It’s amazing how the majority of football fans feel that their club’s success is defined in their ability to inject cash into the recruitment of top tier talent. It’s simply not true; in fact the opposite is what truly determines a sustainable business model. The competence to build a world class youth academy to generate young, hungry future superstars and then actually promote them into the first team is what truly makes a world class football club. After a sustained period of excellence in recruitment, development and business guile a club can position themselves to morph into a super club with the ability to do both, develop world class talent and recruit supplementary proven superstars. This model, which I reference in a past post, ‘The Theft of Football’s Soul’, is extremely fragile and can fail when clubs such as Chelsea veer too far towards being perrenial buyers and lose their appeal to young footballers as a site for development.
Borrusia Dortmund are the prime example of how a ‘perfect’ football club should be run. Developmental, progressive and sustainable. They have built their club on the foundation to find, nurture and develop talent before selling for extortionate amounts once the player has become renowned. Then the cycle begins again. They’ve been able to do this with superstars such as Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang to name a few but have also supplemented these young stars with brilliant tier two players such as Marco Reus and Shinji Kagawa.
The opposite side of the spectrum are clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City who have become strictly buying clubs without the long-term thinking to develop and enhance their own youth prospects. Some of the brightest talents in world football have left these clubs over the years due to the realization that, just as they are about to break through into the first team, the club will buy a proven, experiences player. We are seeing this play out at Chelsea with Callum Hudson Odoi who is a magnificent talent but is being sought-after by Bayern Munich. He is tempted to leave as he’s only been granted 13 appearances this year. Even Pep Guardiola, a manager esteemed in nurturing young talent, has failed in deploying his total philosophy of development and success at Manchester City. Two of City’s brightest young stars have left in Jadon Sancho and Brahim Diaz – the former is totally killing it in the Bundesliga with the aforementioned Borrusia Dortmund while the latter is getting minutes with Real Madrid. Left of the trilogy of hope City had is Phil Foden, a brilliant prospect but how will he breakthrough with players such as David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne et al in front of him. It’s one thing to provide the facilities for development but to actually promote talent is a risk some clubs are unwilling to take - possibly due to the pressure on managers to win or bust.
Manchester United have tried to balance the two philosophies and overall have been relatively successful, even in modern times. Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford are both hometown boys who have been given, and taken, the opportunity to shine with the first team. The only mis-step that United took was hiring Jose Mourinho as manager, a true short-termist who will sacrifice youth for big money players in pursuit of immediate success. The hiring of Ole Gunnar Solkjaer proves that United have the talent to challenge for the title and much of that is down to their ingrained philosophy of organic growth within, ala the class of 92’. Sir Alex Ferguson built the United culture and it has been sustained due to the emphasis he placed on the academy. However, club’s should be aware that it takes a lot longer to build success than it does to bring it down. One wrong move such as hiring an incompetent manager can have catastrophic consequences.
There are so many factors to take into consideration when building a football club, may of which the casual fan overlook and possibly underestimate. An intelligent leadership team can determine what a sustainable model looks like however, the strength of leadership is if they have the patience to endure short term pain for long term gain.