Scouting for goals

A £20 note with Sheik Mansour's face on

Manchester millions: But who’s spending wisely?

Money has ruined football.  This is a truism held dear by many football fans — particularly those fans of teams with no money.  You can bet your last dollar that there aren’t many Manchester City fans complaining about money… and even those that are will be outnumbered ten-to-one by their Arab-cash-loving neighbours.

Glasgow Rangers fans are a good example of the two extremes.  Not so long ago you wouldn’t have heard many Rangers fans grumbling about how the fact their club was so stratospherically wealthier than most of their SPL rivals that it unbalanced things.  Nowadays, with administration (if they’re lucky) and liquidation the buzzwords at Ibrox, money is the root of all evil.

If you’ve got it, money is great.  So Thoughtsport wanted to look at how you get it.

Short of woo-ing an oil baron (Russian or Arab, we don’t mind which) you have to make your own money and the quickest way (as many troubled clubs administrators will tell you) is selling the players.

Glasgow Rangers FC gates

Glasgow gates: Soon to be replaced by a revolving door… allegedly

Fire sales of players aren’t the way to win trophies though, you need a conveyor belt of fresh talent.  Not only that, it has to be a consistent conveyor belt.  A one-off star is all well and good but one swallow does not make a summer — nor even a class of swallows (citation: West Ham).

Ensure you’ve got talent

Therefore, the real money is made in scouting.  Yes, you need coaches too, to make your profitable prodigy even better but spotting the talent is where it’s at.  The rising star of Graham Carr at Newcastle is a case in point.

Him aside, how many scouts could you name?  And John Baden Powell doesn’t count.  Two?  Three?  None?  They’re not the stars.  The players, even the managers — yes.  The scouts, no.

Carr’s case isn’t hindered by the fact his son is the famous comic, Alan.  However, ‘finding’ the likes of Cheik Tiote and Demba Ba haven’t done his notoriety any harm.

Ok, Carr didn’t unearth these players from footballing backwaters — Tiote cost £3.5m from FC Twente; Ba was a free transfer from West Ham — but both have already been linked with eight-figure transfers to ‘bigger’ teams.

Graham Carr

Do you recognise this man? Newcastle United’s accountant does…

However, even Carr’s success is moderately recent.  For the masterclass in scouting and talent production Thoughtsport goes back even further.

Athletico Madrid (or Atletico if you’re that way inclined).  They’ve been scouting for goals for decades.  Reading back through a list of their past forwards it’s almost a who’s-who of European star strikers.

Buy > Sell > Profit > Reinvest…

Notably Fernando Torres started there but alongside him in the Athletico alumni of recent years is: Sergio Aguero; Diego Forlan; Juninho; Luis Garcia; Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Christian Vieri.

Again, they didn’t ‘discover’ all these talents, some of them cost the club a pretty penny when they signed but, importantly, they also brought in a lot of cash when they left.

Players like Torres (sold for £26.5m to Liverpool) and Aguero (£38m to Manchester City) are the dream ticket — brought through the youth ranks (or spotted very young) before being sold on.  But the ‘smaller’ Madrid team made a tidy profit on the likes of Vieri too.

Christian Vieri

Vieri: See that? That’s £18m profit

He signed from Juventus for around £1m in 1998.  After a whistle-stop ten-month spell at the Vincente Calderon he was off back to Italy, going to Lazio for an estimated £19m.  Not a bad profit for ten month’s work.

Hasselbaink’s move from Leeds to Madrid cost Athletico £12m in August of 1999.  By June the next year he went back to UK, to Chelsea, for £15m.

It hasn’t always been rosy, even for Athletico.  No doubt they’ll have watched on, slightly miffed, as their £26.5m player, Torres, moved on from Liverpool for £50m.  Likewise, shortly after stinging Lazio for £19m for Vieri the Italian moved to Inter for a then European record transfer of £32m.

But you cannot say they’re not learning and progressing.  So what was the spark?  Well, some years ago a young Spanish striker left the Vincente Calderon, after their youth team set-up was disbanded as a cost-cutting measure.  The name of that striker?  Mr. Real Madrid: Gonzalez Raul — or just Raul to most of us.

That was in 1992.  The following season Real’s ‘noisy neighbours’ finished 12th in La Liga.  This season they look set for the top six and have already lifted the Uefa Cup (or Europa League… if you must).

Firing them to that trophy?  Radamel Falcao, a €40m signing from Porto… already valued at €50m by the big fish sniffing around for the next striker off the production line.

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Hughes – Dunne unto himself

So Mark Hughes has been sacked then.  No surprises there.  Hughes was the biggest case of ‘dead man walking’ the minute the Arab money-men arrived.  He wasn’t ‘their man’ so no matter what platitudes they spoke in public unless Hughes had steered them to the top of the league and at least two cup finals he was always going to be on borrowed time.

Much hand-wringing abound in the press about foreign coaches/owners/players/legion etc.  But did Hughes do it to himself?

Many have questioned his ability to handle the ‘characters’ (read strops) of stars like Robinho and Abebayor; still others his ability to shoehorn said players into a tactical set-up that works; then there are the bald facts of all those draws.

Richard Dunne - from Skysports.com

Dunne: I say, Adebayor... allow me to point out where you're going wrong...

But was Hughes’ biggest single mistake not a player he signed but one he let go?  Namely, Richard Dunne?

What have City been missing?  They’ve needed steel in their defence.  Someone who’ll go and attack the ball, cannon it (and the opposition striker if need be) into the proverbial row Z.  Dunne.

They have lacked a leader.  Someone who’ll puff out his chest and be damned if he’s going to suffer a defeat without doing something about it.  Dunne again.

Can you imagine Dunne would have put up with the cosseted likes of Abebayor, wearing gloves in November and ‘not fancying it’ against the likes of Spurs or even Hull?

One imagines Robinho’s hissy stomp down the tunnel after being substituted (after another lacklustre performance) would have got short shrift from the combative Irishman too.

Meantime Dunne’s been welcomed with open arms at Aston Villa (currently 4th – six points and two places above City).

There he has played his part in no fewer than seven clean sheets (nearly twice as many as City have managed in the league this season) and he’s chipped in with three goals too (as many as City’s entire defensive squad).

Dunne lived and breathed for City when he was there.  The fans loved him and he was a club talisman.

Maybe that was why he had to go – he was a reminder of the old school, inferiority-complex past the club were trying to shed.  Maybe he didn’t fancy sticking around as a squad player? Maybe Hughes knew he’d upset the ‘undroppable’ likes of Robinho and Adebayor – who knows?

Hughes may have been on borrowed time at Eastlands but he may just have hastened his own demise.

Atlantic-sized threat to Premier League?

Earlier this month the Premier League roundly rejected Phil Gartside (the Bolton Wanderers’ Chief Executive)’s plan for a two-tier Premier League.

Celtic v Rangers - from Guardian.co.uk

Celtic v Rangers - from Guardian.co.uk

Most notably Gartside’s plan included the Scottish giants from each side of Glasgow: Celtic and Rangers.   There was also much criticism of Gartside’s planned ‘licensing’ idea which would, in effect have made ‘PL2’ a closed shop.  Gone would have been the hopes of teams dreaming of ‘doing a Wimbledon’ (as it was known in my day) or these days may be called ‘doing a Burnley’.

Either way – the plans were rejected.  Celtic and Rangers headed back over the border stung by rejection once again.

It may have been the biggest mistake the Premier League will ever make.

Let me be clear.  I am no fan of Gartside’s plan.  However, from the point of view of self preservation or at least self promotion the Premier League may live to regret their decision.

Talk has now, once again focussed on the idea of an ‘Atlantic League’.  For those unfamiliar with the idea it is, in essence those too big for their small ponds banding together to form their own version of a European Super League.  Albeit, it may not be so super given the very biggest fish won’t be in it.

A league with the likes of Celtic and Rangers; Anderlecht and Standard Liege (from Belgium); Dutch clubs like Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord; Portuguese sides like Benfica and Porto – would still make for interesting viewing, not least for these respective club’s bean-counters.

Let us be honest.  This lot haven’t a hope of winning the Champions League these days.  Their fans may argue against it – Porto fans with some justification (not to mention recent history) on their side.  In the main, however, their hopes are slim if not non-existent.  Most struggle to make it to the second group phase – assuming they even qualify in the first place.

Let us assume that the Atlantic League will go ahead.  We’ll ignore the questions about promotion/relegation; Champions League qualifying places and all the headache of away games and away fans.  There’s enough aggitation for this to happen – it is surely inevitable, eventually.

Arrogance or optimism?

What’s interested me lately is – will there be English representation?  Safe to say, I think, the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool would reject any invitation (should it come) with a “thanks, but no thanks.”  They have bigger fish to fry and also no requirement for access to bigger pots of money.

The ambitions/arrogance/optimism of the likes of Everton, Tottenham and Aston Villa may cause them to reject an approach too.  No matter the odds against it, these clubs harbour a hope of breaking into the mythical ‘top four’ in England.  Make that a top five these days, with Moneybags City of Manchester elbowing their way into the elite group through sheer weight of spending.

How far down would you have to go to get a club that would seriously consider it.  Would, or more importantly ‘could’ a club like West Ham or Fulham turn it down?  What about clubs on the up like Sunderland?  Even the most optimistic fan starts the season hoping for ‘top seven and a Cup-run’ – i.e. seventh place at best and not getting KO’d early in the FA Cup.

Silverware is a once in a blue moon opportunity.  The title is almost laughably out of reach – there’s more chance of finishing in the bottom three than the top three.

An Atlantic League would offer more prestige and, most importantly more money and more chance of actually winning something.  Could they turn it down – especially the “more money” part.

What if the Atlantic League had an additional two, or even three Champions League places on offer?  West Ham, Fulham et al would surely fancy their chances of finishing ‘best of the rest’ rather than the eternal quest to hang on to the coat tails of the English giants Man United and Chelsea?

Celtic & celtic derbies?

Let’s assume the Premier League close ranks and the riches of the giant $ky ‘goal-den’ goose are enough to keep them here.  Would yo-yo clubs be able to resist?  Are the league-skewing parachute payments enough to sustain them?  Birmingham is England’s second city.  What about West Bromwich Albion or Gartside’s own Bolton?

Cardiff v Swansea - from Guardian.co.uk

Cardiff v Swansea - from Guardian.co.uk

If the Atlantic League is serious about gaining interest around the continent and raising hard cash – what’s to stop them being more mercenary about it?

Why focus on the Premier League?  Some of the most well supported (and therefore more financially appealing) clubs aren’t even in the top flight any more.  Would Mike Ashley’s Newcastle be able to reject the Atlantic League’s advances?  What about Leeds?

Representatives from Wales would surely be welcome.  Cardiff City and Swansea City would jump at the chance – if they had any sense.   They’re currently enjoying quite a renaissance, fighting for promtion to the promised land of the Premier League.  If they think they’re going to be able to compete and survive there that’s optimism indeed.

The monied hand of an Atlantic League may be hard to resist.  Imagine the celtic-derbies – Cardiff v Rangers; Swansea v Celtic!  The interest in those matches alone would be huge.

Yes, even allowing for RyanAir/Easyjet etc.  away games would be tough on the fans.  Granted.  However, the promise that every other week the likes of Benfica, Rangers, Ajax or Celtic would turn up may cushion the blow slightly.

If you did have to travel several hundred miles to an away game, would you rather go to Scunthorpe or Lisbon?  Sorry Sunny-Scunny.

The overly self-inflated egos and self-importance of the Premier League chairmen may see ‘smaller teams’ like those listed as a drop in the ocean.  If that ocean ripples into being the Atlantic League the waves of regret may flow only one way.