United, Chelsea and co. face the rap for poaching, but incompetent FA should come under scrutiny
Posted by nickogs20 on September 7, 2009
With the Kakuta and Pogba cases dominating the back pages in this internationally-induced slow news fortnight, United, Chelsea and their English peers are under fire from all directions once again for their recruitment of young players from abroad. While they may or may not have a case to answer legally and morally, there is a definite guilty party whose role in the piece has thus far barely been touched upon.
As soon as the Gael Kakuta story broke last week, my first thought was ‘are we next?’. For those who have been holidaying under a rock in the last few days, Chelsea have been banned from registering new players for the next two transfer windows and their 18 year-old French attacker Gael Kakuta banned from playing for four months after the West London club were found guilty by FIFA of inducing the then 15 year-old Kakuta to breach his contract (or pre-contract agreement) with RC Lens and sign for them instead.
On the face of it, it appears a very similar signing to that of Paul Pogba by United from Le Havre earlier this summer – a 15/16 year-old French youngster said to have signed an agreement that would tie him into a professional contract with his club when eligible instead deciding to move to England, with talk of financial inducements offered to the player and his parents. Sure enough, the media soon made the link, and Le Havre were swift in submitting their case to FIFA.
Of course we don’t know the finer details of either case and just how similar they are. United maintain they have done everything by the book and will vigorously defend themselves against any case made by Le Havre (who have been exposed as somewhat hypocritical, having ‘poached’ Pogba from amateur club Torcy two years ago (link in French), and whose ire at losing the player seems somewhat strange given their confession that they were happy to let him move to Lyon this summer), while Chelsea are said to be “supremely confident” of proving their innocence on appeal. Nonetheless, both clubs stand accused of breaching FIFA regulations, as well as of acting in immoral fashion in cherry-picking smaller clubs’ most promising young talent.
Whether United (or indeed Chelsea, given their intention to appeal) have done anything legally wrong remains to be seen, and individuals will have to make up their own minds regarding the moral rights and wrongs of such transfers – a terrific article on The Run of Play covers that far better than I can. One charge on which I will loudly and lengthily proclaim the clubs’ innocence however – or at least mitigating circumstances – is the renewed accusation of marginalising young English talent with the constant acquisition of cut-price foreign starlets.
Journalists, pundits, many fans and – most notably – the footballing authorities in this country constantly bemoan the lack of English/British youngsters coming through and the presence of foreign prospects in Premier League academies, and have gleefully seized upon the Kakuta/Pogba controversies as an opportunity to re-air their criticism, and yet they fail to recognise that in many ways, the clubs really have no choice but to look abroad if they want to keep up with their continental rivals.
This is all comes down to the infamous ’90 minute’ ruling of course, the FA’s brainwave that restricts clubs to recruiting only those youngsters who live within a ninety minute commute of their academy. For United, that means a radius that falls just short of Birmingham in the south, just past Doncaster or York in the east and up to the Lake District in the north, with the Irish Sea severely limiting the area to the west. That’s a small enough area of the country as it is, without considering that eight other current Premier League clubs are located within that radius, and a number of others (those in the Birmingham/Black Country area, those in the North East) can also scout large swathes of it. Indeed, only Portsmouth and the five London clubs aren’t in direct competition with the Reds for young players. And that’s just from the 20 Premier League teams.
The point of this rule? Seemingly to stop the top clubs hoovering up all the best young prospects. To be fair to the little guy, essentially, an exercise in fairness. All very noble, but ultimately flawed in that the limited talent pool open to the top clubs has left them with the option of either recruiting below-standard local talent to make up the numbers, paying through the nose in compensation to acquire the gems from other clubs, or looking abroad, where the rules allow them to bring in talented youngsters for a fraction of the cost. Is it really any surprise they take that third option, especially when the Barcelona’s and AC Milan’s of this world have no such restrictions when it comes to scouting and recruiting within their own country?
An example, if I may – Sean McGinty, the 16 year-old centre-back United bought from Charlton Athletic this summer. Without the 90-minute rule, United’s scouting operation would have extensively covered the South East and may well have discovered McGinty several years ago and made efforts to bring him to the club. As it was, they were unable to do so, and he joined Charlton. Now the Reds obviously rated the player enough in this instance to agree compensation with Charlton to bring the player on-board at 16 – rumoured to be in the region of £500,000, as well as future payments dependent on player progress and club success. Had they discovered a young Italian with similar ability and potential however, they could and probably would have acquired him for roughly a fifth of the cost, with no future payments – and who could really blame them?
The laughable thing is that the same FA that introduced the ninety minute ruling regularly bemoan the influx of foreign youngsters, seemingly blissfully unaware that it’s their ruling that has played such a massive part in that influx. Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA’s director of development, complains that “it’s hugely frustrating for kids at English clubs to be told they’re not good enough at 16 because of the number of overseas youngsters filling academies and centres of excellence”, and yet the odds are most of those kids aren’t good enough simply because the available talent is spread so thin.
On average United probably take on 10 kids on scholarships every year – it’s debatable whether there are twenty age-eligible kids who are genuinely good enough in the club’s catchment area every year, and that’s without factoring in other clubs looking to sign them up too, so United may end up with five of the required quality, maybe a couple more in a ‘good’ year. Brooking would rather the club signed up five other local kids who weren’t up to scratch, or go through the hassle of tribunals and the expense of compensation to acquire them from other clubs, but why on earth should they when they can instead bring in superbly-talented young players like Giuseppe Rossi, Gerard Piqué or Kiko Macheda for a relative pittance? As former United academy director Les Kershaw told the Manchester Evening News in 2004 – “It is easier to get a lad from Barcelona than it is from Birmingham. There is something wrong with the system.”
The FA seem to want to have their cake and eat it. They want clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal to produce brilliant young English footballers to benefit the national team, and yet they deny them – and their world-class facilities and outstanding youth coaches – access to the majority of boys in the country because that would apparently be unfair to other clubs… clubs who, typically, have failed repeatedly and emphatically to improve their academies to an even remotely acceptable level. And it’s the United’s and Arsenal’s that get it in the neck!
The press however generally seem completely oblivious to all this. To them, things are simple – top Premier League clubs are neglecting plucky young English lads purely because they prefer to fill their academies with exotic names. Witness this spectacularly clueless diatribe from that font of footballing knowledge Stan Collymore – choice quote:
“The talent is out there but there is this trend of bringing in kids from South America or Europe when they are just 16 or 17.
It dismays me and I think there should not be one foreign player born outside of Great Britain in any academy.
We should be giving every opportunity to UK-born youngsters.”
Now granted, using Collymore as a representative of the English press is somewhat unfair, but the sad truth is that supposedly respected journalists in supposedly respected publications are saying much the same thing (albeit in somewhat more verbose fashion) – Chelsea, or Manchester United, are raping and pillaging Europe for their finest young footballing talent just because they can, and the England team is suffering because of it. I’m sure they will all be delighted with Chelsea’s punishment and, more importantly, its potential implications, but they all remain oblivious to the fact that if the U18 ‘loophole’ is closed and the ninety minute rule remains, we won’t see a vast increase to the number of English youngsters coming through and the quality of the England national team – we will just see a marked decrease in the quality of young player at top-flight clubs, and a subsequent decline in the quality of the league and the ability of its clubs to compete on the European stage.
All that is essentially my ridiculously wordy way of saying the following – ditch the 90-minute rule and allow the top English clubs to get their hands on the best English youngsters, no matter where in the country they are based. It should be every English boy’s right to have access to the very best coaching and facilities the country has to offer, and to have a choice. You will automatically see the supposed fascination with foreign youngsters fade, and the quality of English youngsters improve. If that means a lower-league club losing out on a young player who, in the vast majority of cases, they would completely fail to help realise his potential anyway, then so be it. The authorities, and the press, can’t have it both ways.