I smell the blood of an Englishman?
Hmm, smells like pound sterling….
In a more recent piece for the Financial Times, Simon Kuper informs us that top flight football clubs have rapidly turned the business of player evaluation into a quantifiable pursuit. As opposed to a more personal scouting scheme where a club manager might have to rely on whether the opinion of whomever he sent to watch whomever he’s watching is worth a flutter, instead a few statisticians can torture the mountain of numbers at their fingertips sufficiently enough to objectively assess a player’s potential value to his squad. Having read that piece, one might wonder why the Alex Ferguson who misinterpreted the stats on Jaap Stam made, what thus far appears to be, another error in statistical analysis when he signed Bébé without having seen him play. The Scot has been ridiculed for signing the lad on the recommendation of former assistant Carlos Querioz, but perhaps the jokes should instead be directed at Manchester United’s IT department for giving Sir Alex the data they had already collated on Javier Hernandez before he met with the young Portuguese player. The transfer fee of £6.6 million for “Chicharito” in hindsight looks a good deal for United, whereas the £7.7 million doled out for Bébé seems like it might turn out to be money less wisely spent.
Thus far this transfer season, Ferguson’s analytic department must have notified him something that many a football fan would have told him for free–that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are not getting any younger and Chris Smalling will need a capable partner in central defense soon. Perchance the crunched figures also informed him of the reason for Nani’s slight decline in production near the end of Manchester United’s successful Premiership campaign, requiring either a replacement or competent left winger to allow him a breather this coming season. Whatever Ferguson and United’s management reviewed when it came to revamping the squad, there also seems to have been something between the digits telling them to buy English. As opposed to last season’s purchases of the exotic and relatively unknown Chicharito and Bébé, Manchester United thus far have opted to plunk their pounds down on Phil Jones and Ashley Young, transfers which combined are higher than United’s three deals last year. Granted, myriad variables are involved when arriving at an acceptable transfer fee between two clubs in addition to a player’s overall quality, such as length of contract, buy-out clauses, and the like, but what is interesting to note is the English surcharge now being added onto the value of these and other young, talented players in a post-Andy Carroll market.
Certainly, it might be more applicable in the case of 19 year old defender Jones, as his future teammate and recent England U-21 partner Chris Smalling cost United half the fee a summer ago, whereas Young has already a proven to be a capable Premiership footballer and part of the reckoning in the senior England squad. But could a player comparable to Young who is not English have been purchased for a third less than his reported £15.8 million in June 2011? Overall, the capture of Andy Carroll by Liverpool this January for a remarkable £36 million seems to have brought on some incredible upwards adjustment on the market for young English footballers, in a way anticipated yet still disturbing in the wake of the Premiership’s Homegrown Rule. But wait, you say, that rule came into being last year, shouldn’t James Milner be considered the poster boy for this after his move to Manchester City? Perhaps City’s move for Milner was the first of this kind, but his £19.3 million purchase from Aston Villa last year struck a different note than the dealings for players this year like Carroll, Jones, and Liverpool’s newest English recruit, Jordan Henderson. At that time, City looked to be a club throwing as many pounds as possible at any and every player willing to take up the new owners’ cause of bringing Champions League football to the blue half of Manchester. As with Young, Milner was also an established Premiership player, having played top flight football since his start with Leeds United in 2002. His potential was already a known quantity, and Villa benefited from City’s reputation that summer by being able to demand a higher fee for a player they wanted for a charge no other club was willing or able to pay. In a sense, Manchester City’s owners were punished for having the deepest pockets and naive enough to let other clubs know they were unafraid to dip into them.
So, is this English surcharge necessarily a bad result from the Homegrown rule? Blackburn, Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Newcastle have considerably more money at their disposal to strengthen their squads to challenge further up the league table, but where they are finding those replacements are not necessarily other lads that would qualify for the England national team. Newcastle in particular have been using their Carroll funds this summer notably to dip into the French league, while Sunderland have signed three non-English players and Villa have likely not had the time to decide best how to use their fees from the Young transfer. Scanning the transfer rumours around Blackburn, the club’s gaze looks set to recruiting foreign players, although the club did purchase 20 year old English defender Myles Anderson, but that was prior to the Jones move and could have been construed as a favour to his father, a participant in Venky’s takeover of the Lancashire club last year. It seems, then, that the intent of the rule, to encourage an increase in the number of English players in England’s top flight league to reduce a deficit versus foreign players stretching back to 2004, is being thwarted. Rather, the knock-on effect finds certain clubs either willing or able to fork over the surcharge doing so, concentrating England’s young talents in a smaller set of squads whilst the rest of the league’s sides populate theirs with marginally less expensive foreign players. Granted, these clubs must also abide by the Homegrown rule, but should they find themselves lacking in enough English blood on their rosters, they will be forced to pay a steeper price than they once might have on a slightly tighter budget than those larger clubs, thus placing themselves in a scenario where they have inadvertently priced themselves out of the market for a good English footballer.
The amount of the transfer fees also places tremendous pressure on those young players to perform and produce from the off. When clubs are shelling out that much money for someone, the expectation for that lad to be brilliant from the beginning will likely be just as inflated as the sum, whether fairly or unfairly. For instance, the first time Henderson makes an error at Anfield this coming season, the knives will come out with reference to his price being the first thing to be mentioned. Make no mistake, the barbs will certainly fly–those knives will have been nicely sharpened and honed during a summer of grinding on the fee. If Ashley Young or Phil Jones do not play up to a standard expected at Old Trafford, one can reasonably anticipate much hemming and hawing with pundits awaiting the appropriate time to release their comparisons of these players with Nani or Jonny Evans, respectively. And when the next players that become eligible for the English surcharge, say Connor Wickham or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, how will they respond? Rather than promoting the development and growth of more English footballers in the English game, the Homegrown rule might be artificially accelerating the time in which these young players should be given to grow into the upper echelons of the game, possibly stunting their development and having them be labeled failures before the age of 21. A certain amount of this argument holds true for Villa’s Fabian Delph, who made the leap from League One football to the Premiership without sufficient time to hone his game in the Championship, with only the matter of his transfer from Leeds United being considerably less as it occurred before the implementation of the Homegrown rule. Now just 21, Delph is being heard in the papers hoping he can impress new manager Alex McLeish enough to merit time on the pitch after absences due to injury woes, and if you perform an internet search for Delph and include the word “flop,” there are sadly already lists that include the young Englishman.
When Jack climbed down that beanstalk for the last time, he cut it down in the hope that no one would know of his misdeeds in the giant’s castle, but the stains on his hand’s from the slain giant’s blood would never disappear. And while the folktale ends with Jack getting the girl and all the riches he desired, he had been permanently marked for life due to his greedy actions. The Premiership’s Homegrown rule has set up a similar tale that will continue, where young English players will be sold for higher fees to those clubs in the clouds, and the ever-present disparity between big and small will grow as those clubs which do the selling of England’s youth inadvertently cut the beanstalk upon which they could climb later. This time, though, the blood will not be on the hands of those young players, but they might be marked for the remainder of their playing careers as having climbed to the top too soon and for too much money.