Eleven year old Luke Francis felt like a million dollars when Sheffield Wednesday signed him for their Academy.
The Sheffield United fan brushed aside club rivalries to chase his dream to become a professional footballer.
However half-way through his first season, the Owls Academy ‘didn’t feel the right fit’ and Luke wanted out.
On his final day at Wednesday, the Sheffield Springs Academy pupil - who was then 13 years and four months old - could not have imagined there was now a potential price tag of more than quarter of a million pounds on his head.
And that is a bounty that the Myrtle Springs prospect, now 16, feels is dissuading other clubs from signing him.
Instead of being able to pursue interest from Sheffield United and Rotherham United, the striker plays for Handsworth Parramore U18s.
“It is frustrating, I know I’m good enough to be playing for a Football League club” he says.
“What Wednesday are asking is ridiculous, it’s bound to put off other clubs. How can they ask so much for somebody who left as a young kid more than three years ago?
Wednesday have done nothing wrong in seeking compensation from potential employers of Luke.
They are following established guidelines, although discretion appeaqrs to be available.
The Championship club say they have compromised by waiving the right to a £25,000 scholarship fee from any other club but they will:
* Revisit that and ask for a smaller amount (£10,000) if he signs a pro contract.
* Expect £2,500 for EVERY appearance, up to a maximum of 100 (so a possible £250,000)
* Require a 25 per cent sell on clause.
Luke’s mother Susan says: “All clubs ask for compensation, I understand that. But for a lad who joined at 11 and left after just one full season this is barmy - it’s so unreasonable. What did they do for Luke? He trained three times a week and played weekly on Sundays. He had a summer break of around 4-6 weeks. I would say he learned little or nothing in the 17 months he was there. When Luke left, they had knocked every bit of football and confidence out of him and he returned to Sunday League. When you think how much money they want for that, well, it’s disgusting.”
Luke, now a six footer, is studying a BTEC Sport qualification at Hillsborough College just a short distance away from Wednesday’s stadium.
Four and a half years ago, the Owls had snapped up the 11-year-old centre forward after he’d shown promise scoring goals for Handsworth Boys.
Luke didn’t gel with the coaches and asked to leave after a season. Wednesday persuaded him to come back after Summer and he played three more games before asking to go again. In October 2012, he signed a “Mutual Compensation Notification” note which included three words at the bottom: “COMPENSATION IS PAYABLE.”
It bore no further explanation.
Susan said: “There were no figures on the piece of paper. We didn’t know what it meant. I actually wondered whether I had to pay anything! Professional football seemed a long way off when your son has just turned 13, so we signed it and thought we’d moved on.”
Luke went to play for Brinsworth, hoping to attract different suitors.
It wasn’t long before they were knocking on his door.
He had a trial at Sheffield United’s Academy but the family’s intuition is that the Blades were cautious about getting involved with compensation hanging over him.
Rotherham United expressed an interest, taking him to Budapest on a soccer trip.
Around that time, Susan wrote to Football League, seeking clarity on Luke’s position. Their answer gave little hope. They suggested taking the case to a “Player Related Dispute Commission” - but the Sheffield hairdresser was wary of the costs involved and the case became dead-locked.
“It was so frustrating, we knew he is far better than Sunday football” she says.
“Now he is getting older - but getting nowhere. You get your lad into a club thinking he is going to be developed and years down the line, it ends up holding him back.”
Luke says other clubs interested in him include Chesterfield, York City, Grimsby Town and Hull City.
“I still want to be a pro footballer” he said. “It is all a bit pathetic. I am desperate for it to be sorted. I don’t want to do anything else. If Wednesday reduced the fees I know I’m good enough and a club would sign me. They are asking too much for somebody went to them at 11.
“I can’t even remember much of what they taught me there. Coaching isn’t sophisticated with players that young. Just drills, fitness training, running and playing. It doesn’t justify charging so much.”
*Rotherham United wanted to offer Luke a deal after he had “an extended and successful trial” with them.
But last September Garreth Barker, their Academy Manager, told the Francis family they could not do so because of his financial tie-in with Wednesday.
Although Barker had a “cordial dialogue” with Owls Academy manager Dean Ramsdale, the potential costs were “substantial.”
He said: “I find this prohibitive and will not be able to offer Luke a scholarship on such terms and such costs.”
Barker made a “counter offer” to Wednesday, which was rejected.
“Luke has shown to be a capable player, team player and an exceptional young man and we would love to have the opportunity to work with him” said Barker.
*Sheffield Wednesday have done nothing wrong and insist they have ‘clean hands’ in their dealings with Luke.
A spokesman said the Owls would normally have been entitled to a £25,000 fee had Luke signed up for on another club’s Scholarship programme...but they’d helped the teenager by waiving that right.
They said they’d trained Luke during his “formative years” but would only claim a £10,000 payment from another club if he signed a new professional contract.
In Championship football terms, £10,000 is a “drop in the ocean” they say.
A future £2,500 payable to them for every appearance - up to the value of £250,000 - was based on an official matrix that every club had agreed to, they say.
An Owls spokesman said: “We have tried to help Luke by waiving the Scholarship fee. And we’d suggest that if any striker played 100 games for a Championship team, then he would be worth more than £250,000.”
Wednesday appear to have the discretionary power to waive or reduce the appearances clause. But they said that no club would do that as it made no business-sense.
“The rules are there for a reason and there to be adhered to.
“We have clean hands in this and we have made a gesture in waiving the Scholarship fee to help him get on the ladder” said the spokesman.
Later, the club issued this formal statement: “We are fully conversant with Luke’s situation, hence we have agreed to completely waive our compensation should he sign a scholarship with another club.
“In addition, if and when Luke signs a professional contract elsewhere, we have agreed to significantly reduce that initial level of compensation, which is in line with the matrix figures outlined by the Elite Player Performance Plan.”
*The Francis family have received legal guidance on their quest to reduce parts of the compensation package which they say is restricting his ability to sign for another Football League club.
Philip Pepper, a partner at Shakespeare Martineau, is a specialist in this area.
He thought the Owls were “taking a liberty in asking for these ridiculous fees from Luke when he has not been at the club for such a long time.”
Pepper thought the release form that the Francis family signed did not clearly “set out what is meant by ‘compensation is payable.’”
The Leicester law firm, with a company profile in Sheffield, says they will continue to support the family.