One of the key tasks for any football team operating on a budget is finding good value. A team that wants to be successful, that wants to build the kind of holistic and balanced squad that has the strength to outdo expectations must not waste their most valuable resource on players who are a) not good enough and b) fill redundant positions.
Obviously for your Manchester City’s of the world, this isn’t really a problem. But for Fulham it is.
Ten or twelve years ago, the value buys in English football were clear. Foreigners. The teams with comprehensive scouting networks on the continents and in Africa and South America could be assured of finding good value, simply because there wasn’t the same level of competition. Exhibit 1, Arsene Wenger. Wenger has a lot of skills, but the one most responsible for transforming Arsene Wenger from a football manager, into Arsene Wenger, a football prophet was his scouting networks, and his eye for cheap foreign talent.
Here’s the thing. For virtually anybody who has been following football for more than three weeks, the above paragraph is not new information. It has become scriptural. It has become one of the underlying truths of Premier League Football in the 21st Century. Wenger changed the paradigm, sure. But now everybody is living in his universe, buying up his cheap foreign players, dirtying his dishes, and leaving the toilet seat up.
Wenger’s struggles over the last few years are, I think, comparable to Billy Bean’s struggles over the last few years. Both changed the rules of the game, but now that everybody has started playing by those rules, both men, while still held deservedly in high regard, have struggled to find the new fulcrum that can move their worlds.
Are there still values to be found overseas? Of course. Our own Brede Hangelaand will attest to that. But I submit that they will become harder and harder to find.
I have a point to all this, and I will get to it soon. I just want to take one, maybe two little detours first.
The other great value has traditionally been youth. Buy them young, sell them on for a profit. It makes sense. But youth is also an inflated market. One gets the feeling that some clubs would rather spend 5m on somebody with the potential to score 20 goals, than 8m on somebody who has already scored 15. Potential is extremely tempting, it is a heady brew. And depending on the players involved, sometimes the above example would make sense. But I think that it probably makes sense much less frequently then we think. The reason you get the discount on youth is that so much can happen, injuries, loss of form, etc. And these things happen all the time. The real value nowdays is, oftentimes, with the tried and true.
One other small point. Youth players developed at the club. Everybody wants to see players developed at the club, come up the ranks, and make the first team. Sure, I’m one of them. It can be a good value. But most of the time it isn’t. There just aren’t enough protections on youth players. In baseball, the team that develops a player is guaranteed seven years before free agency. Seven years! They get the player at less than market value for seven years, and there is no incentive to sell or trade unless they are getting back something excellent in return. And players can’t get disgruntled about it and put up a stink, because thems the rules and everybody plays by them. In football, there aren’t any protections. So developing youth players is something that has to be its own reward.
Finally, my point. In a system where all your competitors know the up and coming players in the Maltese 2nd Division, in a system where everybody has a network of scouts buying up 14 year old Ghanians in bulk, in a system where everybody is drunk on the allure of youth and potential, where are the true values to be found?
Failures represent the last true values in football. You find a player who, for whatever reason, has so much unholy stink on him that nobody in their right mind wants to get within a mile of him, you dust him off and you give him a new home. This works best if you have a healthy football team, with a true team ethic and an organized, comprehensive managerial philosophy. Like Fulham. So, when Mark Viduka comes stumbling into Motspur Park, with pie crust smeared across his face, unwashed, reeking of sweat and fear, Fulham can hose him off and give him a cheap contract and restore him into the prolific goalscorer that he is underneath all that filthy Newcastle coal dust. Failure. It’s the new youth.