I’m always suspicious when wealthy clubs announce a sudden interest in youth development. Manchester City’s plan to build a new 80-acre academy, based along similar lines to Barcelona’s La Masia, raises all sorts of questions.
Admittedly, City are no slouches when it comes to producing and developing young players, and it was no surprise to see Micah Richards featuring prominently in City’s promotion of their plans.
But it’s one thing promoting one or two youngsters through the ranks. It’s something entirely different when you plan an international academy intended supply a steady stream of young players for a club’s first team.
It’s currently fashionable to cite the case of Barcelona, just as Ajax were the club “de rigeur” a few years back. Chelsea made similar noises about emulating Barcelona last season, when there was talk of hiring Txiki Beguiristain as technical director and even of Pep Guardiola being approached to become coach.
Chelsea had grand plans under Frank Arnesen for a youth development system that was to be the envy of world football. Yet six years after being poached from Tottenham, Arnesen is now at Hamburg, having taken a clutch of Chelsea’s most promising youngsters with him. Only Josh McEachran has broken through the ranks at Stamford Bridge and even he seems to be less favoured by Andre Villas-Boas than he was under Carlo Ancelotti.
The complaint today from Neil Lennon, that Chelsea have turned the head of Celtic teenager Islam Feruz, suggests that the club continue to buy in talent rather rear it themselves.
I hope Man City don’t follow Chelsea’s example but I suspect they will. My concern is that City will use the cover of a well-financed academy to buy in players from other clubs. If I was City’s academy director, that’s what I would be tempted to do.
After all, developing a style of play and club philosophy like Barcelona’s takes decades. The current Barca style can be traced back to the 1960s, when Vic Buckingham’s ideas about total football were developed at Ajax, before he, Johan Cruyff and later Rinus Michels, moved to Barcelona in the early 1970s.
City are trying to buy footballing credibility but youth development shouldn’t be about money. Youth development is as much an attitude as anything else. It is about having the confidence to play youngsters, not just having the money to develop those youngsters.
For City, though, investing in a youth academy has multiple benefits. They will be seen as a progressive club after splashing so much cash in the European transfer market. And in these days of Financial Fairplay (FFP), such projects are “tax deductable” – capital expenditure on youth development is not counted in club expenditure under UEFA’s FFP regulations.
If City’s plans do progress, it will be clubs further down the food chain who lose out. A wealthy club like City have the funds to tempt players and their families at 17 or 18, rather than at 21, when selling clubs at least get a transfer fee. Experience shows that compensation is never enough to stop rich clubs from grabbing the lion’s share of the spoils.
Now we have City, the richest club of all, trying to muscle in on youth development. Alarm bells should be ringing.