Keeping hold of your stars – the problem for football league clubs

It is always difficult for smaller clubs to keep hold of their most talented players, especially in today’s world where money seems to be the deciding factor in most football related matters. Whilst it can be hoped that a larger, and more financially powerful, club will pay a fair price to sign an up and coming star, what can the selling club do if they don’t wish to lose such an individual, and is it often in the player’s interest to make the move? 

Wilfried Zaha has already been snapped up by Manchester United for next season for a reputed fee of £15m. A fantastic campaign with Crystal Palace has seen him talked about as the ‘next big thing’ and he was even awarded his first England cap by Roy Hodgson in the match against Sweden in November 2012. Sir Alex Ferguson has a reputation for bringing youngsters through into the first team at Old Trafford and they will be patient in developing his talent. Hopefully he will blossom into a first class winger that can enjoy a successful career both at club and international level, but the biggest question will be whether he gets an opportunity to demonstrate his skills in Manchester or if he will be loaned out to other sides to gain match experience and maintain fitness.

Lower down the leagues there is a team that has been producing quality players for years and they have actively embraced the process by which they expect a larger team to sign their best individuals. Crewe Alexandra are mid table in League One, neither close to playoff positions nor in danger of relegation. Despite finding themselves in this sort of position year after year, they have one of the best known and widely respected academy setups anywhere in the UK. This seems surprising considering their position within the football league but one man has been the driving force behind a project that started in 1983 and has gone on to become a reality.

Dario Gradi was appointed manager at the club in June 1983 and no-one could have imagined that he would still be in this role until 2007. During 24 years at the helm he put into place his ideas for a system that nurtured and coached young players into becoming the first team stars of the future. The club successfully attained the status of an FA Youth Academy and was responsible for producing players such as David Platt, Robbie Savage, Neil Lennon, Seth Johnson, Danny Murphy, Dean Ashton, David Vaughan and Nick Powell. Whilst pleased with the way that Crewe were able to develop talent, Gradi realised that they would struggle to keep their best players and so decided that they would have to try to sell them for a good profit, reinvest the money in the academy and continue to churn out replacements capable of filling the voids left by the departures.

Whilst this idea has worked well and has allowed Crewe to maintain a relatively stable and healthy financial footing, they have perhaps had to sacrifice dreams of promotion to the Championship and Premier League as a consequence of selling as soon as a decent offer is received. No doubt the model introduced by Gradi was intended to allow progression both from a financial perspective as well as a footballing one. He would probably have liked the club to keep hold of some of the better prospects for a bit longer than they did, to allow a more sustained promotion push and reap the benefits of climbing the league ladder.

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