Manchester City, who have arguably British football's best recent track record in developing local talent, are embarking on an Arsène Wenger-style model of bringing in young players from outside, amid concerns that the current crop of youngsters do not have what it takes to help fulfil the club's huge ambition.
City were FA Youth Cup winners last year and 2006 finalists but there is a belief at the club that after developing far too many players for Championship-level and lower, they must now look beyond Manchester. With a new network of 12 overseas scouts installed in the past year, there appears to be a greater prospect of City pursuing talent abroad as they seek to build towards the demands of the Champions League football.
The chief executive, Garry Cook, insisted that aspiring to the Wenger model did not necessarily mean spending big on young players. "There's often an opinion that we are abandoning [a youth system]... because we're just going to keep buying players," Cook said. "That's actually the antithesis of what we're trying to do. We needed to go through the first phase which was to build the first-team squad and then underneath that start to plan the next phases."
But the new model, which is expected to see Mark Hughes draw on overseas scouts in a way that Wenger at Arsenal, Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson and various Chelsea managers have all done, represent a significant cultural shift for a club built on local potential. When the FA Youth Cup side assembled by former academy director Jim Cassell played Frank Arnesen's lavishly assembled Chelsea squad – including Jacob Mellis, signed for £40,000 rising to £2m from Sheffield United, and Michael Woods, one of the two signings from Leeds for whom Chelsea paid £4m – in last year's final, the joke doing the rounds was that while Chelsea's pre-match preparations had taken place in Sardinia, City's were in Failsworth. City won 1-0.
While Cassell delivered 26 players to the first team with minimal resources, six of whom had been coached since the age of nine at Platt Lane near the club's old Maine Road ground, only the Czech teenager Vladimir Weiss of the current crop looks a likely contender for the City first XI of the future. City's dismal 1-0 defeat against Abu Dhabi last week did little to enhance the sense that there is an abundance of young stars waiting to emerge. This explains City's interest in Everton's Jack Rodwell.
Cook said that the Wenger model was the only way of shielding City from a transfer market where the club faced inflated demands – they call it a "City price" – because of the wealth of their owners. "Financially, it's a better model than the one you get into negotiating a market price that has no pre-determining factors other than the supply and demand, which says, 'How badly do you want that player?' and then that will determine the price," Cook said. "That's a model I don't subscribe to and I don't want to be beholden unto that model. I would rather control or manage our destiny over the long-term. When you talk about this January, I don't think we are ready for all those plans yet but if we are making any additions it will be to strengthen the existing squad."
Weiss's development shows that City have been willing to look abroad in the past, though Cassell, now in a new role overseeing an Abu Dhabi international football academy, was always an advocate of local talent.
"We looked around locally because we didn't have a good deal of financial resources when we started," he told The Independent last year. "If you look through history at who's come through – the West Ham academy with Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, who were local; Michael Owen at Liverpool; Wayne Rooney at Everton; the Manchester United group, Scholes, Neville – that's important."
Ched Evans expressed the frustration of some British players at City in the summer when he left to seek first team football at Sheffield United. "A few years ago it was about bringing through their youngsters and taking pride in watching them develop," he said. "There are not going to be many teenagers coming through any more. I want to play matches and I'm not going to at City." Hughes will reflect than players like Evans and Ishmael Miller, now at West Bromwich Albion, might have been good enough for City's past ambitions but not for the future.
Q&A: If it ain't broke, why fix it?
Q. How successful has City's academy been in the past?
A. In the previous era, very. Not only has it produced 26 players for the first team but it has delivered big financial returns on them. A £10m "development fee" for Daniel Sturridge; £5.8m for Joey Barton and £21m for Shaun Wright-Phillips, delivered in cash the day after he signed for Chelsea.
Q. Why do the club need to look further afield?
A. Because with the exception of Micah Richards, Stephen Ireland, Shaun Wright-Phillips and possibly Nedum Onuoha and Vladmir Weiss there is not much evidence of players who will meet City's current expectations. Teams now have to have eight home-grown players in a Champions League squad: four from their own academy and the other four from any British club.
Q. Overseas or domestic buys?
A. Both. City's interest in Jack Rodwell demonstrates that, like Wenger, they want to get in early on local talent, but the controversial signing of French under-17s captain Jeremy Helan from French club Rennes suggests the leading overseas players are being sought too. City's new youth set-up is British. Technical development manager Brian Kidd and chief scouting director Mike Rigg suggests a greater appreciation of British youth than Frank Arnesen at Chelsea.
Q. Does buying young players from overseas work?
A. Not as much as managers would like. The number of overseas youngsters who have flourished in the Premier League has been limited, with Wenger's Cesc Fabregas, Sir Alex Ferguson's Da Silva twins and latterly Rafael Benitez's Emiliano Insua among the few bright lights.
Q. What is the secret to creating stars?
A. In part, creating an environment where young players feel there is a route to Premier League football – as Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsay and Jack Wilshere have found at Arsenal. City's challenge is to convince young players that their prospects will be more than marginal as the club goes in search of glory on the European stage.Reuse content