Shaun Wright-Phillips left Manchester City on 18 July 2005, a 23-year-old who had played 37 games for the club that season as well as making his England debut. He had been released from Nottingham Forest as a 16-year-old and picked up by City, who were proud that not only had they made a footballer of him, they had made him one of the brightest young English players in the division.
There had been interest from Chelsea for a while but up to that summer, Wright-Phillips had made all the right noises as far as City were concerned. He wanted to stay. He had a contract until 2008. He lived with his brother Bradley in Warrington and they travelled in to training together in a Ford Focus. Wright-Phillips had been 17 when he made his debut for City, coming on for Terry Cooke in a League Cup win at Turf Moor in August 1999.
Suddenly he said he wanted to leave and joined Chelsea for £21m. They bought him chiefly because, well, they could and used him mainly as a squad player. He was young and English and suited the profile of player they were after at the time. If it had not been Wright-Phillips it would have been someone else, but for City the loss was much more profound. This little gem, who was testament to their coaching and their faith, was gone in the blink of an eye.
One of the best things about being the City of 2014? Well, the Premier League titles and the Champions League participation are all very nice, but being as rich as they are now also means that they will never lose another Wright-Phillips in that way. If the Etihad Campus does turn out a series of first-team players, they will not be spirited away. Some may go, as Daniel Sturridge did, by being contract refuseniks, but City cannot be big-footed for money or ambition.
There is no middle ground. You cannot win the title like, say, Brian Clough’s Derby County did in 1972, beginning on a journey from the old Second Division to the league championship in five years, because the biggest and the most powerful will pick off your assets before you even get through the garden gate.
City have paid a high price to become the kind of club that buys other team’s best players rather than the reverse. Too high according to Uefa, which finally nailed them on Friday in a Financial Fair Play deal that will see City fined €60m (£48.9m), with €40m of that refundable provided they comply with a series of further sanctions that include freezing salary budgets and cutting their Champions League squad size.
There are many who feel City have not been punished enough for their turbo-powered, Abu Dhabi-driven climb up the European football hierarchy. But whether you like it or not, there was no other way to break into an elite that had fortified themselves against overthrow by all but the super-rich owner.
In modern football, it is not enough to produce the best players from your academy because eventually you will simply be producing them for someone else. You need a way to hang on to those players too, as Southampton are about to find out.
No club has produced or developed players like Southampton in the last 10 years. They have three in the England World Cup squad. Morgan Schneiderlin has been named among the seven on stand-by for France. In the international break in February there were nine Southampton players named across the England senior, Under-21 and Under-19 squads, more than any other club.
Southampton appear unto the Premier League big guns like planet Earth in just about every alien invasion film ever. The mothership comes to harvest the planet’s precious resources, and those suckers don’t give a damn what they leave behind.
Some estimates put potential departures this summer at eight, which feels high, but if Adam Lallana goes to Liverpool and Luke Shaw to Manchester United, then who knows what the effect is on the rest? Lambert, Schneiderlin, Jay Rodriguez (currently injured), Calum Chambers and Dejan Lovren are all in demand. That is before one considers the uncertainty around Mauricio Pochettino. Of course, Southampton would never let them all leave, but they will also have to be careful to control the narrative around those who do.
They did a good job of keeping their players last summer but this is one further successful season down the line and so the task becomes harder. It is not as if they have not spent money, indeed a recent analysis of net transfer fee spending placed them seventh in the Premier League over the last five years, but in that time they have become the nearest thing to an academy-powered club.
Swansea City found themselves under the same pressure after their first successful season in the Premier League. They lost their manager Brendan Rodgers as well as Scott Sinclair and Joe Allen. In a different way, it has happened to Arsenal over the years. If Roman Abramovich had not bought Chelsea in 2003, the same fate would have befallen them too.
Instead, Chelsea’s influx of Russian money allowed them to fortify their own resources and then begin helping themselves to others’. Of course, big clubs have always signed the best players of smaller, less wealthy clubs, but these days they do it earlier in a player’s development. Lallana is the exception. Shaw has had just one full season as a first-team professional. Chambers, barely that.
Southampton, with their development pedigree, may be confident enough to believe they can bring through another golden generation to follow the one that began with Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. They have a new training ground opening in the summer and a support that understands the patience required for new players.
But what happens when Manchester United or Chelsea come to regard the next young Southampton prospect as a solution to their problems? That used to be City, looking at a cheque for £21m and wondering if they would not rather still have the player.
As Uefa debits their Champions League money this summer, it is worth remembering what City’s new owners paid for. Yes, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Touré et al. But also the clout to keep the young players they produced, which unfortunately is not a benefit that every club with a good academy can rely upon.
Scudamore scandal shows standards are set too high
Should Richard Scudamore lose his job as Premier League chief executive? No. Not because his comments about women in an email sent to a lawyer were not dismal and embarrassing. Of course they were. But because this, like so many modern British scandals in public life, now seem to come down to the net value of one’s friends against one’s enemies. It has been a slow burner since the original story eight days ago, only picking up pace when some have become emboldened to apply pressure in the belief that they can topple him.
Scudamore’s humiliation has been thorough. His professional life will never be the same. The worry here is that the standards required – even in the sphere of private communication – are so high that they are becoming impossible to attain.
A profound apology, and no reoffending, should be enough. But the scandal grows and eventually all nuance is lost, tipping point reached and a resignation is demanded to “kill the story”. Surely we are more sophisticated than that? One last thought. Greg Dyke must be thanking his lucky stars. No one has mentioned League Three, or those wretched B-teams, for days.