x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Big spending on prodigies not a sure formula for Premier League clubs

Teenage talent in high-profile transfers is becoming more common and, as Richard Jolly reveals, there have been as many failures as hits.

John Bostock has flopped since joining Tottenham at 16.
John Bostock has flopped since joining Tottenham at 16.

One of the guiding principles of Manchester United can be summed up in nine, comparatively simple words. "If they are good enough, they are old enough," said Sir Matt Busby, the best part of six decades ago.

One of English football's more prominent Catholics as well as arguably United's greatest manager, Busby might also appreciate the Jesuit saying: "Give me a child of seven and I will give you the man."

United have long been concerned with footballers' formative years, believing they are best spent at Old Trafford. To the Busby Babes and Fergie's Fledglings, however, can be added a new category: the expensive youngsters.

By spending £16.5million (Dh97.7m) on the 19-year-old Phil Jones, a defender with just 35 career starts, Sir Alex Ferguson continued his policy of buying, as well as developing, emerging prospects.

"Over the last decade, we've worked upon bringing young talent into the club, like, Wayne Rooney, Chicharito [Javier Hernandez], Anderson and Nani," he said.

He neglected to mention the most prominent of the precocious: Cristiano Ronaldo. Signed at 18, sold for £80m, the Portuguese more than realised the considerable potential United noticed. His ability was channelled, his career changed. Ronaldo blazed a trail that others have followed.

In compiling his list, Ferguson omitted the Da Silva twins - Fabio and Rafael - and Chris Smalling who, with Jones, could complete the back four in years to come.

He also, presumably deliberately, neglected to mention Bebe and Gabriel Obertan, who are both best forgotten. But, at an age when players' physical and mental development can vary, when some will change position and when a subcategory offer an illusion of excellence as novices, shelling out for the unfinished article is a risky process.

It is one, however, that Liverpool have adopted.

The £20m addition of Jordan Henderson means that, within six months, £55m has been spent on Englishmen who, when purchased, had one cap apiece.

Andy Carroll became the eighth most expensive footballer of all time in January, an extreme case of paying for potential. The fees are something new, but the approach can be deemed a continuation of "the Liverpool way".

Bill Shankly was its prime exponent 40 years ago, finding first Ray Clemence and then Kevin Keegan at Scunthorpe United. The goalkeeper served his apprenticeship in the reserves, but the forward was swiftly put into the first team.

"We bought Kevin for £35,000," Shankly recalled. "It turned out to be robbery with violence." Ian Rush and Alan Hansen, two stalwarts of Kenny Dalglish's first Liverpool team, were similarly far-sighted additions during Bob Paisley's reign.

Yet Anfield provides cautionary tales as well: Wayne Harrison was the costliest teenager in the country when signed for £250,000 in 1985. Dogged by misfortune, he never played for Liverpool's senior side and ended up a lorry driver.

Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec were voted the two outstanding players in the World Under 17 Championships, prompting Gerard Houllier to call his compatriots "French gems" when he brought them to Merseyside. Their under-age prowess proved deceptive, however, and both were marginal figures. The long-promised brighter future never materialised.

What Houllier was attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, was to ape Arsene Wenger. Perhaps the most significant signing in Premier League history, in terms of his influence on transfer-market strategy, was that of an unknown 17 year old in 1997.

That £500,000 investment in Nicolas Anelka reaped a £23m reward after the striker helped Arsenal to a league and cup double. Wenger's fondness for youth was apparent, too, in his moves for Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry; though both young, however, neither was as untested as Anelka.

He paved the way for Cesc Fabregas, Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy, Theo Walcott and plenty of other untried newcomers, players who were not homegrown, but home educated in Arsenal's ways, nurtured to pass the ball. Others began to emulate Arsenal; the junior sides, like their superiors, became multinational ensembles.

Chelsea provide the counterpoint, the warning to the teenage talents. They can get lost in youth and reserve teams, condemned to endless loan spells and deprived of the finishing school of first-team football where they want it most. Their development has been stalled, not accelerated.

Stamford Bridge's youth teams have been populated by supposed prodigies from across Europe without providing a first-team regular since John Terry broke through.

Others have exited ignominiously or anonymously. Consider Michael Woods and Tom Taiwo, plucked from Leeds United at a cost of £5m in compensation. Neither is still at Stamford Bridge - Woods has been released while Taiwo joined League One Carlisle United - and, damningly, neither even made a senior appearance.

Both are proof that this is an inexact science: the teenage player is rarely the refined model. It increases the margin for error. Yet, increasingly, that is a risk clubs are willing to take.

The prices paid for Jones, Smalling, Carroll and Henderson are very different from the fees Fabregas and Anelka commanded. They were such successes that, for every triumph, plenty of failures were affordable. That is no longer the case.

But procrastination is not an option. Haste is enforced. If United had not signed Jones, someone else - probably Liverpool or Arsenal - would have. In an era of blanket television coverage and global scouting networks, there are few surprise packages, especially in the English game.

Footballers are not merely identified at a younger age: they are signed, too. The times when Shankly could consider and scout Keegan for nine months are gone. Now they are certainly young enough. Only time will tell if they are good enough.

FIVE SUCCESSFUL TRANSFER STORIES

Ian Rush: Chester City to Liverpool, 1980. Aged 18.
The forward had played just 34 games for Chester before Bob Paisley paid a then British record £300,000 (Dh1.78 million) fee for him. Although not an instant hit, the goals soon flowed. In two spells at the club, Rush scored a club record 364 goals in 660 games.

Wayne Rooney: Everton to Manchester United, 2004. Aged 18.
His precocious talent was announced when he scored a wonder goal for Everton against Arsenal at the age of 16. Played fewer than 80 first-team games when Manchester United signed him for £27m. Rooney has scored at least 16 goals in each of his seven seasons at Old Trafford and a 34-goal haul in 2009/10 saw him named Footballer of the Year.

Nicolas Anelka: PSG to Arsenal, 1997. Aged 17.
Arsene Wenger snapped up the striker for just £500,000. In his first full season, 1997/98, Anelka struck up a telepathic partnership with Dennis Bergkamp as Arsenal won the double. Real Madrid paid £22.3m for him in 1999.

Cesc Fabregas: Barcelona to Arsenal, 2003. Aged 16.
Unheralded when he joined in 2003 from Barcelona, but the Spaniard became the club’s youngest ever player at the age of 16 and 177 days. While his only trophy with Arsenal is the 2005 FA Cup, he has become the club’s captain and his performances earned a place in Spain’s Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup-winning squads.

Cristiano Ronaldo: Sporting to Manchester United, 2003, Aged 18.
Few English fans had heard of the winger when United signed him in a £12.4m deal. Six years later, he left the club for a world record £80m to Real Madrid as one of the best players in the world.

... AND SEVEN WHO MOVED TOO SOON

John Bostock (Crystal Palace to Tottenham)
Moved across London at the age of 16, for a fee that could reach £2 million (Dh11.8m). Bostock has made just three appearances for Tottenham.

Adel Taaraabt (Lens to Tottenham)
The “new Zinedine Zidane” was 18 when he moved with the promise of first-team football. Just nine games in three seasons followed. Resurrecting his career at Queens Park Rangers.

Francis Jeffers (Arsenal to Everton)
Had just turned 20 when Arsene Wenger spent £8m on striker who scored just four goals in three seasons. Since leaving Arsenal he has scored just 14 league goals for eight clubs in eight seasons.

Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle (Le Harve to Liverpool)
French cousins were compared with Zidane and Thierry Henry when they joined at the age of 17. Le Tallec made 17 appearances in seven years. Sinama-Pongolle was only marginally more successful.

Jermaine Pennant (Notts County to Arsenal)
Winger was 15 when Arsenal paid £2m for him. Scored a hat-trick on his full league debut in 2003, but played only 12 league games in six years.

Harry Forrester (Watford to Aston Villa)
Amid interest from Spurs and Manchester United, signed for Aston Villa aged 16 for a fee potentially rising to £1m. Never got a sniff of the first team and was released last week.

Dean Parrett (QPR to Tottenham)
Signed in 2007 at the age of 15 in a deal reportedly worth up to £2m. Midfielder has made just one first-team appearance since and has spent unsuccessful periods out on loan.  * Compiled by Thomas Woods

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