Let us start with a question: what do Sudbury Court, Edgware Town, Dulwich Hamlet, Tow Law Town and Wealdstone have in common? The answer, explains David Pleat, the former Luton Town and Tottenham Hotspur manager, is that each helped launch the career of a one-time England footballer – namely, John Barnes, Brian Stein, Ian Wright, Chris Waddle, and Stuart Pearce respectively.
It is a list that Pleat offers to illustrate how rags-to-riches tales such as that of Dwight Gayle – a striker playing for Bishop's Stortford two years ago who hit his first Premier League goal for Crystal Palace against Sunderland last Saturday after joining from Peterborough – were once a common feature on our football landscape.
Today, by contrast, Gayle's case is a rarity, owing to the diminished supply line of players from the lower leagues to the top flight – something highlighted by the fact that only £40m (or 6.3 per cent) of the record £630m spent on transfers by Premier League teams this summer flowed into the Football League (less than the annual solidarity payments received from the top division).
Of the players newly bought from the lower tiers, there are only seven with no previous Premier League experience: Gayle, Jack Hunt and Stephen Dobbie at Palace, John Brayford and Simon Moore at Cardiff, George Boyd at Hull, and Nathan Redmond at Norwich. It is a long way from the inaugural 1992-93 Premier League campaign when champions Manchester United's squad included a striker from Cambridge United, Dion Dublin, and a full-back from Oldham, Denis Irwin, and runners-up Aston Villa had players from Bournemouth and Scunthorpe.
It is a state of affairs that saddens Pleat, who as Spurs' director of football had a deliberate policy of recruiting young talent from lower down the ladder and cites a "loss of faith in developing players from lesser backgrounds and working hard coaching them" as clubs purchase "the ready-made product".
There are other factors, too. "The standard of the top Premiership clubs is much higher than it was and consequently the standard of players they require is much higher," he explains, while adding that Football League clubs could do more. "There are not enough clubs in the lower leagues prepared to put young players in their teams. Only Crewe Alexandra have consistently held a proper philosophy – regardless of success or failure they want young players who've come through the system or been rejected by bigger clubs and they will develop them."
Pleat's point about Crewe is backed up by the fact they had the youngest starting XI in League One last weekend – an average age of 22 years, 10 months – and have succeeded in maintaining a profitable production line. Dario Gradi, formerly the club's long-serving manager and, in his 30th year at Gresty Road, now director of football, explains: "It's harder but we still do it. We've taken in £5m in the last two summers on three players." Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood joined Manchester United and Aston Villa respectively last year; Luke Murphy moved to Leeds in July.
The key, Gradi says, is to "produce technical players. We do a lot of technique work so that when the players do move up they are not found wanting. We budget for a loss of around about £700,000 a year and have got to sell a player for that amount every year or one for £1.5m every two years to break even."
Yet it is harder than ever to keep those talented youngsters until an age when they can be sold for a profit. Remembering how Kevin Keegan went from Scunthorpe to Liverpool, he adds: "He probably would be whisked away from Scunthorpe at the age of nine or 10 today. Our kids' games get scouted every week. If our boys want to go, we can't do anything about it but not many do. It keeps us in business."
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