City youth given the knowledge to navigate their route to the top
World's richest club focuses on education to produce next stars
Everyone knows – and no-one more than former manager Mark Hughes – that Manchester City are deadly serious about applying a more target-driven approach to football. The board, and Hughes, agreed before last season that 70 points was a fair return on the basis of money spent and when his "trajectory of results" did not seem to be heading in that direction Hughes was sacked.
But the figure on which the club have not set a target is the number of graduates of their Platt Lane academy who will be a part of the first team squad in the next few years. They would probably like to, given that by 2013 Uefa's Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations state that clubs losing £13m or more a year risk being shut out of all European competitions and that City's transfer and wage spending saw them rack up a loss of £121m in their most recent accounts.
The club have some travelling to do, though, because even the very best players developed in the past under the custodianship of Platt Lane's revered former director Jim Cassell, like Shaun Wright-Phillips and Stephen Ireland, will no longer suffice for a club of City's aspirations. Platt Lane has delivered 27 Premier League players and the 2008 Youth Cup final win but none of the 27 is a top-four standard player, even though the hope is that Micah Richards might be.
The changes have started in an obvious place, with City's performance director Mike Rigg creating an international team of 25 scouts. The previous scouting system had elements of the haphazard about it, with scouts spotting and signing up players and handing them over, sometimes regardless of whether the club already had a better candidate for the same position in the same age range.
While a recruit might have been signed in the past because his name "was in someone's head," now potential recruits to the academy ranks are watched several times by scouts and viewed against set criteria before Mark Allen, head of the academy, and coach Scott Sellars view them and assess whether that player is better than another watched or signed for that position.
City have cut by 50 per cent the number of youngsters on their Under-16 retained list. "Four or five of the eight we have just released would probably have been kept on in the past," says Allen. "It's quality, not quantity."
But where City believe they are leading the way is in the resources being ploughed into the mental preparation of their young players. They are seeking to become the first club in Britain to gain permission for the "deregistering" of some academy pupils from school, enabling them to undertake all their formal education at the new classroom under construction as part of a £5m Platt Lane redevelopment and fit it in around football. Educating their young players is part of the process of producing rounded, positive individuals, capable of self expression and not prisoners to their profession. But City also believe that creating the right positive mental attitude can be the difference between a player's success and failure.
"In the past the mental part of it has very much been left to individuals' own devices and that's what we've seized on here," says Allen. "We believe the mental preparation is an equal, if not more significant part of our job. We can teach a player to do certain things; we can coach him tactically and technically, but it's the mental things that turn you from a good player to a great one and that's what we are working on now. We believe that's massive."
Psychologists are working with the students and, though Adam Johnson and Shay Given have not been case studies, one of the areas covered is how to respond when you are dropped. Allen speaks of an England youth international who recently lost his place in one of the City sides who has been tackling how to deal with his disappointment. "It has helped him recover his form and now he is back," he says.
If an era of unprecedented wealth removes so many players from a sense of reality, Allen is attempting to make his scholars positive individuals, free to express themselves without fear of ridicule. He tells a story of an Under-18 who, in a discussion of which heroes' images each student intended to pin to his locker, cited his grandmother. "They're boys and they lark around in all the usual ways but there was agreement that anyone could select their hero without fear of ridicule," Allen says.
More unreconstructed individuals may dismiss this aspect of City's work as an irrelevance, though quite how good a player the complex and sometimes introspective Ireland might have been if there had been someone to sort his head out before he left is something the club's fans can only ponder.
The strategy for the academy is not only to secure players for the first-team manager, Roberto Mancini, but those who can be sold for good money, as Manchester United have done. That can play a vital part in helping City reduce the £121m loss which leave them with much work to do before FFP kicks in.
The club also believe that a reputation for offering an experience which reaches beyond football development will help them win over parents who might conceivably feel that their sons have no chance of first-team football at Eastlands.
On Merseyside, it seems Everton have signed all the prodigious youngsters because of parents' perception that their sons would be held back at Liverpool. It won't be easy, though. One of the many aspirational messages dotted around Platt Lane states that "Knowledge is Power" though the player selected to illustrate the message, Given, might never have signed if equipped with the knowledge that Joe Hart would supplant him in goal. A tough task, then, but City's approach does defy the usual simple stereotypes about the club simply throwing petrodollars at it.
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