The most unreliable piece of paper in football is a blueprint. From as young as six years old, dreams are cultivated, pathways are created, and a production line of human talent is propelled into motion. Teenage years are spent running a gauntlet that discards friends and rivals, all in the hope of catching the dangled carrot: a professional career and all its accompanying riches. After all, the life cycle of a footballer affords no rest. You simply ride the conveyer or get chucked off of it. But whereas once having the required ability provided a guarantee, it’s now hardly worth the paper it’s written on.
Anger and cynicism over the stockpiling of players by football’s superpowers are by now a summer ritual. Last season, Chelsea and Manchester City alone had a combined 64 players out on loan, some learning and thriving, others frittering and fading. It’s not a matter of subterfuge, rather just the same pattern that commands most of our industries: a few financial heavyweights that dominate the market, spread their risk and buy in at a price others can’t afford.
Before Brexit regulations, England’s top clubs were hoarding the best prospects as a matter of principle, luring them to London, Liverpool or Manchester with pipe dreams gilded by glittering bonuses. New laws may provide an obstacle, but they hardly represent a dam worthy of stemming the tide.
It’s a well-documented crisis, stretching the chasm between rich and poor, a vein of hyper-capitalism that is threatening football. But for those caught at the centre of the chaos, it has also led to a pronounced change of mindset.
As squads have become ever more bloated and bottlenecked, shrinking that already slender pathway to the size of a pinprick, the country’s brightest prospects are reverting to their most basic human instinct and evolving by whatever means necessary. And in this case, it’s by cutting themselves adrift.
Last Saturday, it was Tino Livramento who reaped the rewards of that risk. After rejecting a new contract at Chelsea this summer, the 18-year-old sealed a cut-price £5m move to Southampton and immediately made his full Premier League debut on the opening weekend of the season, tasked with shackling recent Olympic gold medal winner Richarlison. Eighteen months ago, Tariq Lamptey forced a similar move, joining Brighton after rejecting a deal at Chelsea much to Frank Lampard’s frustration. They are just two examples of a trend in which players are starting to seize control of their own destinies and using their impatience as a weapon by which they benefit most. Chelsea might have made a handsome profit, but the pair left on their own terms and a long time before the peak of their potential or value.
Over the course of the last few years, in large part due to the momentum of Jadon Sancho’s move to Borussia Dortmund, it has become an increasingly prevalent trend among the country’s brightest talents, a rumbling of discontent that’s spread loudly through academies. Noni Madueke left Tottenham at 16 and is now one of Europe’s standout young wingers at PSV. Donyell Malen rejected a professional contract at Arsenal and more recently joined Borussia Dortmund, while Joshua Dasilva now counts as one of Brentford’s best players. Angel Gomes declined a lucrative offer at Manchester United to prioritise immediate game time while Bobby Duncan, Rafa Camacho and Yasser Larouci all turned down terms at Liverpool. Chelsea, whose abundantly talented youth system often commands the spotlight, have experienced a mini-exodus of sorts this summer, with a host of graduates deciding to move on. And even those who ultimately remained, and now boast Champions League winners’ medals, such as Reece James, came far closer to leaving the club than many realise.
It is not to say the blueprint is any more reliable. There are dozens upon dozens who left and succeeded only in accelerating their fall. There is a fine balance between being brave and hasty, and there are just as many players who’ve bided their time and made breakthroughs, such as Trevoh Chalobah, who has finally earned his place at Chelsea at 22 after three seasons on loan. But for the majority who become lost in the system, there is a far greater willingness to reckon with their futures at an earlier age, rip away the safety net, and see whether they can sink or swim. It offers no more guarantees, just an answer. Perhaps, it’s not just a consequence of football but society, too. In a world that’s more instantaneous, competitive and cut-throat than ever, players don’t want to wait for a handout. They want to take it themselves.
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