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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
One week on from The Great Chelsea Punishment and still the sense of shock reverberates through the global game. A steady stream of similar accusations have trickled in through the front door of FIFA HQ with some of English football's proudest names implicated in the scandal. Poaching, it is alleged, is a far wider problem than we thought. It's all a bit mystifying really, because any parent who allows their child to sign for a big four club is quite obviously a moron.

Back in the 1995-96 season, Manchester United showed the world just how profitable a good youth policy could be. David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers joined Ryan Giggs in the first team and romped to a league and cup double. But in today's world, that just wouldn't happen.

It is no coincidence that, of all the big English clubs, the two with the best record of blooding young talent are Arsenal and United. Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson have so much built-up political capital that they can afford to take chances. Only just, mind you. Wenger came in for heavy criticism over the summer for his belief in youth and some Manchester United fans would prefer that Ferguson spent some money on a big name front-man rather than giving Danny Welbeck any more chances. As for the rest of the EPL bosses, why should they bother? Rafa Benitez is in enough trouble as it is without taking risks on try-hard young shavers and one look at the tenure length of Carlo Ancelotti's predecessors would have dissuaded him from ever dipping into his youth team, a view he may have had to reassess now.

Football is not like the computer games. Players are not constant variables, they're big piles of nerves who need reassurance. You can't just drop a youngster into a team and expect him to perform at his peak. You certainly can't hope to judge a kid on 20 minutes at the end of a Carling Cup tie. Footballers need time to adjust, time to grow comfortable in front of large, unfriendly crowds. Quite simply, they need games. Even Beckham, a global superstar, took a while to make his potential obvious to observers. But who, outside of The Emirates, gets that time anymore?

The last academy player to seal a place in the first team at Anfield was Steven Gerrard and that was over ten years ago. Stephen Warnock, Neil Mellor and Darren Potter, all fortunate enough to be given short runs in the team, have long since gone. It's no better at Chelsea. Scott Sinclair made a handful of appearances, as did Carlton Cole and Jody Morris, but you have to go all the way back to John Terry to find a genuine success story. Even Arsenal and United eventually dispense with the vast majority of their youth teams. Why do so many parents think that their offspring will enjoy any more success than ten years worth of like-minded, equally capable hopefuls? Is it irrational hope or is just stupidity? Either way, it almost always ends with the same result; three years of reserve football, a season-long loan at Accrington Stanley and a free transfer at the age of 22.

Surely it's better for a young player to remain with the club that discovered them, where they might have a chance of playing football occasionally. Remember that we're not talking about business assets here, we're talking about children. Transfer a kid and you uproot him from his school, from his friends and from his family. You take a childhood game and you make it a career, piling on the pressure and the expectation. In response to that stress, they go one of two ways. Like Shane Supple, who recently retired from Ipswich at the age of 21, they grow to hate the sport or, as Cole admitted to doing recently, they believe themselves to be Gods and are eventually brought down to earth, or Charlton Athletic, with a nasty bump.

It is far easier and safer for a big club to spend GBP20m on a new, big name player than to try out a rookie. This is a simple fact of football that everyone seems to be aware of with the obvious exception of the parents who are apparently breaching contracts all over the world in the hunt for a big move for their 14 year olds.

Do you know the greatest irony of all of this? The big name, GBP20m players blocking the progress of the youth team are all coming from smaller sides, where they've been given the time to develop. Whatever those scouts are telling them, parents should know that it's always better to play for a little team, than rot in a big one.