Fears that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are creating a converyor belt of young talent for their own ends haunt Greg Gordon, in this extract from Scottish football periodical Nutmeg
You can understand any Celtic fan being excited by the loan signing of a player of pedigree and especially so when that player has been given as big a build-up as Chelsea’s Belgian under-21 star Charly Musonda.
As the 21-year-old arrived in Glasgow to sign an 18-month loan deal at the end of the January transfer window, Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers was keen to spell out the magnitude of the achievement.
He told the Scottish press: “I think there was something up to 24 clubs interested in taking Charly so for him to want to come to here and Chelsea very happily to want him to come is a great coup for us as a football club.
“It is also a great opportunity for Charly to show his talent. He is a very exciting player, very dynamic, wonderful ability on the ball, works very hard, loves his football and he is a bright player.”
Taken at face value, Rodgers, himself a one-time Chelsea youth and reserve manager, is right to be excited. Musonda began his career at Anderlecht before moving to Stamford Bridge at the age of 16, where he has featured seven times and enjoyed a loan spell in Spain’s La Liga with Real Betis, where he competed against Barcelona, among others.
In terms of talent, Musonda can play. However as a harbinger of a future foretold there is something about the Belgian’s transfer that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
I’ve been thinking about the future of so-called “selling clubs” and Scottish clubs involved in football’s recruitment arms race a lot recently. Especially so after reading Michael Calvin’s latest book, No Hunger In Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream.
It is a book that, tangentially at least, addresses the issue of the biggest clubs stockpiling the greatest talent at younger and younger ages against a background of global scouting. When a club like Chelsea can unashamedly boast 38 players sent out on loan, as they did in 2016, and another 33 out on loan this season then the alarm bells should be sounding. And especially so when this is done with the primary aim of using loaning clubs as finishing schools that can provide a shop window for players “bred to be sold” en masse to clubs at every level of the football pyramid.
In so doing, says Calvin, Chelsea “have turned the club’s Cobham complex from a cost centre into a profit centre”.
We’ve seen this before of course – big clubs’ cast-offs forced to start again at a lesser level. But this is different, because of scale alone. And because such decisions exist as part of a wider blueprint – an economic model designed to see Chelsea become a football talent factory whose well-bred youngsters fill in the gaps for everyone else, forever – it is an operation that repels just as it fascinates.
A look at the current list of Chelsea loanees provides evidence, were it ever needed, that this is talent development on an industrial scale. Chelsea’s 33 loanees include Kurt Zouma (a player who failed to get a work permit that would have enabled a transfer to Celtic in 2014), Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as high-profile exiles in the Premier League. But The Blues are covering all the bases, having also sent players as deep as the sixth tier of English football, down to Joao Rodriguez at Tampico Madero in the Mexican second division.
At Manchester City, another club with Celtic connections because of the role of Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell’s son Mark as City Football Group’s scouting and recruitment manager, a different economic model is in place. If anything its ambitions are even grander.
CFG is fundamentally a hegemonistic enterprise, an attempt to create a closed, self-sustaining cultural and financial system through exploiting satellite clubs around the globe. Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano has always intended for CFG to maintain a club in every significant territory and that is nearing reality. City are in the process of adding South America (Uruguay) to North America (New York), Australia (Melbourne) and Japan (Yokohama), with China next to come and India, surely prominent in the pipeline, according to Calvin.
A year on from the publication of the final volume of an era-defining trilogy that has seen Calvin tackle the roles of scouts, managers and youth development at the start of the 21st century, he is in the perfect place to survey a dynamically changing landscape.
“The Man City model in particular feels like the forerunner of the next big culture shift. It’s about cultural and financial consolidation, a closed system. Six clubs in five continents, a common culture of recruitment, preparation and playing. It is effectively its own internal market.”
He says: “You can see it at work already. Jack Harrison was picked up in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, developed at NYCFC under the watchful eyes of Patrick Vieira and then sold to Man City. From there he’s bounced to Middlesborough on loan. If he’s good enough he’ll remain in the City system. If not, he’ll be sold. And crucially, any fees that accrue, and all the money that’s changed hands so far, exists within the same collective pot of CFG.
“They are having it every way, really. Acting as their own middleman as they broaden the shop window for their particular brand of global talent ID and development.”
For Man City and for Chelsea it is a dog and pony show that sees Celtic, with their near-guaranteed annual access to Champions League football central to the piece, doing their sales marketing for them.
The mechanism whereby Celtic might develop and sell say, a Virgil Van Dijk, a Fraser Forster or a Victor Wanyama remains to some extent, and with it the oxygen of big transfer fees and sell-on clauses that historically have been the lifeblood of selling clubs such as Celtic. But the opportunities are diminishing.
The stockpiling of players at clubs like Chelsea and Man City and also the granular level of scouting intelligence means that any would-be selling club in Scotland has less to work with than ever in terms of quality in depth.
And it also means that one-time selling clubs have a massive decision to make. Do they commit to youth development at all, or simply look to build a first team from off-the-peg products of other clubs’ systems?
Clubs as diverse as Falkirk and Brentford have already decided that investment in an academy just doesn’t add up. And Calvin says that with the elite sides in England hoovering up the talent at ever-younger ages, those sides are no longer producing sellable talent for their own first teams. When that occurs, the cost of running an academy (£7 million for a Category 1 academy, and £2.5m for a Category 2 academy in England) is simply unsustainable.
Calvin says: “There will be fewer academies going forward. If you look maybe two to three years down the line I would think that maybe ten to 15 clubs will bin their academies.” While that could be a straightforward cost-benefit analysis for a Falkirk, a Raith Rovers or even an Aberdeen, Hearts or Hibs, Celtic are in a position to make a decision that is as ideological as it is financial.
And it stacks up as follows:
Do Celtic swell their ranks with players like Patrick Roberts, Jason Denayer, Dedryck Boyata, Odsonne Édouard or Charly Musonda, prioritising short-term gain?
Or do the Parkhead club remain steadfast in their resolve to rear and promote their own talent, in pursuit of their own, albeit high-risk, high-reward strategy? Musondas or Tierneys? Dembeles or Boyatas? Forrests or Roberts?
Given the personal and professional politics in play, I won’t be holding my breath that anything other than corporate expediency holds sway. And that is despite the assumed duty of care clubs exhibit towards the youngsters they sign for their own youth ranks. Can any club truly be seen to be selling false hope to boys that have little or no chance of ever donning the first team shirt of their parent club, ahead of a mercenary loanee being parachuted in from Stamford Bridge or The Etihad?
For his part, my Prep4Pro colleague Alan Rankin remains broadly sanguine, having been blown away by City’s youth development work on a recent visit to Manchester. Despite a sports science career spent with the likes of Rangers, Wales, Scotland Under-21s, Charlton and Hamilton, and with access to elite athletes across a broad spectrum of sports, Rankin says that the level of physical, financial and intellectual investment in youth at Man City is without parallel.
“Everything is done for a defined purpose. From the layout of the cafe facilities to the 8,000-seater covered stadium designed to simulate a Champions League arena. The drills and rehab. Little details like having youngsters responsible for their own bags, passports and boarding passes when they fly to tournaments abroad sounds insignificant, but it reflects a culture of creating self-reliant, responsible players.”
Rankin says that the environment recalls Vince Lombardi’s often quoted maxim: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” And he says: “You look at it and you have to think at some levels you can’t compete. I understand the implications of a secondary market model but there is no doubt that the players coming out of City will be very attractive to clubs precisely because of the upbringing they’ve received.”
However, he also believes that there needs to be a second tier of development that picks up and dusts down those players that either fall through the cracks of the youth academies’ mop-up operation or find themselves without an obvious route into professional football.
“If there’s going to be consolidation of opportunities then there will be an onus on external programmes like Prep4Pro to fill in the gaps. Whether that is through helping young players into education, into alternative markets such as the USA or in using alternative networks to place players into good clubs that will give them a second, or indeed, first chance to shine.”
As it is, Calvin says he will watch the developing situation with Musonda at Celtic with interest.
He says: “It is a free bet for Chelsea. They’ve got the boy placed with someone they trust in Brendan Rodgers and if he can play 60 games in the next 18 months then they’ll be ideally placed to take a decision on him. He may not make their first team but in the current inflated market he could easily command a fee of £15m, which would be a great return on investment.”
As for Musonda himself, game time in Glasgow will also bring clarity. Calvin says: “He deserves credit for taking up the challenge in Glasgow as opposed to say, returning to Belgium where he’d be treated like a local hero. But as with lots of these Chelsea players there’s the sense of him being spoiled already as a product of the Cobham car park culture where youth players are set up for life and driving £60k Range Rovers.
“The other argument is that with no financial need to succeed he can play his football with freedom. Perhaps he feels he’s got an outside chance of a national team call-up and will pursue that. No-one really knows what is in the heart or brain of any young footballer. That’s why success is never just a question of ability. And it is also why no-one has yet devised a model of youth development that comes with results guaranteed.”
• Greg Gordon is a next opponent analyst for a number of Scottish clubs. He works with www.prep4pro.com. This feature appears in Issue 7 of Nutmeg, a long-form publication devoted entirely to every aspect of Scottish football. It is published quarterly and is available via subscription at www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk