I’ve been thinking about the future of so-called ‘selling clubs’ a lot recently. And specifically so after reading the new book by the great Michael Calvin No Hunger In Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream. It is a book that tangentially, at least, addresses the issue of the biggest clubs stockpiling the greatest talent at younger and younger ages against a background of global scouting.
When a club like Chelsea can unashamedly boast 38 players sent out on loan as they did in 2016, then you have to wonder how a small, or even a medium-sized club can every hope to consistently compete for live prospects to develop.
And indeed what does it say about the assumed duty of care clubs exhibit towards youngsters they sign? That is, the selling of false hope to young players that have little or no chance of ever donning the first team shirt of their parent club.
So, in one way, it is good to see Chelsea at last selling off the fat from their roster – stars who regularly win the national youth awards only to falter on the stony ground of a restricted path to first team games.
According to World Soccer’s Brian Glanville, Chelsea were not best pleased when one of their brightest youngsters, Dominic Solanke, having materially helped the England U20s victory in South Korea, elected to jump ship and join Liverpool.
He says: “Now Chelsea have decided to sell Bertrand Traore to Lyon for a whopping £16million, with a clause which guarantees them 15 per cent of any profit if the French club sells him. While similar clauses will be inserted into the deal when Nathan Ake, the accomplished young defender, joins Bournemouth for £20million, having done so well while on loan to them last season.”
But that still leaves a bunch of gifted youngsters who remain at Stamford Bridge and it is a situation that enforces Brian Glanville’s conclusion:
“All credit to Chelsea for their scouting expertise and for the excellent training they give their youngsters when they have signed them, but for the most part these youngsters would be much better off at other clubs where first-team football awaited them.”
Faced with the stockpiling of schoolboy and youth talent on what is an industrial scale so-called lesser clubs are resigned to the role of football’s Wombles, poring over the cast-offs, sifting through the big teams’ damaged goods and nurturing the occasional savvy star-turn whose parents understand the good sense of their child playing in an environment with a recognised pathway to the first team.
The key question is: ‘Does the tightening net of football’s recruitment intelligence effectively spell the end for the classic selling club model of early talent identification, player development and selling on with a massive upside?’
My hunch is that it does.
I don’t know what the answer is here – a quota on the volume of players that elite academies can sign each year and per age group? Strategic formal partnerships with lower league feeder clubs?
Certainly, Gianni Infantino, the president of football’s governing body Fifa, is in favour of outlawing it by capping squad sizes.
He is on record as saying: “I believe it is not right but it is permitted. It doesn’t feel right, for a club to just hoard the best young players and then to park them left and right. It’s not good for the development of the player, it’s not good for the club itself. We have to work on squad size limits.”
Football fans of reasonable age can all name clubs that have boxed above their weight for long periods, if not decades on the back of selling on home-developed stars.
In 1966, the year that England won the World Cup, Scottish players comprised 20 per cent of the players then plying their trade in the old First Division.
In more recent times the likes of West Ham, Ajax, Auxerre, Celtic, Sevilla, Liverpool, Genoa, Southampton, Porto, Benfica, Sporting, Spurs and Newcastle have all had spells as clubs that have been able to identify and burnish young stars before moving them on at great profit.
Ajax’s Class of 1995 © UEFA.com
However, in the post-Bosman, Champions League era the idea that clubs outwith the gilded cage life of the Big Five European leagues might sustain themselves through regularly moving players on season after season seems as distant as ever.
You can see how it plays out in The Football Obervatory Report and its tables below:
The CIES Football Observatory say: “While clubs having invested the most in transfer fees are logically among the richest, the majority of teams having received the most money are also part of the closed circle of financially dominant clubs. For example, Real Madrid is 7th for transfer expenditure and 9th for transfer incomes.
Like Real Madrid, most teams in the top twenty of the rankings of clubs who earned the most income from the transfer of players to big-5 league teams are also in the top twenty of clubs that spent the most. For teams of countries hosting the five major European championships, Sevilla, Udinese, Southampton and Genoa constitute the only exceptions.”
As The Football observatory report confirms: “There are only two clu bs situated outside the big-5 league countries in the top twenty places of teams having most benefited from big-5 club spending: Benfica (4th) and Porto (5th). The exceptional capacity of these Portuguese clubs to generate incomes on the transfer market is linked to their prestige and competitiveness, but also to strategic alliances woven with key intermediaries and investors both in Europe and South America.”
“Generally speaking, our analysis shows that to be able to generate considerable profits on the transfer market, it is necessary to have sufficient economic clout and prestige to attract the best talents either young or adult. In the current state of play, clubs without the necessary economic muscle have little chance of earning considerable incomes. A good access to dominant transfer networks is also of crucial importance.”
At the elite level, Jean-Michel Aulas, the owner and chairman of Olympic Lyon single-handedly turned OL into a French powerhouse, based on a now classic football business model: buying promising players, giving them a shop window, and selling them to the biggest clubs in Europe.
The sales of star players such as Karim Benzema, Florent Malouda, Michael Essien and Lassana Diarra are said to have generated a net surplus value of approximately 95M€. There are others like Edmilson and Tiago, Bayern-incomer Corentin Tolisso and the Arsenal target Alexandre Lacazette that are significant, alternative big names from the Lyon system.
At various points, the virtuous circle for Lyon seemed unbreakable as their players became flavour of the month for a while but of course there is always a football cost to pay when prime assets are spirited away – even for a fantastic financial return on investment – and it hits clubs’ bottom line sooner or later.
It is a cycle best illustrated by the rise and fall of super scout Graham Carr at Newcastle.
Graham Carr made his name identifying underexposed players in the French market for a business model that would introduce them to Premier League football at St James Park, tie them in on long contracts, and then look to move them at a high fee profit. The scouting parameters appeared to be a French nationality, an age profile under 26 and a fee ideally less than £10m with the promise of a major upside on resale.
As a business strategy it is self-evidently attractive. But as a football strategy it is destined to fail. The reason being is that while the financial ROI from polishing and rebranding unloved bargain buys can be high, even fantastic, the downside is always central to the piece.
This is because inevitably ‘buying cheap to sell on dear as a strategy’ is a numbers game. It is bound to throw up more hits than misses. Misses you have to tolerate, to absorb, to do something with.
In order for the Mike Ashley/Graham Carr model to work it had to dovetail perfectly, at all times, with football and team-building objectives so that players signed were the right players, for the right roles at the right time. And that is where both Carr and Newcastle appear to have failed as a football project.
The ongoing success of a selling club model assumes three things:
1) That the stream of under-exploited talent you can source is ongoing.
2) That said new recruits can be seamlessly integrated into your first team season after season.
3) That there are no structural or ‘fashion’ changes in the recruitment landscape that are lying in wait to fatally assail you.
And none of these are even slightly guaranteed in the medium to long term.
In Newcastle’s case, they couldn’t possibly have predicted either the free-for-all causing structural fall-out from the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson at Man United. Nor could they have anticipated the Sky TV rights-funded gold rush that would turn every Premier League club into a continental transfer market predator virtually overnight. But equally, there is no denying the fragility of the classic selling club model where teams either fail unlitaterally at the recruitment level or become victims of their own success – and unwittingly create a blueprint for wealthier rivals to follow.
Certainly, as it stands, the also rans are forced to cut their cloth accordingly as poor relations, hoping, rather than budgeting for infrequent windfalls when they come along.
Certainly you look at the CIES Observatory’s report and tables, and the story of Graham Carr’s travails at Newcastle, and you have to consider that player development as a form of club-sustaining speculation is now a closed shop game. That is, a game played out almost exclusively between existing Champions League level clubs.