Football: New faces for 1999 - County play for high stakes over Pennant

A 15-year-old Notts County winger brought out the worst in the predatory instincts of Premiership clubs
THE YEAR was 1995 and David Brown and Matthew Wicks were the future of English football. Not only did they both appear to have long and glittering international careers ahead, they were also being coveted by Manchester United.

Brown, a prodigious 16-year-old Oldham Athletic striker, and Wicks, a 16-year-old Arsenal defender touted as one of the most promising players of his generation, were the subject of a controversial Football Association investigation into the "poaching" of young talent by predatory giants. Their stories are worth remembering amid the current controversy surrounding Notts County's 15-year-old winger, Jermaine Pennant. He was valued at pounds 2m by County after a number of Premiership clubs showed interest in him and it was reported last night that Arsenal had agreed a deal to take Pennant to Highbury. It was suggested that the two clubs had agreed on a compensation fee of more than pounds 1m.

Pennant became the second youngest player ever to appear in the FA Cup when he came on as a substitute during the 1-1 draw with Sheffield United at Bramall Lane last Saturday but he had already come to the attention of scouts after an appearance for England Schoolboys last year was televised by Sky.

The County manager, Sam Allardyce, has criticised the methods of the unnamed Premiership clubs who were trying to lure Pennant away.

"It is about underhand, deceitful people and the rules that they can exploit," Allardyce said. "What else could you say about a situation where a player signs every contract that is put in front of him, goes away to play for England Under-15s, then won't sign anything."

Pennant had been at Meadow Lane for five years but was free to walk away because he coud not sign binding registration forms until he turned 16 next week or a professional contract until a year later. County knew they could agree a fixed compensation package with a bidder, but if no deal could be reached the matter would be decided by tribunal.

"I am not blaming the player or his agent," Allardyce said as he contemplated Pennant's departure . "But we have to do the best we can for Notts County, and that is letting people know the boy is available. If we don't do something the case will finish up at a tribunal, and I have sat on enough of those to know how weighted they are in favour of Premiership clubs."

An FA spokesman said a similar situation had occurred when Gareth Barry moved from Brighton to Aston Villa having previously refused to sign a contract for the Seagulls approaching his 16th birthday. A tribunal last year ruled that Villa should pay immediate compensation of pounds 150,000 to Brighton and set up a payments plan that will see them receive well over pounds 1m - plus a share of any future transfer fee Villa receive for the player - if Barry fulfils his potential.

"Breaches in the rules are pretty isolated, and everybody recognises that for the good of the game clubs who develop their own talent need to be compensated properly," the FA spokesman said.

While "fringe" cases, involving non-contracted under-16s such as Pennant and Barry are always likely to cause the most controversy, the movement of older young players is not always smooth. When Arsenal signed the 17- year-old Nicolas Anelka from Paris St-Germain in 1997, the French club cried foul. Had the young striker gone to another French side, PSG would have been able to claim huge compensation. As he moved abroad, Arsenal - accused of unethical dealing - were not duty-bound to pay anything and made an undisclosed (probably small) payment.

In most cases, astute clubs put such players on long contracts, as with 17-year-old striker Matthew Etherington's five-year package at Peterborough. Manager Barry Fry knows he will leave, but at least he will reap millions in the process.

As for David Brown and Matthew Wicks, Manchester United were forced to pay a pounds 20,000 fine for luring the former and agreed to pay up to pounds 400,000 depending on his future appearances at Old Trafford. He never played for the senior team and after a loan period at Third Division Hull City last season, signed a contract there. United were censured, but not fined, over their approach for Wicks, who returned to Arsenal, never made it to the senior side, and joined First Division Crewe in the summer.