On one of my endless car journeys this weekend as I move house, I tuned in for a moderately interesting discussion on the state of the English game on Radio 5Live involving Mark Lawrenson and Jermaine Jenas, which feels an unlikely sentence now I’ve written it.
Nevertheless, the BBC pundits were debating the travails of Manchester United in keeping David de Gea out of the clutches of Real Madrid, and it got to talking about why, despite all the money sloshing about the upper reaches of English football, our biggest clubs really aren’t quite as big as the Spanish clubs and couldn’t attract or keep the mega stars of world football. Obviously, there are many explanations for this, but Jenas noted that English clubs were behind in development of their own stars.
He didn’t expand as the conversation moved on, but it was a good point. What he meant was that, when you develop someone like Messi, Iniesta or Muller, you are much more likely to keep hold of them. They have an emotional attachment to the club, and are the most reliable building blocks for great teams as they are the least likely players to be swayed by money and move away. Obviously, they aren’t guaranteed to stay, but if they do it is more likely to be later in their careers when they want a new challenge.
Unsurprisingly, this conversation got me thinking about Spurs, and how we compare to other English clubs in the homegrown stakes.
Barcelona and Bayern are obviously the most famous clubs in terms of youth development, and their squads have a large number of homegrown players, supplemented with stars of the the world game. If any clubs feel like a model to follow, it is these two.
On the other hand, there were very few homegrown players of any classification on show among the biggest five English clubs this weekend.
Here is a look at the squads:
Manchester United: None in starting X1. On the bench, Andreas Pereira, a Brazilian who first moved to PSV and then to Man United aged 16. Sam Johnstone — a fully homegrown player who was due to go out on loan but was in the squad due to the chaotic goalkeeping situation at the club. Paddy McNair — a fully homegrown player.
Chelsea: John Terry in starting XI, no other homegrown players in matchday squad.
Arsenal: In starting XI, Francis Coquelin joined club at age of 17 from France. Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were developed at Cardiff and Southampton respectively, and joined for large fees. On the bench, Kieran Gibbs is fully homegrown, while Theo Walcott and Callum Chambers were bought from Southampton for large fees.
Liverpool: In starting XI, Joe Gomez was bought from Charlton this summer for a large fee. Jordan Ibe was signed aged 16 from Wycombe Wanderers, after he’d already appeared 7 times for the Buckinghamshire club. None on bench.
Manchester City: Joe Hart was bought aged 18 (or maybe 19) from Shrewsbury for a modest fee, after he made more than 50 appearances for the Shropshire club. On the bench, Jason Denayer was brought over from Belgium aged 17 or 18, while Kelechi Iheanacho joined the club from Nigeria at the same age.
Whichever way you look at it, it is slim pickings. John Terry, like him or loathe him, appears very much the exception — he came through the youth system at Chelsea (via West Ham at a young age) and has been a stalwart for more than a decade. Joe Hart may not be a Manchester boy, and has had his ups and downs, but nevertheless he is part of the furniture at the Etihad now. Maybe Jordan Ibe becomes the next Liverpool legend, but you only have to look at the Raheem Sterling debacle to see how things can unfold for young prospects at Liverpool who don’t have Scouse DNA, for all that entails.
A fair number of the players have been purchased from overseas into the youth systems at a relatively late age — I presume this is a result of the change in rules regarding classification of homegrown players a while back. The success of this strategy is open to question — over the years, how many of these young guns drafted in at the age of 16 or 17 have made the grade and stayed long-term?
A fun football parlour game is to guess: Where is Frank Arnesen now? He wasn’t at Spurs long, but his record at Chelsea in the five years he was sporting director looks increasingly poor. None of the youth players he signed have amounted to much (I guess there is Nemanja Matic, eventually and expensively), and Chelsea have been abject in getting youth players into the first team, despite years of success in youth competitions. Gary Neville summed it up last season when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was “paraded like an exotic animal” to the media before getting a few minutes of Champions League action the following evening.
(Frank Arnesen, since leaving Chelsea in 2010, has been at the German basket case Hamburg, Metalist in Ukraine and now PAOK in Greece. My guess is, his reputation isn’t quite what it was within the game)
Arsenal’s record is better, or at least that is the perception. But is it really? Here are a few names from the 2010/2011 squad, that could be considered homegrown or were purchased directly into the youth teams:
Djourou, Song, Wilshere, Fabregas, Eboue, Denilson, Bendtner, Fabianski, Diaby, Gibbs, Vela, Mannone, Traoré, Frimpong.
It is quite a list! A parade of young imports, once the future of the club and the building blocks through the tough financial period of the early Emirates days, have been and gone. Just Wilshere and Gibbs remain, and Arsenal have produced no consistent first-teamers since then. You can argue that, for the huge fees received for Fabregas and Clichy, Arsenal’s strategy worked — but only if the strategy was purely financial, and not long-term team-building.
When did Manchester United last produce a regular first-term contributor? Jonny Evans I believe. Sure, James Wilson got a few games last season but is far from a regular, while Adnan Januzaj may or may not be a world-class player in the making. He’s an import into the academy in his late teens — a bit like Paul Pogba, now a world-class player at Juventus and football’s Mr Clickbait, and Gerard Pique, a stalwart for Barcelona ever since leaving and the partner of Shakira. The Da Silva twins are both out of the club now. It feels an awfully long way from the Class of 92.
Manchester City are linked with almost every young English prospect around, so desperate are they to hit homegrown quotas. They’ve produced no young players since the injection of the Abu Dhabi oil money. They don’t have a single Mancunian in their first team squad.
Liverpool meanwhile, now without Stevie Gerrard, have all of one Scouser in their first team squad for the Premier League this season: Jon Flanagan. Flanagan, 35 career appearances for the club, is the closest Liverpool have come to getting a local boy up through the ranks since Gerrard himself, all those years ago. After that? Anyone remember Jay Spearing? Neil Mellor? Again, it feels a long time since Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.
I should add, this isn’t a jingoistic point. There are plenty of foreign players who have come in, and become deeply attached to their clubs, like Thierry Henry did at Arsenal (yes, us Spurs fans can accept he was a great player now that he is long retired). You take Vincent Kompany, who wandered as a prodigy from Anderlecht to Hamburg, but who blossomed into a world-class player at Manchester City and found a home. Now, more than anyone, he is the pillar of the club and the connecting point for fans, and even has a Mancunian accent, amusingly.
Spurs stand very much in contrast.
The squad on Saturday featured a number of players of various homegrown classifications: Kyle Walker, Nabil Bentaleb, Our Lord and Saviour Harry Kane, Ryan Mason and Tommy Carroll. Danny Rose, Alex Pritchard and Andros Townsend may all have made the squad if they were fit. Spurs are going very much all-in on youth at the moment, and as I noted recently, this is pretty risky and may not be a strategy our chairman has the required patience to pull off.
This doesn’t make Spurs better or worse in terms of “how you should do things”. Despite what Liverpool fans may think, there is no footballing “purity test” that somehow renders some clubs superior to others.
But when you look at the record of the Big Five (let’s face it, we are 6th by most measures), you can see why Spurs are thinking of going a different route. It’s the old Billy Beane line about the Oakland A’s front-office in the Moneyball movie — “We play like the Yankees in here, we’ll lose to the Yankees out there”. Until the new stadium is built, Spurs don’t have a hope of competing financially, so basic logic screams out: Be different.
It will be a losing road for a while. It will be a lonely road while Spurs sink out of the media spotlight that focuses in on the bigger-spending clubs. And it may be road to nowhere, given the immense vagaries in the development of human beings and ability to maximize potential.
But for the time being, as a Spurs fan I’ll take pride in seeing a fair number of local boys trotting out at the Lane, and also pulling on the England shirt with regularity.