being persistent when trying to achieve their goals. We shouldn’t be surprised when they ignore advice to act otherwise.

From WSC 292 June 2011