Paul Newman: Catching 'em young can bring profit and pride for small clubs
The Football League Column: Crystal Palace continued to support their academy through the club's most difficult financial times
Monday 11 April 2011
If you forget the misfiring Fernando Torres, Spanish footballers can hardly do any wrong these days. Barcelona and Real Madrid were emphatic winners of the first legs of their Champions League quarter-finals last week, and the national side bask inglory as European and World champions. Everyone else seems to want to do things the Spanish way, pointing out that a key to their success is the fact that many of their best performers grew up playing alongside one another as juniors both at club and representative level.
Nevertheless, 12 days ago Spain's under-17 team were beaten 2-1 by their England counterparts in a qualifier for this summer's European Championship finals. Spain only needed a draw to go through, but were knocked out by second-half goals from Nathan Redmond and Adam Jackson as England progressed to the eight-team finals, which will be held in Serbia.
An overdue triumph for the Premier League's big guns over their rivals from La Liga? Hardly. Of the 18 players on duty for England, none play for the Premier League's top two, Manchester United and Arsenal, while seven are with clubs in the Football League. Two more, Liverpool's Raheem Sterling and Manchester City's Alex Henshall, were recruited from Football League clubs – Queen's Park Rangers and Swindon respectively – last year.
The current crop of England juniors are by no means the exception. On average, around half of the players who pull on an England shirt at any level began their professional careers at Football League clubs.
The under-17s on duty against Spain included three players from Crewe Alexandra's production line – Nick Powell, Max Clayton and Ben Garratt – as well as representatives from Portsmouth (Sam Magri), Charlton Athletic (Jordan Cousins), Middlesbrough (Adam Jackson) and Brighton (Jake Caskey).
Investing in youth can be costly, but Crystal Palace, for example, continued to support their academy through the club's most difficult financial times and have shown that such commitment can be worthwhile. Their academy has produced a steady flow of first team players, while transfer fees received for the likes of Ben Watson, Victor Moses and Tom Soares have helped the scheme to pay its own way.
Nathaniel Clyne, an England under-21 international, has been the only ever-present player in Palace's first team this season, while five other products of their academy have also appeared in the senior side during the current campaign, including 17-year-old Wilfried Zaha, a skilful forward who is said to be a target for some of the biggest Premier League clubs.
For the youngsters themselves the decision on how long to stay at a club like Palace remains a tough one. While there is temptation to move up in the world, is it always the right choice?
There appears to be no teenager in greater demand at the moment than Connor Wickham, but the 18-year-old striker has just signed a new contract at Ipswich, another club with a fine record for developing young talent. On Saturday Wickham was outshone by an even younger colleague, 17-year-old Josh Carson, who scored both the goals in a 2-1 victory over Palace.
Perhaps Wickham was mindful of what has happened to John Bostock, who appeared to have the football world at his feet just four years ago when the midfielder, at the age of 15 years and 287 days, became the youngest player ever to appear in Palace's first team.
Nine months later he joined Tottenham Hotspur, a tribunal ordering the Premier League club to pay an initial £700,000, amid much protest from Palace's then chairman, Simon Jordan. In November 2008 Bostock became the youngest player to appear for Tottenham in a competitive match –16 years and 295 days.
For the last two years, however, the midfielder has been treading water. A loan move to Brentford last season lasted only nine matches while an agreement to spend the whole of the current campaign at Hull City, where he made a headline-grabbing start with a spectacular goal in his first game, was ended in December. A recent contribution to a Tottenham fans' website began with the question: "Could the boy who has everything end up with nothing?"
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