Maybe there’s a compromise position within the debate surrounding the role of Premier League clubs in the development of young players?
In late July, The Independent’s Jack Pitt-Brooke revealed that Jadon Sancho, Manchester City’s young, incendiary attacking prospect has grown frustrated with the cluttered pathways at the club. In an apparent attempt to force his release, amid interest from Arsenal and Tottenham, Sancho has placed himself in exile, refusing to return to Manchester until his future is clarified.
It’s a dispiriting scenario. Sancho is talented, that much was clear during May’s European u17 Championship, but his claims to a first-team place are still tenuous. City are obviously overstocked in every attacking position, even more so after a financially aggressive summer, and it’s unclear what – if any – assurances he can be given. Football, particularly at that level, is a fluid business. City’s year-to-year imperative is to compete at the highest European and domestic level, so predicting the shape and texture of the first-team squad in eighteen, twelve, or even six months’ time is an imperfect science at best.
Sancho could be promised opportunities, shown development graphs and given assurances about his timeline, but what would that really be worth? Even his own progress isn’t guaranteed,.
Still, it’s easy to side with the player. The Premier League, perhaps rightly, is now routinely portrayed as the enemy of the homegrown player. The short-term culture it encourages, the argument suggests, keeps its member clubs in thrall to the transfer market, meaning that ready-made solutions are far more appealing than developing prospects who come with a time-lag.
We know this. We’re told about in on an almost daily basis.
But it must be possible to accept that there are two sides to the argument – even if one is of greater weight. There are plenty of anecdotes, even just from the last few years, which suggest that teams are in the habit of making false promises to players. Those who have read Michael Calvin’s deep dive into the development networks, No Hunger In Paradise, will be aware of the case involving Kieran Bywater and West Ham; it would be naive to assume that to be an exception or to believe that, in every case, young footballers are being sold accurate projections of their future or even being treated fairly.
However, there’s a burden of responsibility on the players themselves. Jadon Sancho, for instance, left Watford two years ago to join City. Admittedly, he wasn’t short of motivation: the Etihad Complex is an enviable training facility, the standard of coaching – within the academy and at the club as a whole – was far superior, and City are assured of a place at the top of English football for decades. Why wouldn’t Sancho crave that kind of opportunity in that sort of environment? It must be a difficult incentive to resist – of course it is – but there lies the benefit of sound advice.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, for instance, the route he has taken was always likely to lead him to this point. Under the Abu Dhabi Group’s ownership, the club’s record for graduating youth players is non-existent. Between Sancho arriving and the present standoff, City have signed Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne, Nolito and Bernardo Silva. Dispiriting perhaps, but hardly unexpected – nobody advising the player in 2015 can credibly claim surprise over that aggressive transfer policy.
There might be unforeseen circumstances at work. It would be reductive, for instance, to pretend that family issues don’t often influence the direction of an embryonic career. Similarly, it would be unrealistic to expect a youngster’s eyes not to light up at the chance of joining a Champions League club or to ignore the illusion of security and advancement perpetuated by the decadent facilities.
But still, they must know. They must know that the air is thinner at that height, that their talent won’t quite stand out in the same way and that, ultimately, if there is the slightest hint of doubt over their ability to translate, an off-the-peg star is just a swift bank transfer away.
Clubs hold the greater sway over a career and players will always rely on academy managers and head-coaches for opportunities. But that is just one side of this issue; a truly healthy system may depend on a growing commitment to harvesting academy investment, but it will also rely on players’ sense of realism and their willingness to prioritise senior minutes over profile.
The recent flurry of players who have walked away from big contracts has created a series of instructions for how to wriggle free. The more valuable lesson, perhaps, is the need to stay out of those dragnets in the first place.
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