The prominent dilemma and debate: when is the 'right' time for young talent to make their move?
Amid Sunderland’s reported £8m bid for Ipswich’s highly-rated teenage striker Connor Wickham, and his likely departure this summer given his boyhood club Liverpool are said to be closely monitoring the situation, it felt an appropriate time to consider and assess the common dilemma that the players and clubs face in picking the right moment to complete their inevitable big money move from smaller club to bigger club, and the debate this creates amongst fans. The moods of the two parties, of course, often become very different once interest is received: to the player, the move represents a bright opportunity; to his club, losing him represents a backward step. Consequently, the aims clash, with prolonged negotiations, and sometimes court tribunals, a common feature of modern football. In this sense, off-the-pitch battles have dented the image of the ‘Beautiful Game’, certainly in the eyes of purist fans: gone are the days of Matt Le Tissier, a one-club man who chose loyalty and security over money and trophies, or even John Barnes, whom stayed at Watford a full three years after his wonder-goal against Brazil. Enter the 21st Century, where even Wayne Rooney, a player who many idolise for his passion (despite leaving his boyhood club at the age of 18), will threaten to leave one of the biggest clubs in the world, seemingly in pursuit of a pay rise.
Wickham looks likely to replicate Rooney in moving at 18
For fans of clubs outside the English ‘elite’ - that being the 'Big Four', the top six, or the Premier League as a whole depending on whom you ask - the process continues to be a frustrating one as they repeatedly witness their prized young assets being ‘poached’ by those with the money and pulling power to do so. No sooner had Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton established themselves as key members of the Sheffield United first team, that was incidentally one match away from returning to the Premier League, had they become Tottenham players. Two years later, United are about to compete in the third tier for the first time in over two years, illustrating the cruelty of football. Sheffield United’s search for the next Walker; Crystal Palace’s for the next Bostock; QPR’s for the next Sterling etc seems almost redundant when in many cases they do not even get to see these talents play for the senior side before they are gazumped by an English giant, such is the scouting power of modern football. Of course, the fees received for the time and expertise exerted in developing these players can help keep some sides afloat; yet any chance of progression is unlikely without these very players’ eventual influence on the pitch.
One can not realistically blame a young player for wanting to move to a top club. Indeed, in many instances, they are probably pushed out of the door by greedy chairmen looking to make instant profit from the academy’s exploits. A responsible owner would look to reinvest the fee in strengthening the team as a whole, of course, but in many cases this is selfishly undesirable, or regrettably impossible due to the growing financial demands of running a football club. Even without these outside influences, player motivation to move is generally the over-riding in factor in forcing through a move at any age. Focusing on Connor Wickham, he has the potential prospect of moving to Liverpool, his favourite team and one of the most successful clubs in the world, at the ripe age of 18. He would be training alongside top-class team-mates with the aid of superior facilities and coaching, and when given the opportunity, he would be playing against some of the best players in the world: the ultimate test for any footballer. A Premier League move would also give him a greater platform for international football; having sat on the bench for all three of England’s U21 European Championship matches, it is clear he needs Premiership football in order to be strongly considered for even that level, let alone the senior side in the long-term. Lastly, but certainly not least, he will be facing a significant pay rise should he wish to move, and in the modern world his agent will almost certainly be using this as motivation to engineer a move away. When all of these factors are compiled, it seems as though any young player would be foolish to turn down a move to a top club.
Wickham played 0 minutes at the U21 Euro's, with Premiership players picked ahead of him
However, do these admittedly wonderful prospects outweigh the almost guarenteed lack of immediate first team football? Referring back to Walker and Naughton, they have largely spent their time at Tottenham in the reserves, or on loan at Championship clubs, where they first started. Walker may now have an opportunity to make the right-back spot his own off the back of an impressive U21 tournament, especially with Hutton and Corluka hardly world beaters, but this will have been a frustrating period for both himself and Naughton, whose future is even less certain. Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale both made their moves from Southampton to North London while eligible for youth football, and both found it tough going initially: Walcott made only 48 league starts in his first five seasons, while Bale made 38 in his first three. Indeed,Trevor Brooking fears that Phil Jones and Jordon Henderson may share the same problems amid their big money moves to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, harming their development in crucial years after both being one of the first names on the team-sheet at Blackburn and Sunderland respectively.
Indeed, Walcott may now be an Arsenal regular with 17 England caps, but in the eyes of many he is still lacking the consistency required to take him to the next level, while his self-confessed desired central position doesn't look much closer than it did when he first joined. Bale, meanwhile, was nothing short of a laughing stock at White Hart Lane in his first few years, mainly because of his colossal winless run in the Spurs side. Indeed, it was only an injury crisis that led Harry Redknapp to give him his chance, at left midfield rather than left-back where he had spent most of his career, in early 2010, which he has grabbed with both hands: scoring a Champions League hat-trick at the San Siro and becoming the PFA Player of the Year to name two of many achievements.
Bale eventually justified his early move; countless others do not.
However, the vast majority of players certainly do not share Bale’s talent, and equally many do not acquire the sort of fortune that allowed him to eventually achieve these dizzy heights. As a result, they find themselves wasting valuable years on the bench, even if some may be satisfied picking up their heavy pay cheques. Shaun Wright-Phillips, Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker, for example, all made the step-up to Chelsea in their early twenties rather than late teens, and all comprehensively failed to make the leap (although Parker may now be heading back towards the top with Tottenham for a second chance). Perhaps, then, it is more of an issue of where than when, and more intrinsically linked to individual talent, and luck, than some would lead you to believe; SWP and Parker may have failed at Chelsea, but Joe Cole and Lampard certainly did not, for example.
Wickham, then, he must ensure he makes the right collective decision that only he can make, and it may well be more about destination than timing. He may be best following Ashley Young’s lead in joining a mid-table side before proving himself to ultimately ply his trade at the very top, but that is very easy to say sitting behind a keyboard when he is facing the very real possibility of playing under Kenny Dalglish come August. One wishes him luck in whatever he chooses, as he may well be a big part of England's future.