Stakes continue to rise as scouting gets sophisticated

English clubs are going to greater lengths than ever before in the search for cheap talent. Ian Herbert and Sam Wallace investigate how players are 'discovered' – here and abroad – in the battle to outwit the authorities
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The Independent Online

The litany of claims against the big clubs gathered pace yesterday. As Rennes cried foul against Manchester City, a club which has always symbolised the grow-your-own philosophy, Liverpool were digesting a domestic version of the Gaël Kakuta saga – suggestions from Crewe Alexandra that their approach for their 15-year-old Matt Clayton, one of the latest in the long production line of youth talent at Gresty Road, had been unlawful. There has been no official complaint to the Football Association or Premier League but the case is likely to be settled financially between the clubs.

Click here or click the image to see our guide to the young Premier League imports.

Across Merseyside, Everton were concluding a more conventional piece of youth football transfer business, having been ordered to pay £600,000, rising to a possible £1m through add-ons, for the 16-year-old Leeds left-back Luke Garbutt. It was a good result for the Leeds chairman, Ken Bates, who had described the initial £200,000 bid for the player as "paltry", but there is a feeling at Everton that the Kakuta case may have influenced the decision.

Amid the welter of negativity towards football's elite, pause and consider what Everton are paying here: £1m for a player utterly unproven at senior level, well off first-team standard and destined to fight to progress at Everton's Academy.

Such are the demands of Premier League football that only the best of the best will do these days and it is an acknowledgement of that fact which has driven the youth scouting system to new levels. When Jack Chapman was scouting for Bolton in Parma few years back, he did so in flagrante, sitting in the stands on one occasion in the past few years at the Tardini Stadium, mapping out the diagram of a pitch and jotting down the attributes of the player he had come to see.

Chapman was not generally on the same kind of mission for the then Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, that so many youth team coaches find themselves on these days. "We had no money, so were often looking for players on the cheap towards the end of their careers," says Chapman, who has now retired from the game. But it was certainly a different world then.

One man who may smile ruefully at the image of Chapman's comfortable seat in the stand is David Williams, the Welshman who scouts for Manchester United in Italy. He has produced a long production line for Sir Alex Ferguson – Federico Macheda and fellow striker Davide Petrucci from Lazio, Fiorentina's Michele Fornasier and and before them Parma's Giuseppe Rossi. But a widely held story in Italy has it that he must watch some of his games in trees and bushes and pick his fixtures carefully because the clubs with the talent will not play their prime stars on occasions when they know the scouts might be in town.

This summer, the youth scout's world has assumed even greater pressures. Discussions between Europe's Council of Ministers and Fifa relating to the protection of minors mean that from October any club signing a boy under the age of 16 will have to pay considerably more for him: €90,000 (£78,900) for each year he has been at his club compared with the previous figure of €10,000 per year plus a €90,000 down payment. That's €360,000 for a player who has been on a club's books for four years, rather then the current €130,000. There has been a rush to conclude business before the new financial regime kicks in.

Also the talk of the youth scout circuit are the plans in train for a Fifa subcommittee to ratify the movement of every player under the age of 18 between countries. While some youth scouts had expected this to be a rubber-stamping exercise it may prove a means of serious scrutiny in the light of the Kakuta case.

Little wonder clubs are seeking alternative ways to scout and buy. The establishment of feeder clubs in overseas countries has become an increasingly integral part of the system, offering resources to overseas clubs who might otherwise take nothing for losing their players and a place to develop individuals who cannot get British visas until they become internationals.

Belgium is a popular partner. For Liverpool, the Hungarians Krisztian Nemeth and Andras Simon have emerged from the feeder club MTK Hungaria.

Further afield, United have announced a link with Desportivo Brasil while Chelsea have gone a step further, seconding their performance director Mike Ford to head up a South American scouting operation.

Fifa and Uefa may have crackdowns on youth transfer in mind, but make no mistake. The days of going equipped with a pencil, notepad and a match-day ticket are over.

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