A football club’s “identity” is something that is treasured by its followers. It describes what the club stands for, their ethos, who they represent and how they are perceived by others. Football clubs are built and nurtured by communities who take pride in supporting a team that is representative of them and theirs. Traditionally that has always been the case, but it is more difficult to deduce what the modern football fan wants from their club.
Do they want to maintain their identity or do they want success? For the lucky ones, maintaining identity and having success are not mutually exclusive. Barcelona have relied heavily on the club’s academy to produce top class players, which in turn has allowed them to produce all conquering teams. Manchester United are the most successful English team of the modern era, they too have been advocates of home grown talent. Similarly Bayern Munich maintain an excellent balance of blooding their own graduates and adding top signings to compliment them. It is a blueprint for success that has been largely ignored by the rest.
With clubs aggrandizing themselves financially, the prospect of a €50m Argentinean or Brazilian signing excites the modern fan more than watching a local lad develop and battle through inconsistency over time to become a mainstay of the team. I much prefer the thoughts of the second option, but I also recognize that I am part of a minority. The modern fan is far less patient, if a young player doesn’t produce instantly then he is written off. In the era of the “wonder kid”, maturity and undeviating levels of performance are expected of young men learning their trades as players and developing as people in front of fifty thousand critics every week.
The willing apprentice has other obstacles too. Never before has the game seen such diversity of nationality and culture in club squads. To find a Mancunian at City or a Londoner at Arsenal is rare in 2013. There will be a couple of course, but they are a decreasing minority. How proud supporters of Athletic Bilbao must be to see a team made up of Basque players representing their own people at such a high and competitive level – going toe to toe with the expensively assembled mercenaries of Madrid. Some have harshly called their policies xenophobic, but they are just staying true to their roots. They understand what a football club should be.
It may sound bizarre coming from an Irish Manchester United fan, but I would be all for the introduction of a new “foreigner rule” in the Premier League. FIFA (the organisation not the game) attempted to introduce the “6+5” rule in 2008 stipulating that each club must field six players eligible to play for the national team of the country of the club. I would have gone one further and proposed that six players must be produced by the club’s own academy. Unfortunately the idea was abandoned in 2010, with EU commissioners maintaining that the rule was based on direct discrimination on the grounds of nationality making it against one of the fundamental principles of EU law.
The Premier League introduced a system where clubs must have eight home-grown players in their registered squads of 25 in 2010 off the back of those ideas. But the Premier League’s definition of “home-grown” is a player who has been affiliated to the FA or Welsh FA for a period of three seasons or thirty six months prior to his 21st birthday, irrespective of nationality. It’s almost like they are biting their tongue in some respects. It’s clear they want things to change but they seem reluctant to push home their convictions.
In reality, the implementation of the kind of rules I would love to see is nigh on impossible. Only the clubs themselves can choose to adopt such policies. Crewe Alexandra played a team made up entirely of home grown players at the back end of last season, which is an extraordinary feat. They put enormous amount of work in to their youth set up and are brave enough to trust their own developmental skills.
Chelsea and Manchester City also spend vast amounts of time and money on their underage teams, but it just comes across as pandering to the masses, an attempt to convince the public of their merits as community orientated clubs – a “we’re not the bad guys” kind of thing. City in particular have massive plans to re-develop the land around the Etihad, turning it into a state of the art academy and training facility. Great for the area but just another extravagant Qatari PR exercise, scoring more points for a country who are big on slave labour. I’ll wager anything you like that neither club will produce its own players.
There is no place left for idealism at the top end of the game, where chasing the next money spinning commercial partnership is as important as the chase for silverware. For things to move towards my way of thinking, the bubble would first have to burst. It’s harder than it has ever been for young players to break through. But if the best, most successful clubs and managers can see the merits of producing your own, why are the rest so keen to ignore them? Sir Alex Ferguson said “We believe in young people and it’s amazing how they can surprise you” – those who wish to emulate his success will do well to heed his words.