For twenty years, almost every Manchester United fan could describe the perfect Fergie signing; young, talented and with scope for improvement. But it is high time this should stop. Signings like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are the perfect examples of how United can develop talented youngsters into world class players but there is something fundamentally wrong with this approach. It was for these reasons I was adamantly against the signing of Luke Shaw last season, and I am also against any proposed signing of Harry Kane this summer.
The first problem is that spending north of £30m on any player under the age of 23 is a huge risk; regardless of how supremely talented these players are, there is no guarantee that early impressive trajectories will follow that trend when they reach their more mature years. The majority footballing prodigies tend to be early peakers. They present the illusion of endless possibilities, only to be overtaken by players who develop at a slower but more consistent pace. One must remember that for every Cristiano there is a Nani and a Bebe, for every Messi there is a Bojan Krkic and a Pedro… not all bad players but not worth anywhere near the millions that could be spent on them. And it is in this example where United have got it completely wrong and Barcelona have got it right. Where United take risks signing players like these three for big money, Barcelona bring their young players through the ranks. Where you could argue for that the example provided each of the clubs saw one success (Cristiano and Messi) and two (relative) failures, one club spent millions on their failures and the other spent nothing. Another point that comes hand in hand with this one is the affinity that these players have with the club that developed them. Whilst Messi is Argentinean and not from Barcelona, he has developed his whole career there, he grew up there, it is his club. Cristiano is not a son of Manchester, and thus playing for Manchester United was never his dream. So after all the hopes of developing one of the best players in the world was finally realised, United lost him at his peak, whilst Barcelona still enjoy Messi.
‘But United do bring youth through!’ I hear you cry, and yes they do, but what opportunities do these players truly get to turn into world class talent? Try to think of the youth products that got a real chance to break into the first team over the last 10 years. Fletcher, Welbeck, Januzaj, Evans, Brown, O’Shea? There are not too many more who can claim to have come through our academy and have more than 15 league games per season. Furthermore, all of these players to some degree were asked to play in different positions when breaking through rather than being given the opportunity to develop their expertise in one particular position. It’s a scattergun approach to development in direct opposition to the sniper like approach our club used to have. Not since Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham have we had a youngster come through and be clearly defined as a right back, central midfielder, winger or any other position. Why is this?
The second problem is that prospective youth players paths are blocked to the first team. The old adage is that if you are good enough you are old enough, but it is not practically true at United, there is also a simple case of economics to adhere to. When United spend £17m on Phil Jones and £12m on Chris Smalling, talented but unproven youngsters, to come in as backup to first teamers Ferdinand and Vidic, it sends a message to any would be youth products. They simply cannot break through into the first team. If a choice is to be made between giving valuable developmental minutes to a youngster, the ones who cost the club millions will always take priority over the ones that cost nothing. Only this week Tom Thorpe was axed from a club he loves, a club he has been with for years, for what? The answer is because Sir Alex Ferguson took a decision to buy two talented but expensive youngsters that play in that position a few years earlier; talent that has been unfulfilled, as pointed out earlier. Now United have a surplus of players in central defence, none of which is good enough to lace the boots of their predecessors.
Tom Thorpe, Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair may not ever have worked at Manchester United, in the same way that Jonny Evans has not fulfilled his early hopes, but at least United didn’t fork out millions upon millions of pounds for them that could have been invested in readymade talent. Buying potential is all well and good but United fans need to remember that that is all it is. Potential. Potential gives you no guarantees, as we have seen with Nani, Anderson, Jones, Smalling, Bebe, Djemba Djemba, Kleberson, Obertan, Bellion, Diouf, Dong, Manucho and the list continues. I accept the notion that spending big money on star names also doesn’t always work out, as we saw to some degree with Diego Forlan, Juan Veron and thus far with Angel Di Maria, but Manchester United’s major failings on players that cost more than £25m are scarce in comparison to the failed youngsters they have brought in from other clubs. Furthermore, these star players had a history before United so the club are guaranteed some sell on value with this kind of player, with United accumulating decent transfer fees for the likes of Veron in the past despite his difficult time in Manchester.
Imagine for a moment that you are in the shoes of James Wilson, a supremely talented youngster who has not had a fair crack of the whip in the United starting line-up because he has had the likes of Rooney, Falcao and van Persie ahead of him. Now imagine that another youngster, Harry Kane, who has had ONE great season is brought in to your club at the price of £50m+. What on earth is going though your mind? The club would rather take a £50m risk on someone else’s kid than on you, someone who has been there for years. It must be demoralising! Now put yourself in the shoes of all the other academy players who were looking to James Wilson to break through, to give themselves the belief that they also can one day play for the first team. Shattered dreams everywhere. And for what? Potential? Nathaniel Clyne is another young-ish player whose name is being thrown around in the press. What then of Saidy Janko? Why bother with an academy at all?
Look at Luke Shaw, United spend £30m on him after ONE successful year in Southampton’s first team, now he can hardly get a game ahead of Daley Blind when all players are fit, a player who cost half the amount of money and is a lot more talented, intelligent and experienced. There is no guarantee that Luke will ever be the next Patrice Evra, it is currently a hope, a fantasy, a dream. A dream that could have been invested in one of our own, with that £30m being spent on a world class, ready to go, central midfielder.
United need to take a leaf out of Barcelona’s book, they are the standard bearers now. They spend huge amounts of money on readymade stars and spend nothing on unproven young players, bringing their own through and giving them a GENUINE opportunity to flourish. What was once United’s philosophy of bringing in youngsters and giving them a true opportunity has become diluted, fooling fans into a sense that we really give youth a chance. We don’t. We must.
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