Football; it’s the beautiful game, a sport emotive in the extreme. But these emotions are neither polar nor absolute; joy does not solely equate to winning in the same way that losing will not always invoke despair. For many the manner of victory is just as important as the triumph itself. Evolution is inevitable, but sport is eternal. Players and coaches will change just as quickly as the styles and ideologies that envelope their careers. The clubs, however, should be the constant; but the landscape is changing and it is youth that will suffer.
Billionaire backed superpowers lurk ominously ready to embark on a period of sustained dominance. A new dawn bereft of romance and loyalty looms, fuelled by unimaginable wealth and characterised by unquenchable desires for quick fixes and instant success. The beautiful game is rearing its ugly financial head; but football is losing its soul, not its excitement.
A three-way battle for the title, a four-way slog for a coveted seat at Europe’s top table and the entire bottom half of the league scrapping for their lives; exciting, no? Few would argue that the coming months will not play out the most tantalising of finishes, a box office blockbuster. United struggling, Arsenal resurgent, but right at the top remain the obvious candidates; squads built on oil and middle-eastern riches brimming with millionaire mercenaries. We have the excitement, but where is the romance?
For many, the millions pumped into football by wealthy owners are in danger of destroying the game. Only time will ultimately tell and criticism is undoubtedly warranted, but most wielding the sword are doing so behind the wrong cause.
The two common concerns attached to the lavish spending of recent years, a monopolised league and the threat of insolvency, are misguided when aimed at Chelsea and Manchester City. Football has invariably been dominated by the wealthy elite. It is manifestly wrong to ignore that heavy spending began much before (and will continue long after), the recent injections of cash at these two clubs. Whilst the figures involved have inflated unimaginably, the resulting success of those investing heavily is nothing new, simply a logical consequence.
Way back in 1907 Manchester United underwent a similar phase of investment directly contributing to the club’s first two league titles in 1907/08 and 1910/11. Other examples have followed, but assertions that the money was generated by the clubs themselves bring only a moral victory. The investment of owners in their own business is not wrong. Surely most lottery winners would not take too kindly to the suggestion that they could not spend their winnings.
The wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City is no different; they have won the football lottery. As ever, with good fortune follows envy and jealousy, but these are no more reason to prohibit their investment than the fear of insolvency when the funds are clearly in place. All too often ambition and enthusiasm can cloud commercial prudency, but that is not the case here.
Nevertheless, to ignore the potential negative consequences is equally unwise. The youth, the future of the game will suffer, and therein lays the deplorable nature of ‘sugar daddy’ syndrome.
Improvement in sport is relentless, investment inescapable; standing still is tantamount to falling behind. Desire for success is natural, and in a game increasingly dictated by commercial opportunism, figures will only continue to soar. But investment wields a snowball effect, the heavy spending of a few necessitates others to follow, and not everyone can win. Promising young prospects will make way for established stars and pressing greed will displace patience.
The CIES Football Observatory reports that Manchester United and Barcelona are the only two European clubs that offer players an average stay in excess of five years. Impatient owners and regrettably high financial stakes have seen seven Premier League managers make way already this season. Who would dare look to their academy under the weight of such imposing pressure for instant results? Football clubs are becoming faceless machines in an impending era more for the purse strings than the purists. The very soul of the beautiful game is eroding.
In the 14th Century, opposing villages and towns would battle over an inflated bladder. Rules and guidelines would follow but the very essence was apparent from the beginning: loyalty and allegiance borne from community spirit. Even in the global environment of today, it’s still ‘our lot’ against ‘your lot’. There is a romance that football clubs represent the ideals of their communities and betoken their way of life. Clubs should be an organic embodiment not a manufactured beast.
Loyalty stems from faith, from guidance and from support, all of which develop over time. Football philosophies take years to manifest themselves, but at the heart of any great football club sits an ideology, an identity of play on the field, and a manner of conduct off it. Community programmes and social projects are commonplace. Football often provides the bastion of hope for the working class lad with implausible dreams. Is there a better, more fulfilling sight in football than the local boy, empowered by naive fearlessness and youthful exuberance, dazzling the community that raised him? It means something to the town and it means something to football.
But these invaluable pleasures are under threat. In a modern age where currency trumps all, it is tomorrow’s stars and today’s managers who may ultimately suffer. The romance is being consumed; the money is taking over.
Premier League clubs spent £138m more on agent’s fees than on grassroots facilities in the year gone by. Global spending saw a rise of 41% year on year on international transfers alone, and English clubs shelled out a net loss in excess of £350m. Manchester City and Chelsea account for a large proportion of outgoing funds over the last few years; both directly in regards to their own spending, and indirectly in the sense that others have been forced to spend to compete. Whilst this has not led to the dominance that many would have predicted thus far, the vultures are circling and the impact is becoming increasingly tangible.
Despite an admirable resurgence this season, Arsene Wenger has tried in vain to maintain Arsenal’s silverware laden years whilst caged in frugal financial confinement. The club’s £42.5m acquisition of Mesut Ozil was a tacit expression that philosophy can only take them so far. A title win for the ‘gooners’ would represent a victory for the purists, but there is a reason that despite sitting at the top in February, the North London side remain third favourites for ultimate glory.
With the knight at the head of Manchester United’s table stepping aside, they too have struggled to keep pace. It is highly lamentable, then, that both cases have led to criticism of management and transfer policies and calls for huge investment that are in such tension with the clubs’ philosophies.
From United’s perspective, purporting to replicate the attributes and long-term stability of their former manager may prove ill advised. Attempting to repeat history is always a dangerous path as opposed to burgeoning for new futures, only time will tell.
Predictably though, and somewhat regrettably, in the face of adversity it has been the British manager and the young local talent that have shouldered a lot of the blame. Moyes aside, much of the fallout has been aimed primarily at the perennial squad members turned (albeit through injuries) regular starters of academy products Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley. But what sort of club do fans want Manchester United to be? Would fans really prefer for local talent to make way for money grabbing mercenaries?
An ultimate lack of ability for the very top of the game does not absolve Welbeck and Cleverley of their value. There has been a product of United’s academy in every squad since 30th October 1937, and these two remain current custodians of that romantic tradition. The local lad rising through the ranks is such a special part of the game, and for United, in the immortal words of Ravel Morrison, “Welbz is dat guy”. Is winning worth sacrificing a philosophy that has invoked so much pride?
Unfortunately, the erosion of opportunity for young prospects will only continue in the face of contemporary demands for instant success. That is not to say, however, that clubs such as United have not spent in the past and should not spend in the future. Even the famed ‘Class of 92’ were heavily supplemented by experienced professionals and expensive additions. But there is a crucial difference between supplementation and replacement.
The fears are that spending is approaching such a level that benches may soon be filled with established stars as opposed to young talent, and in England Chelsea and Manchester City are the primary contributors. But after an arguably necessary initial injection to reach the heights of the game, it is important not to judge too quickly.
It is hoped, having bought sides littered with world-class talent, that the London and Manchester blues will now look to youth. If nothing else, a successful academy setup often proves financially beneficial off the pitch. But it is hoped that these clubs will profit from their product’s talents on the field rather than off it.
To give credit, both sides have invested heavily in their academy structures in recent years. For Manchester City the state of the art Etihad Campus is nearing completion. Their Under-13s and Under-14s sides are national champions, their Under 18s have not lost since late September and their Under-21s are unbeaten in three months. There is perhaps much cause for optimism on the blue side of Manchester.
Chelsea too have devoted large resources to young talent. FA Youth cup victories in 2010 and 2012 point to progress in the right direction. Nevertheless, for both clubs the transition from the youth setup to the first team will be telling.
Of City’s 2008 FA Youth Cup winning side only Dedryck Boyata has proceeded to make more than one competitive appearance in the first team setup. Whilst of Chelsea’s winning FA Youth Cup sides of 2010 and 2012 combined, only three players (Jeffrey Bruma, Josh McEachran and Nathan Ake) have gone on to play competitively more than once for the senior side.
In reality it is perhaps too early to judge City in this regard, but the recent inclusion of young midfielder Marcos Lopes signals a positive step. For Chelsea the position is a darker one. A decade on from Abramovich’s takeover and John Terry remains the only academy product to make a successful transition beyond a very limited spell for Ryan Bertrand.
The promising talents of Josh McEachran and Nathanial Chalobah (a player who has captained and boasts 65 caps for England at youth level) have yet to be given a proper opportunity. More worryingly, the club has been stock-piling young talent, with over 20 players on loan, most of which will never get a fair chance at their parent club.
Jose Mourinho has been bullish to make the right noises that youth is the way forward for Chelsea, but on the evidence these are hollow words. The Portuguese master has already spent over £100m since his return less than a year ago. Promising young striker Romelu Lukaku was shipped off on loan to Everton in favour of the ageing Samuel Eto’o and the club only boasts the minimum 8 homegrown players in their 25-man squad.
But this is where reality bites. With such trigger-happy owners which manager would risk their job on a long-term strategy? The patience of owners such as the Glazers may well derive from a desire for profit over silverware, but patience often breeds success all the same.
Three of the greatest sides of the modern era, Manchester United of 1999, Barcelona of 2011 and Bayern Munich of 2013 were built on youth and in the image of their own club’s philosophy. In each of those sides local lads lifted the biggest prizes in football with the clubs they love and the towns they grew up in; that is something to cherish.
Successes such as these will become increasingly difficult if the current trend continues. There is cause for concern but it is the culture of quick fixes and instant success that may prove more damaging than lavish spending itself.
Just six months after two decades of dominance patience is already crumbling under the weight of greed for some United fans. But time for managers like Moyes should be forthcoming so that football clubs can be built in the right way. Fans of the Red Devils may have little to cheer about come the end of the season, but there is always pride if the club holds true to its traditions.
The millions of Manchester City and Chelsea have bought entertainment and attention, but the growth of sustainable football clubs built on coherent ideologies affording fair chances to their own will bring respect. Without that, their victories will be as hollow as the bank accounts of those below them. All remains to be seen, but hopefully romance is not dead just yet
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