Stott ready to warn off poachers

Stephen Brenkley looks at the attempts to protect small clubs' investment in youth
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WHEN he was nothing but a lad, David Brown was spotted by Oldham Athletic. They saw something in the 10-year-old that the other clubs around Greater Manchester did not find quite so alluring.

Nurtured and encouraged at their centre of excellence, he became one of their associated schoolboys, and his progress in his last two years was especially notable. The Oldham Athletic chairman, Ian Stott, reflects on David rather as a kindly headmaster might recall a favoured pupil.

"One or two other clubs showed some interest in him but we were the ones who gave him the nod to come and learn here," he said. "He came on a lot, too, as time went on.

"There was some reluctance on his part to play on Sundays because of his religious beliefs and we respected that, though he did play once in a big match on a Sunday. When he was 14 he had a look around at other clubs - Everton and Bolton spring to mind - but he wanted to come back here."

David is no longer at Boundary Park, however, but at Old Trafford. Still only 16, he is now the subject of a complaint lodged by Oldham against Manchester United. While Ian Stott will not go into the specifics of the case, which is to be heard early next year, it is his contention that the young player was improperly induced to leave.

It is not the first time that United have been accused of poaching players recently - an FA commission has also to decide on the move from Arsenal of Matthew Wicks, the 17-year-old son of the former Chelsea and Queen's Park Ranger centre-half Steve Wicks - but Stott is anxious to ensure that it is the last involving them or any other club

He rebuts reports that he sympathises with the idea, mooted last week, of refusing to play United at youth level. While he is clearly upset about the circumstances of Brown's departure he wants the issue resolved generally as well as particularly. He hopes that the case might be as far-reaching for the movement and retention of junior footballers as those in the senior game involving George Eastham in the 1960s and Jean-Marc Bosman more recently.

"We need a much stronger code of conduct, something which makes it perfectly clear what can and can't be done," he said. "I know how difficult it can be at that sort of age."

Stott is particularly concerned about players of 15 and 16 years old. He and his fellow chairmen seem happy with the guidelines on younger players: at 12, 13 and 14 there is a system of "cost recovery" should a boy change his allegiance from one centre of excellence to another, but this covers only expenses incurred in their training. The older a player gets,the nearer he is to making it,more expenses have accumulated and there are therefore greater costs to be recovered.

Football is anxious that the phrase "cost recovery" is not simply a euphemism. Two other words are strictly barred from any assessment of what the future should hold. These are "transfer" and "fee", which are now fraught with difficulty with regard to any players, let alone those not yet old enough to sign professional forms.

What the case of David Brown highlights above all else is the vital importance of young players to small clubs. Stott appears to be using his case against Manchester United partly to promote the attraction of clubs like Oldham.

"We know all about the glamour on offer elsewhere," he said. "But here you can make the same rate of progress and get the chance of getting into the first team earlier. We've already beaten Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Newcastle at youth level this season. And there've been times when we've had three 17-year-olds in the squad as well. We can argue that you stand to learn about more about the game more quickly."