When Nicolas Anelka left Paris St-Germain for Arsenal in January 1997, the vice-president of the French club called it a "low-down trick" that Arsenal could sign their 17-year-old starlet for a compensation fee of around £500,000. The then president of the French league, Noël Le Graët, went one better and said that he would ask the authorities to "prevent Anelka leaving the country".
Down at the Gare du Nord they had no choice but to wave him through. Arsène Wenger knew the rules and the rules said that Anelka was out of contract and fair game. "All we need is his father's consent in writing," the Arsenal manager said at the time. "He wants to leave PSG and in similar circumstances they could come over and sign a young player out of contract with us if they wanted to."
Funnily enough, PSG never have done. In 1999, Anelka left Arsenal for Real Madrid for £23m and English football woke up to the game's most lucrative innovation since they started charging for admission on match days. The poaching of the best young players from the academies of Europe began and it was open season for the Premier League's big boys.
It is not a matter of record just how many teenage players Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur have picked up on the cheap from foreign academies after Anelka led the way. But there have been a lot, so much so that Uefa is trying to change the rules on the minimum age for international transfers.
There are lots of loopholes that make this system permissible. Prominent among them is English clubs agreeing professional contracts that kick in as soon as the player turns 17. Premier League clubs, by virtue of them enjoying their sport's most lucrative television rights deal, have the resources to sign up child footballers – and they are just children – and often their families too.
Which brings us to the case of Francesc Fabregas, as he was known when, in August 2003, his signing from Barcelona at the age of 16 merited just a few lines in most national newspapers. He was, to use the ubiquitous phrase, "a wonderkid" but just how wondrous we did not know at the time.
The cost of Fabregas to Arsenal was eventually about £2m. Around £1.75m of that was already owed by Barcelona to Arsenal for the transfers of Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars and was deducted from the final bill. Whatever way you look at it, Fabregas was a bargain.
Seven years on, as their captain and star player is pressing for a move back to Barcelona, Arsenal would do well to remember how they acquired Fabregas. The club – and they are not alone in English football – had no remorse about taking one of Barcelona's brightest young players. So they in turn cannot complain now that Barcelona are taking him back.
Fabregas has a contract and so legally he is Arsenal's player to sell at a price of their choosing. But as they hold out for the biggest sum possible they should remember that they only had him in the first place because of this flawed system that allowed them to take away the best young foreign players from their clubs.
Although Barcelona simply have to accept that Fabregas will be expensive – and they are being very careful with Arsenal's feelings in this transfer – there is something fundamentally wrong when a club is forced to pay anything up to £80m, depending on who you listen to, for a footballer who was taken from them as a teenager for a fraction of that cost.
Those who say that Wenger was the making of Fabregas point to the fact that at Arsenal he got the first-team football he was denied at Barcelona. In fact, he played only in the Carling Cup in his first season and was not established until the following season. By which time Barcelona might reasonably have claimed that, had Fabregas stayed, he would have been part of their first team too.
Simply not picking a 16-year-old for the first team does not mean that a club forfeit their right to keep him. Over the years there have been hundreds of 16-year-old footballers, some as talented as Fabregas was at that age, who have had to wait longer for their first-team chance.
It should also be pointed out that Fabregas was hardly an average player polished up by Arsenal. In the summer of 2003 he was already at the top of his peer group in the world as the joint top scorer and outstanding player for Spain at the Under-17 world championship.
Yes, it has been a great fun for English clubs to pick off the fruit of Europe's best clubs, the likes of Anelka, Fabregas, Giuseppe Rossi, Federico Macheda, Gerard Pique, Paul Pogba and Gaël Kakuta to name but a few. But the best of them are proving hard to keep and even harder to replace.
Let us imagine Wenger's 1997 hypothesis came true and the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard were being spirited away at a young age on the cheap by foreign clubs before they had a chance to play for the English clubs that had nurtured them. There would be uproar. Equally so when they were sold back to English clubs at a vast profit.
But that is the scenario facing Barcelona and countless other less financially powerful clubs across Europe. So no complaints from Arsenal when Fabregas returns to Spain. They should be grateful for the seven years he has given them – and, of course, the enormous transfer fee that Barcelona will have to pay.
Holloway still has thrilling sequel to Tangerines' tale
Ian Holloway's post-match dressing-room address to Sky Sports on Saturday was gripping stuff, although I have to confess he lost me a couple of times. At one point he railed against the money in the Premier League; the next, he was berating the state of the nation.
It is a wonderful fairy tale for Blackpool, but it is the Holloway story that really interests me. Next season will be a remorseless battle for Blackpool, but when it is over it would be fascinating to see what Holloway could do with a bigger Premier League club. Let's hope he gets the chance one day.
Bernabeu chorus risks drowning out Mourinho
When Jose Mourinho takes over at Real Madrid he will wonder why he ever complained about Roman Abramovich, an owner who has made virtually no public pronouncements in seven years at Chelsea.
Mourinho will have to get used to Real's usual cast of presidents and sporting directors all chipping in with their opinion. This at a club that venerates the office of manager so highly that they are about to sack their 10th in seven years and once appointed Mariano Garcia Remon (remember him?) to manage Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham et al. There's no doubting that Mourinho is good, but managing Madrid is the toughest of the lot.Reuse content