It’s only natural that talented young players should be attracted by the glamour and reputation of the biggest clubs, but is signing for a club where there is little realistic hope of making a breakthrough really the best thing for their careers?
As he bid farewell to Chelsea last week, the club that has nurtured him more than half his 22 years on the planet, it wasn’t difficult to detect the wistfulness in Nathaniel Chalobah’s parting words. He was full of praise for the club, of course, spoke of how he cherished every year he’d been there and of his respect for Antonio Conte. Smart words, perhaps, considering the reported buy-back clause in his new deal and likely thoughts that a future at Stamford Bridge may not yet be beyond him.
But a sense of deep frustration was palpable too, in the way he spoke about the “barriers” that stood between him and becoming a regular fixture in Conte’s first team. It did not matter that he had featured in 10 games last season and earned himself a title winner’s’ medal. Nor did it matter that he had caught the eye when playing for England at the European under-21 Championships in Croatia last month. None of it gave him sufficient hope that staying and fighting for his place would ultimately be worth it.
On one level, this is a sad story that hints once again at a game harbouring a twisted set of priorities. On another, it is simply an old and rather tiresome one, no more worth getting into a tizzy about as over the latest almighty cash splurge on another bang average England defender. Because as long as the television cash continues to swirl and there are foreign investors who think nothing of throwing a billion pounds at a football club, this is the English game. For better or worse, this is how things are going to be.
Given their next to zero success rate of promoting youth talent, it seems fair to ask why the likes of Chelsea or Manchester City even bother with academies at all. The answer is that even if they only produced a genuine diamond once every decade, then that would justify the entire enterprise. Plus, there is often a return on players who don’t make the grade. From the sales of Chalobah and Nathan Ake this summer, Chelsea reaped a handsome £25m dividend. In many cases, the academy will pay for itself. It is no major inconvenience.
A better question, perhaps, is why talented kids like Ake and Chalobah at Chelsea, or Phil Foden and Brandon Barker at City, want to attach themselves to top clubs in the first place when their hopes of making a first-team breakthrough seem so hopelessly remote. It scarcely seems to matter how talented you are, how highly your coach speaks of you, when the fail-safe option on a first-team manager under serious pressure to deliver trophies is to reach for the chequebook and splash out on Europe’s next big thing.
Of course, many of these young players have been at those clubs for long periods. Foden joined City when he was eight. Chalobah signed for Chelsea at 10, having been at nearby Fulham. Realistically, what kid is going to resist the lure of a top club promising more money as well as a wealth of coaching and facilities? Even if it is ultimately parents to make these decisions, they are liable to be just as star-struck too. Fulham or Chelsea? To any ordinary mortal, it seems a no-brainer.
And yet. There is an alternative angle. Take the case of former Ireland striker, Robbie Keane. One of the most talented players his country had ever produced, Keane blazed comet-like through the Irish schoolboy scene and had a posse of English clubs chasing his signature. One of those was Liverpool, not the force they had been in the 1980s but still a top side and the club Keane had supported since boyhood. The decision seemed like no decision at all.
But when it came to the crunch, it wasn’t Liverpool or Arsenal or Celtic that Keane chose but relatively nondescript and mid-table Championship Wolverhampton. Explaining the decision, Keane said he liked the set-up and was encouraged by manager Mark McGhee who told him he would get games if he showed he was good enough. Exactly what the kid wanted to hear. He wanted to play and he wanted to score goals. The money was secondary. That could wait until later.
And by the age of 17 Keane was a regular first-team player at Wolves, playing up front with Steve Bull and instantly making a name for himself. Soon there was a £1m transfer to Premier League Coventry and, from there, a high-profile move to Internazionale. The wisdom of the latter move was debatable, but even though it didn’t work out, Keane still returned to England a hardened and experienced 21-year-old pro with a bright future stretching out before him.
Perhaps English football would be better off if more talented kids followed a similar template. It is often argued that even if they fail to make the grade at big clubs, the superior football education they supposedly receive will stand players in good stead. There may well be a grain of truth in this, but it is a moot point anyway. Because there is simply no substitute for playing games against more experienced and tougher opposition. This is proven time and time again.
Of course, there are no empirical certainties here. It’s impossible to know how Keane would have fared had he joined Liverpool instead of Wolves, but it’s hard to imagine him making the same rate of progress at least. In all his years at Chelsea, Chalobah has only ever started one game in the Premier League. Ross Barkley is only a year earlier and has played 150 times for Everton. You could argue that it was possibly too much too soon for Barkley, but better that surely than the other way around?
Wherever they are, talented kids, particularly English ones, need to be playing games against hardened opposition, not spending their days in verdant academy pastures, lording it over their less gifted peers. It was certainly no hindrance to Dele Alli to learn his trade at lowly Milton Keynes as opposed to one of the blue-chip academies. And while he had to spend a few seasons on loan, gaining experience away from White Hart Lane, it was fortunate for Harry Kane that he had a club and a manager who was willing to put such faith in him at the tender age of 20. Had he been with one of the top London or Manchester clubs, would Tottenham now be talking of £150m valuations to stave off unwanted interest from rival clubs? It’s doubtful to say the least.
It is not that the same question doesn’t pop up in other countries. In Spain, for example, the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid can ensure their kids get adequate game time because their B teams play in the lower divisions. English football does not facilitate this. Plans to enable the top clubs to enter reserve teams into lower League competitions have been met with fierce resistance from fans and officials of those clubs and rightly so. The fabric of the game has been ripped asunder enough as it is.
The top clubs hoarding the best young talent – the odd Southampton apart – isn’t good for the game, but young players should be aware they do have choices. It may seem great that Chelsea have won the last four FA Youth Cups and two of the last three Uefa Youth League titles, yet it is a fact that its brightest young products can’t get the hell out of dodge quickly enough. And while these clubs can point to the number of players they have out on loan, gaining experience at other clubs, these are, in reality, a poor substitute for belonging and feeling part of a club set-up where there is more than a token prospect of making the grade.
There is surely something to be said for starting humbly, like Keane and Alli, and making your way from there. But money talks, heads are turned and unlikely dreams so easily implanted. In January, Manchester City created quite a stir when paying a reported £175,000 for a 13-year-old defender which came to seem like modest pocket money when Real Madrid forked out over £30m for a 16-year-old Brazilian who arrives with the unfortunate “next Neymar” tag.
When such extravagant sums are on the table, it gets more and more difficult to argue that these kids might not be making the best decisions in terms of their future careers. History tells us, though, that more often than not, this is indeed the case.