No Room for United Youth as Fergie Goes Foreign
28.10.2002By David Conn
But this high farce will surely provide only light relief, the 19m statement of intent is clear: Englands champions will seek future European success by buying bigger than before.
This is a genuine departure for United, who have retained a backbone of home-developed players and wielded the chequebook with relative restraint, and it crystallises the argument that the influx of foreign players is reducing opportunities for our own. The dramatic increase, now to nearly 200 foreign players in the Premiership, has coincided unashamedly with around 110m spent establishing club-based youth academies, suggesting that the academies cost, in terms of rejected young players, are likely to be very high indeed.
United chairman Martin Edwards, hailing - pre-medical - Van Nistelrooys signing, said that Ferguson could have money for a defender too, but would have to sell to balance the books. Bit-part strikers Sheringham and Solskjaer are the obvious high profile candidates, but Fergusons cost-trimming stretches further than that. A quieter, more dispiriting exodus, of young graduates of Uniteds academy, has been trudging out of Old Trafford for some time now. Although Uniteds official retain and transfer list is not released until mid-May, it is likely that of the U-19 age group whose contracts expire this year, only two will be given contracts: left back Kirk Hilton and goalkeeper Paul Rachubka. Several of the 15 originally taken on at U-16 level have already left; five more will have been released by the summer, including two strikers, Paul Wheatcroft and Ian Fitzpatrick, both former England schoolboy internationals, whose chances have receded out of sight. Several older pros are also being cleared out, including Jonathan Greening and Michael Clegg.
The presence of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Nevilles gives United the appearance of a club based on youth, but since the blossoming of their 1992 FA Youth Cup winning side, barely a single United youngster has broken through. With Ferguson himself describing his team as still maturing, and the new preparedness to make big signings, opportunities look yet more limited. Yet, as at all Premiership clubs, the youth system continues to recruit, now steering boys through the academy at the formidable 14m Carrington complex in Cheshire.
Paul Wheatcroft believes he was perhaps nave when he signed United schoolboy forms at 15, and might have gone to a smaller club. But he was a starry-eyed, talented teenager, not contemplating failure, and United wanted him. His first YTS season was encouraging, with 30 goals scored for the B team, but from 1998, when the academy started, he became gradually worn down by the limits on advancement, even to the reserves. At the start of this season, he and Fitzpatrick were sent to Uniteds satellite club, FC Fortune in South Africa, where they worked hard for three months, as Fegusons ambassadors. But on their return, breaks were limited again.
There were so few opportunities and so many senior players, he says, yet they took too many young players on, some of whom they knew wouldnt make it.
On February 2nd, both boys played in an 11-man United team in a friendly at Halifax. The ground was full of scouts, all of whom had had the official teamsheet handed to them. It was the first the players knew that they would be released. Fitzpatrick caught the eye of Halifax themselves, who signed him. Wheatcroft went to see Ferguson. He was told he would not make the first team for several years, and it would be better if he left.
Wheatcroft does not criticise Ferguson, whom he says has treated him well and helped him find a new club - he will go on a free transfer to Bolton at the end of the season, although Ferguson has insisted on a 50% share of any sell-on fee. Wheatcroft believes Ferguson is himself a prisoner of the instant-success demands of modern football.
He told me that three or four years ago he might have kept us on, but now there is no time to give anyone a chance.
But they do get too big a batch in, in the hope that maybe one will make it. That isnt fair. Its been quite hard and traumatic.
He is, though, not bitter, acknowledging that the United experience will stand him in good stead and that Bolton, his hometown club, represents a brilliant move. And, aged 19, with a football career ahead of him, he is understandably circumspect about discussing his experiences. His father Peter, though, is plainly furious:
Its a disgrace, he says. There is no youth policy - no policy of actually playing youngsters. The plcs need instant success, to make money and satisfy the shareholders, so they go out and buy. They cant afford to wait. The academies are just a trawl so they dont miss out on a single young player. They are meat markets.
Dave Richardson, head of Premier League youth development, argues that football is cyclical, that in a few years the trend, partly driven by economics, will revert to favour home grown youth. Academies shouldnt be judged now, he says, at only two years old. You have to be patient and give this concerted coaching a chance. In five to six years we can hope to be producing a technically better player.
His talks of production rates, of judging the academies according to how many players they produce for first teams, how many as saleable articles. He says the game has to persuade the chairmen to give youth a chance - a surprising necessity given the investment in academies. Personally, Richardson favours feeder clubs, yet admits that at present, as with Uniteds shedding of players, the Premiership academies are providing talent for the Nationwide League, not the other way round. And he makes two astonishing admissions: the coaching of younger children, he says, is not of high quality, and talent identification not what it should be. This seems to call into question Howard Wilkinsons academy initiative itself, which allowing clubs sole control of so many youngsters - 40 per year from U-9 to U-12, reducing to 15 per year from U-17 to U-21 - without such basics being in place.
Last nights Alan Hansen-presented BBC programme Footballs Foreign Legion offered a predictably vacuous, star-struck contribution to the debate, but, almost unwittingly, it contained, from Hansen and Kevin Keegan, one remarkable exchange. The game, Hansen said, would never act in in its own long term interests: clubs, chairmen, managers and players would continue to look after themselves, and their sole motivation would be money. Keegan, England manager, wholeheartedly, cheerfully agreed it was a pipe dream to expect anything different. Such honesty is welcome from old pros, but where does it leave the raw, eager teenager, arriving at the high gates of the football corporations, with his boots slung over his shoulder, and a heart full of football dreams?