It was with some dismay that I read the following quote in my newspaper yesterday:
“The rules from Uefa on home-grown players and Fifa’s proposal for 6+5 puts a real onus on clubs to develop their own talent much more fully. With that comes a lot of benefits, and so we looked at our scouting programme to be more focused.”
These words, for those of you drawing a blank, are from Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon speaking at the International Football Arena conference in Zurich. They are, in part, a response to the news that Chelsea have drastically downsized – the management term seems rather apt – the scouting network acting under the auspices of the world’s most expensive talent-spotter, Frank Arnesen.
First things first. Arnesen, the subject of a rather grubby tug-of-love some years ago between Chelsea and Tottenham, is a figure of some controversy amongst the fans. There have been rumours that his growing influence with the owners was amongst the catalysts for the departure of José Mourinho from Stamford Bridge.
The only people upset by this, of course, were Chelsea fans and the media, but the mere suggestion carries with it all the negatives that our island race associates with the multi-tiered management structure of continental football. Moving on to his ability to do his job, you may well have heard his name (assuming you’re not a Chelsea fan) in connection with the original discovery , and signing to PSV Eindhoven, of Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima. Or the “real” Ronaldo, if your frame of reference pre-dates the notorious Portuguese stripling playing for Manchester United… sorry, Madrid… no, no, I meant Manchester United all along, greatest club in the world, it’s a privilege, etc.
Thing is, since Frank has been at Chelsea, we’ve all been wondering where the next Ronaldo is coming from, and what time he might show up. Because Chelsea haven’t exactly risked it all when it’s come to promising youth. Investing a few years in Salomon Kalou, sure.
But Ben Sahar, or indeed Sergio Tejera, or Miroslav Stoch, or even the oh-so-promising Scott Sinclair… well, they don’t exactly appear to have set the first team alight yet. And yes, they’re young, and time is on their side, and we can of course afford to buy ready-made first-teamers while we give them that time. But that sort of brings me back to my original point.
Peter Kenyon made his latest pronouncement in the context of a conference where the future of football, and particularly its financial future, is a huge talking point. In a way, his comments seem admirable. Which team wouldn’t like to find itself in a position where it’s churning out vast numbers of locally-grown, fully organic, farm-bred young players with the technical skills to match their enthusiasm and fire, all ready for the rigours of the top division or, if that is their lot, a lucrative sale to another club?
Let’s be honest… there are some teams doing it, and when they do, the truly promising ones are cherry-picked or thieved by other clubs (witness the uncomfortable war of words and wallets between Chelsea and Leeds over Tom Taiwo or, dare I say it, Arsenal’s snatch-and-grab of Francesc Fabregas a matter of weeks before he was eligible to sign professional terms with Barcelona).
But no title-challenging English team can sustain the ambition that Kenyon aspires to at this point in time. Manchester United achieve some of the English-foreign balance that Chelsea are lucky enough – or wealthy enough -to have, but Alex Ferguson has shown a recent penchant for high-profile raids on South American or Iberian youngsters like Nani and Anderson, a bargain at £30m the pair.
Chelsea were aiming for the signature of Robinho before City discovered their oil well on the halfway line, which would surely have put an emphatic end to any chance Scott Sinclair ever had of starting a League game for Chelsea barring a glut of injuries.
As for Arsenal, whose admirable policy in developing youth relies to a large extent on Wenger’s extensive knowledge of French and francophone African football, enough said.
The player that really inspired this article, though, is England U-21 centreback Michael Mancienne, currently on loan to Wolves. If you’ve never heard of him, ask a Wolves fan their opinion. The boy’s represented (and captained) England at every level from schoolboy onwards, and has apparently made a significant impact within a previously struggling Wolves defence. But will we ever see him break into a Chelsea back line in which John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Alex and now Branislav Ivanovic all stand ahead of him?
“I think there is still hope for me at Chelsea – I’ve been on the bench a few times but not on the pitch yet. I’ve got top quality centre-halves in front of me (at Chelsea) so it’s a hard decision. I’ve got to see what happens and take things as they come really.”
Staunch words from a really promising talent. It would be a pleasure to think that the club could accommodate his ambitions. Perhaps, given the increasingly crunchy state of the economy, we might find that making the most of the talent we have – and not hankering after the talent we can buy – is about to become the norm. And then the pronouncements we hear from the senior figures in football (and please believe, Mr Kenyon, that I’m not sticking the boot in… I’m just struggling between a cynical disposition and a romantic temperament) might have the satisfying ring of truth.