Thursday, April 17, 2008

Manchester City Wins FA Youth Cup

We talk a lot about the senior version of the world's oldest domestic tournament, but the FA Youth Cup goes largely unnoticed in the media and I don't think that's a good thing.

More and more, the big teams in England are importing their players from overseas or buying already established or up-and-coming stars from smaller clubs within Britain. There is less of a focus placed on youth academies and developing homegrown players. To them, it's a question of why waste time and money to run a successful youth system, where not of all the kids pan out to become good players, when you could spend those same resources to bring in already proven commodities?

Even when those teams do have quality young players, the majority of them were snatched away from their hometown clubs anyway, and those smaller teams have little choice but to take the transfer fee and use it to cover operating costs and pay salaries.

Example? 16-year old striker Luke Freeman joined now-League One side Gillingham when he was 11. Freeman was born in Dartford, in the northwest corner of Kent, where Gillingham is located. He became their youngest first team player ever, and the youngest player in FA Cup history, when he came on as a sub in an FA Cup game at 15. After spending a little over four years with his hometown team, Freeman was sold to Arsenal in January of this year for about $400,000, still at just 15 years of age. He had broken through to the first team at Gillingham, but now is stuck in the Arsenal academy and could very well likely never play a senior game for the Gunners. As a League One team, $400,000 for Gillingham is a big deal, and they had little choice but to sell the kid off.

The same general thing applies to Theo Walcott, who moved from Southampton to Arsenal as a 16-year old for a possible $24 million, with $10 million of that guaranteed up front. Walcott has struggled to maintain a place in the Arsenal first team, and it looks like he'll have to move to further his career as a player. What choice did Southampton have but to take that money? As a lower-league team, anything in the millions range for a player is like manna from heaven.

The same general thing also applies to a guy like Scott Sinclair, who was born in Bath, 13 miles southeast of Bristol. Sinclair joined Bristol Rovers at the age of 9 and made his first team debut at 15 in the 2004-2005 season. He only made two senior appearances with the club before Chelsea controversially gobbled him up in July 2005 for $400,000 guaranteed, with an additional $1.5 million in possible clauses based on goals and appearances still to come, and has only played in four Premiership games for the Blues since. He's been loaned out to four different lower-league clubs since moving to Stamford Bridge, and will probably never be a regular first-teamer in West London, at least not for Chelsea. Why did Bristol Rovers sell him? They had to; money talked.

In the media, all we hear about are those big teams, so no one really pays attention to clubs like Middlesbrough, who is known for producing good young players, and Aston Villa, and Manchester City, who I'll get to in a bit, and West Ham, who is starting to come on again after producing outstanding talent in the early years of this decade. The job that these smaller Premiership clubs have done to remain competitive in the league while still putting an emphasis on developing homegrown players is fantastic.

Anyway....The FA Youth Cup has been around since the 1952-1953 season, when it was known as the FA Youth Challenge Cup. Manchester United has won it nine times, the most of any English club, but only twice in the last 14 years. Crosstown rivals Manchester City won it yesterday after beating Chelsea 3-1 in the second leg and 4-2 on aggregate. City's academy graduates in recent years include outstanding young players like Nedum Onouha, Stephen Ireland, Daniel Sturridge, Michael Johnson, and best of all, Micah Richards.

It's good to see a premium placed on developing youngsters from an early age and sticking with them. I've read Steven Gerrard's autobiography and in it, he talks a lot about the appreciation he has, as a homegrown player, for his youth coaches like Dave Shannon, Steve Heighway, and Hughie McAuley, guys who do a lot of great work that flies under the radar because it isn't with the senior team. The book provides a lot of insight into the life of a young kid in the system and is a fascinating read. Gerrard, Michael Owen, and Jamie Carragher are all graduates of Melwood, and now Kirkby, and look at what those three players have accomplished in their careers.

As I said, it was great to hear that City won yesterday because it gives validation to the philosophy of youth development more so than it would have if Chelsea would've won. It’s a system seen in professional baseball here in the US and has worked wonders over the years for major league teams that just don’t have the money to buy the best available talent, so they develop it over time through their minor league affiliates. Not everyone can be the Yankees or the Red Sox; not everyone can be Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Some teams have to rely on homegrown players and when they're successful, you have to give them a round of applause and appreciate their patience and mindset.

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