James Shield’s Lane View: Why should clubs bother with young players now?

Blades: Sheffield United news, reports and more with The Star.
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SHEFFIELD United, with all due respect to Leyton Orient, must wonder how they have ended-up at Brisbane Road.

Five years ago they were rubbing shoulders with Ricardo Carvalho, Wayne Rooney and Stephen Gerrard.

Now, having spiralled out of the top two divisions, Danny Wilson and his squad find themselves locking horns with Dean Cox and David Mooney instead. Good players both but, as even their staunchest of supporters would probably admit, not exactly names to savour.

United’s predicament serves as a stark reminder that nothing can be taken for granted in football. It’s a business even more unpredictable and ruthless than Jordan when she has a new ghost-written novel to sell.

But, as last weekend’s derby proved, there is still plenty to celebrate on both sides of the Steel City - including United’s enviable reputation for identifying, grooming and eventually unleashing accomplished young players.

It’s a track record of success which can be traced back to when Russell Slade, Orient’s excellent manager, was still plying his trade at Bramall Lane.

And, with John Pemberton guiding United in to the FA Youth Cup last season, it continues to this very day.

Something which could be about to change if the game’s supposed custodians get their way.

With Wayne Rooney kung-fu tricks and Rio Ferdinand’s pithy tweets dominating the news agenda, proposals to radically change the way aspiring professionals are recruited by clubs have slipped beneath the radar.

Some bright spark, doubtless seduced by the ‘Barcelona Model’, has decided that it might be a good idea to tear up guidelines which prohibit academies from recruiting outside of a proscribed area and allow a free-for-all instead.

It’s a plan which might suit the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and some greedy, star-struck parents.

But it threatens to place even greater handicaps on those operating further down the food chain.

Even more worrying is a section of the Elite Player Performance Plan – which Football League members yesterday voted to accept – meaning it is now easier and cheaper for these giants to lure youngsters away.

No more negotiations. No more tribunals. Just a rigid, pegged tier of payments.

United received a reported £1 million when Jacob Mellis, then aged 16, joined Chelsea in June 2007. Under the new tariffs the Londoners could potentially have secured his services for less than a fifth of that amount.

At the stroke of a pen, 46 clubs have voted to ensure that many of their rivals now have absolutely no incentive to run youth systems.

Although, with the Premier League threatening to withhold their seasonal £5m payments if the motion was not passed, many will have felt they had precious little choice.

United, for example, have not pumped substantial sums in to their programme at Shirecliffe because of a sense of charity or altruism.

Polished PR releases might suggest this is the case but, by and large, it is because they recognise the importance of producing their own stable of talent in such demanding economic times.

The governing bodies preach good housekeeping and prudence.

But then entertain a plan which effectively threatens to punish those who also promote those ideals by allowing FAPL predators to poach their best young players instead.

Cutting the number of substitutes Wilson and his League One counterparts are permitted to name on matchdays has already blocked one easy route to the senior stage.

Five members of the United squad which entertained Sheffield Wednesday five days ago have progressed through the ranks.

More tellingly, perhaps, 11 of the 18 players who represented England against Montenegro earlier this month, including Joe Hart, Theo Walcott, Scott Parker and, of course, Phil Jagielka, honed their skills with clubs currently outside the top-flight.

Big is not always better. Opportunity is worth more than money in the bank.