The myths surrounding home-grown football talent
Posted on October 16, 2020
IN A UPTOPIAN world, football clubs would represent the towns they come from and their players would be locally-reared, devoted to their places of birth and loyal to their clubs. The world has changed: in Victorian England that may have be the case, an age where someone from a neighbouring town would be treated much the same as refugees are viewed today by some of the more insular sections of society.
As football evolved, local rivalries were a key feature of the game’s culture, especially when clubs most definitely had local identity.
In a weekend that includes the Merseyside derby, the Scottish “Old Firm” clash and the Milanese Derby della Maddonina, three of the most passionate of all local skirmishes, has the modern football industry diluted the meaning of such games?
The fans, of course, still revel in getting one over on their opposite numbers and this is really the last remaining essence of the “derby”. Players on both sides only appreciate the historical relevance of the games, but does it really matter to a hired hand in the Liverpool line-up if Everton win?
The fact is, rarely have teams comprised players who have been born within a goal-kick from the club they play for. Very few successful teams have been home-grown. Professionalism, going right back to the first league champion, Preston North End has decreed that clubs search high and low for new talent. The 1889 regular “Invincibles” included just two players, Bob Holmes and Bob Howarth, who were born in Preston.
Similarly, when Sunderland were the major force in the game in the late 19th century, their squad was almost entirely Scottish (14 of 17 players). The only two Englishmen were Tom Porteus from Newcastle and John Oliver of Sunderland. Newcastle’s 1905 side that went close to winning the double was also drawn from many sources – six of their regular 11 were Scots, while only three were from Tyneside.
Scotland played a big part in the development of professional football in England and right up until the 1970s, most successful teams included at least one Scot. Since football went global, the number of Scottish, Irish and Welsh players in English squads has declined significantly.
By the 1930s, clubs were becoming more and more ambitious in their quest for talent, employing scouts to scour the country. Generally, though, players stayed within their comfort zone, although the increased wages and glamour of London meant the dressing rooms of teams like Arsenal and Chelsea would echo to the sound of regional dialects.
The second world war depleted the stock of footballers and also put pressure on the business models of professional clubs. Some clubs decided it was time to develop young players to create a sustainable flow of talent and remove the need for transfer fees. Manchester United, a club that suffered more than most during the war, began a programme that would yield spectacular results. Under Matt Busby’s guidance, a string of outstanding young players were developed. When United won the league title in 1956 and 1957, their line-up included up to nine who had come through the club’s youth system, including the likes of Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. Tragically, most of that team, which had still to reach its peak, perished in the snow at Munich airport in February 1958.
Other clubs saw the long-term benefit of home-grown players, including Burnley, Chelsea and Leeds United. Burnley in 1960 won the league title with a team that had just one player that had cost a fee, Alex Elder. Chelsea were never quite as successful, although they were a dominant force in junior football.
Bill Shankly’s Liverpool of 1964 and 1966 had a core of locally-born players who had come through the club’s youth set-up, including Gerry Byrne, Chris Lawler, Ronnie Moran, Jimmy Melia and Ian Callaghan. However, key man like Ron Yeats, Ian Callaghan, Willie Stevenson and Ian St. John were all signed from other clubs. Liverpool’s rivals, Everton, won the title in 1970 with a team that was around 50% drawn from their youth development and signings from northern clubs, such as Alan Ball and Gordon West (Blackpool), Howard Kendall (Preston) and Keith Newton (Blackburn).
At the same time, Leeds United, under Don Revie, were a rising force and were dependent on a group of young players who would keep the club at the top for the best part of a decade. While most of them came through the ranks at Leeds, only one, Mike O’Grady, was from Leeds although he was signed from Huddersfield Town. The only other significant signing was Sheffield United’s Mick Jones.
When the hub of Leeds’ squad aged, Liverpool took over as the dominant force in the mid-1970s and almost the entire 1980s. But this was not a squad that was built on Merseyside. The big stars in Liverpool’s side, Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan were not developed from a young age. As the Premier League emerged in 1992, the age of chequebook team-building became the defining feature of success. Not for the first time, Manchester United stumbled across a group of players from within their system that could form the nucleus of their first team for 10 years, the so-called “Class of ’92”.
With such rare talent as Ryan Giggs, the Nevilles, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, United also had the financial clout to dominate English football for almost two decades. Arsenal also emerged as a monied club who could draw on the contacts of French coach Arsene Wenger to attract some outstanding individuals. These clubs pulled away from the rest but it is arguable the power of this duo gave birth to a new type of investor in football. Very few people have ever posed the question, but did the power of Arsenal and Manchester United create the environment that brought Roman Abramovich and Abu Dhabi to the Premier League?
Manchester United and Arsenal were soon usurped by Chelsea, whose new owner had the ability to spend large in one foul swoop. Chelsea were not only able to compete in the transfer market for the first time, but they also hired football’s most dynamic and coveted coach in José Mourinho. Chelsea’s ability to sign whoever they wished came at a cost to their youth system. John Terry was the only player to come through for over a decade and even though the club produced some strong candidates and dominated the FA Youth Cup, mostly the players developed at their training centre would become assets that were traded and loaned in the market. Chelsea, effectively, only blooded their youngsters when they had to, notably in 2019 when they received a transfer ban for one window.
The clubs are all alike, regardless of how much they preach a commitment to youth. Nobody has the patience to nurture players, managers are the world’s highest-paid temporary employees and don’t have the time to invest long term. Hence, they buy ready-made products that can give them instant results – they have no choice because clubs do not give them the benefit of the doubt.
Look at the most recent champions in the Premier League. Liverpool’s regular squad cost transfer fees of around £ 450 million in 2019-20 and only one, Trent Alexander-Arnold, was from the city of Liverpool and developed by the club. In 2018-19, Manchester City’s main squad, costing over half a billion, had no home-grown players. Phil Foden, who came though the youth programme, made 13 Premier League appearances.
So, it is clear: champions have almost always bought success, some by spending vast sums and others by investing modestly. The modern trend is for large sums being paid for top talent to build an instant all-star side. Clubs still scout for young players, but they cast their nets far and wide, both domestically and internationally. The age of the “local” team has gone, apart from in the non-league world. And a good scouting network does not mean that young players will find their way to the club – income from player sales has become an important part of the balance sheet. Young footballers have become a trading commodity.
When the 22 players run onto the pitch at Goodison Park and Celtic Park, very few will have much affinity with the cities their clubs come from. The globalised game has given us more options in building a football team – players are transient, here today, gone tomorrow, and a club is an employer. In such an environment, the local derby has become fan versus fan. When all is said and done, players and managers come and go, but the supporters are the one constant body in modern football.