The challenge of becoming a professional footballer is fraught with peril. The dream of becoming a first team player with a top-flight side is even more precarious. Every year children as young as eight join club academies and work their way up through the age levels until a decision has to be made by academy staff as to whether they will make it to the 16+ group – in other words, those deemed talented enough to have a shot at a career.
I suppose training to become a professional footballer is like training for any specialised profession. If you want to become an actor, or a vet, or a doctor, you have to undertake specific training. Not many of our leading stars of stage and screen get where they are by busking it. Equally, if you ask anyone you know what they wanted to be when they were a nipper, it’s likely that very few will have ended up in the job they dreamed of doing when a child.
There’s a litany of players who have been touted as ‘the next big thing’. I’ve always found the Wayne Harrison story poignant as he is roughly the same age as I am. For those who are too young, or don’t remember, in March 1985 despite having played only two first team games for Oldham Athletic, Harrison, aged just 17, signed for Liverpool for £250,000; a record at the time for a teenager.
Liverpool loaned him straight back to Oldham and he played a further five games that season. When he joined Liverpool at the start of the 85-86 season, he was brought through the reserves and was on the verge of making the first team, when he suffered the first of a series of accidents and injuries which led to his retirement at the age of just 22, having endured no fewer than 23 football-related operations. He now earns a living as a driver for a brewery.
At the start of the Noughties, any use of the word ‘prodigy’ in connection with football would usually be followed with the name ‘Freddy Adu’. Born in Ghana in 1989, he moved to the United States, aged 8, with his family and became a US citizen. Soon after moving to the States, he was discovered by a local coach near the family home in Maryland, and began playing against boys several years older than him. At the age of 10, his mother allegedly turned down a six-figure offer from Inter Milan after he was spotted by a number of Italian clubs. At 14 he became the youngest American sportsman for over 100 years to sign a professional contract when he joined DC United of the MLS, was hailed as “the new Pele” and subsequently signed a sponsorship deal with Nike.
And after that ….. pffft. In 2006 he had a fortnight’s loan which Manchester United which came to nothing following his failure to gain a work permit, joined Benfica in 2007, had a season on loan at Monaco in 2008-2009, a loan deal with Greek side Aris in 2010, moved to Caykur Riezspor in 2011, returned to the MLS with Philadelphia Union later that year and this very week joined Bahia of Brazil.
With Adu it’s not difficult to describe the standard of football he’s played at as out of proportion to the hype generated. However, you wonder how much of the hype was driven by a US football system desperate to find its own home-grown hero in the years following the World Cup and in the genesis of the MLS, combined with the undoubted marketing push of Nike. Whilst it would be harsh to describe Adu at the age of 22 as not so much a has-been but a never-was, there is a real danger that he will never fully develop into anything other than a football nomad.
Meanwhile, at Chelsea FC we’ve had a long list of players who looked like the next big thing and never really fulfilled their promise. It seems a bit unfair to list the likes of Jody Morris and Jon Harley in this category as at least they’ve gone on to enjoy professional careers of reasonable longevity, albeit at a lower level.
But a classic case appears to be that of Leon Knight, whose most notable achievements in recent years would appear to be misbehaving on social media, being the originator of a ferocious and very public spat with notorious WAG Danielle Lloyd on Twitter and creator of the ‘Slag Alert Pictures’ hashtag where he encouraged men to post pictures of ex-partners.
The storm of opprobrium led to the Daily Mail not only labelling him a “journeyman footballer”, but adding “failed” to it. The New Statesman went one better, describing him as “ex-footballer and noted misogynist”. It is difficult to believe that Knight was once also described as “the new Pele” (how journalists love this phrase!). He has racked up an impressive (sic) fifteen clubs, if you include loan spells, and is currently without a team, having been released by Glentoran who invoked a clause in his contract in May after posting critical remarks, again on Twitter, on Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage.
Since the late 1990s, Chelsea have targeted not only the UK for youth talent, but much of Europe. Sam Dalla Bona and Luca Percassi were two early acquisitions in the Vialli era, both of whom made the first team. Mikkel Forssell was a Finnish international at 17, although he, too, has endured an injury-blighted career. However, it has been in the last ten years since the Abramovich takeover that not only have Chelsea sought the cream of Europe’s youth, but the cream of Europe’s youth have seen the academy as an attractive proposition.
No expense has been spared in trying to create the next John Terry. The supporters love a home-grown player, even if it’s one from abroad. However, no matter how high the hopes for Mbark Boussoufa, Sebastian Kneissl, Franco di Santo, and Miroslav Stoch, none of them have ever quite made it.
Indeed the dangers of the race to unearth the best global talent were exposed by the deal which brought Gael Kakuta to Stamford Bridge. Kakuta’s former club, Lens, claimed that Chelsea had induced the player to breach his contract. FIFA subsequently banned Kakuta for four months, Chelsea were banned from two transfer windows, and swingeing fines were levied. However, on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the punishments were overturned when CAS ruled that Kakuta’s contract with Lens was invalid and therefore he could not have breached it.
The issue of home-grown players failing to progress is even more vexed, most notably in recent years in the cases of Scott Sinclair and Josh McEachran. Both have been unlucky enough to sustain serious injuries shortly after getting a few first team games, and loan spells at Wigan and Swansea saw Sinclair depart permanently. Whether the same fate befalls McEachran, currently at Middlesbrough, remains to be seen.
The club now seems to run a system whereby talent is identified, signed to prevent another club swooping, and then sending the player out on loan. UK born players seem to tend to join clubs at Championship level, with the remainder farmed out across Europe, notably highly-rated goalie Thibault Courtois, who is in his second, highly-successful, season at Atlético Madrid.
And there appears to be further light at the end of the tunnel. Ryan Bertrand has emerged over the last 12 months as a fully-fledged member of the first team squad and has a Champions League winner’s medal to prove it. The Chelsea youth team are enjoying a period of unprecedented success. FA youth cup winners in 2010 and 2012, the team have again progressed through to the semi-finals this year where they will face Liverpool. The players in the Under-19 classification have made it through to the NextGen semi-finals following impressive displays against Barcelona and Juventus.
Furthermore, the composition of the under-21 and academy teams is interesting; the split between players qualified to play for England and those playing for other nations in the under-21s is 50/50, but in the 26 man academy squad, no fewer than 18 players have received England call-ups. So are we now reaping the benefit of policies implemented ten years ago? Despite encouraging signs like Nathan Ake’s FA Cup replay appearance against Middlesbrough, how many of them will make the first team? And there’s another issue.
In the light of Financial Fair Play, are Chelsea supporters willing to put their trust in a crop of youngsters, however talented, who might not win anything for a couple of seasons? Arsenal have tried this route and failed to win anything since 2005. Paul Lambert’s brave attempt at a similar system at Aston Villa this season has the potential to end in disaster.
And, finally, the killer question is this. The stated aim of the academy on the Chelsea FC website reads “To produce home-grown professional footballers capable of competing with Europe’s elite players”. If a high percentage of this generation of young Chelsea players, given the most up to date training facilities and medical care, can’t make it to first team level, does there then come a point at which the club decides that further large-scale investment is an unjustifiable expense?
We now turn to the latest news from The Chelsea Supporters Trust. As well as having the usual matchday presence on the cfcuk stall, where would-be Trust members can join up in person, the Working Group will be descending on SW6 en-masse before the Sunderland game as a part of the ongoing membership drive. Not only will they be handing out information leaflets all around the stadium, volunteers will also be visiting local hostelries in order to talk to fans face to face about joining the Trust.
However, if you’re not at the Sunderland game, or any other match, it goes without saying that you can still join the Trust by visiting the website. Membership costs just £5 per year and will entitle you to participate in the forthcoming Members’ Survey which will drive the policies and aspirations of the Trust, as well as enabling you to elect the Trust Board at the AGM which will be held in August.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67.