By Liam Twomey
When Manchester City take on Southampton at St Mary’s on Saturday, those of a mind may be tempted to view the match as a clash between opposing visions of how to build a football club.
While City’s stunning transformation over the past five years from Premier League afterthought to domestic and European powerhouse stands as a powerful monument to unparalleled financial muscle, Southampton’s similarly remarkable rise from League One has significant roots in a shrewd recruitment policy and exceptional youth development. Boasting the likes of Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Nathaniel Clyne and James Ward-Prowse, it is tempting to hold the Saints up as beacons of hope as England desperately searches for reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Yet the most lavish members of the Premier League’s nouveau riche know it would be folly to try and build lasting domination on a house of cards. Over the past two years City have been scouring the world to acquire the very best teenagers for their elite development squad, managed with distinction by former France and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira.
Jose Pozo, rated as the best striker to come through Real Madrid’s academy in years, was poached in January 2012 for a fee which could eventually rise to £3.5m. Zacharias Faour, a 15-year-old Swedish striker compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a result of his talent, physique and emergence at Malmo, will join in January in a £1m deal.
City have also won the race to sign Nigerian wonderkid Kelechi Iheanacho, star of last summer’s Under-17 World Cup and linked with a host of European giants. Finally there is Brahim Abdelkader, the Malaga 14-year-old dubbed the ‘New Messi’, and whom Barcelona were so sure of signing that they introduced him to the old Messi, as well as Andres Iniesta and Xavi, before City pounced.
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City’s vision is to combine the best UK-based talent with the cream of the rest of the world, in the belief that each will succeed in driving the other on. It is hoped that even those who do not make the first-team cut will realise transfer fees and careers at other professional clubs – a key part of City’s long-term strategy to fulfil the requirements of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules.
“The development of young and home grown players is central to our strategy of creating both a winning team and a sustainable football club,” Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano proclaimed in September 2012 when it was announced that construction was set to begin on the £100 million, 80-acre Etihad Campus which is situated adjacent to the club’s stadium.
The ambition and scale of the project – the first phase of which will be completed in time for the 2014-15 season – is stunning. The campus will contain 16 football pitches to house every team from the under-8s to the first-team squad, state-of-the-art training facilities, apartments for youth and senior players with a separate wing to cater for their visiting families, and a 7000-seater stadium in which the Elite Development Squad will play their home matches. This ground will be linked to the Etihad Stadium by a 60-metre bridge, the function of which will be symbolic as well as practical.
Yet amid the largesse, City aim to teach humility as well as excellence. Connell Sixth Form College, also on site, will encourage the club’s talented starlets to mix with youngsters of their own age, while they are already expected to watch home matches at the Etihad Stadium in club tracksuits from the family stand and mingle with the fans prior to kick-off.
In many aspects, the similarity in philosophy to Barcelona of the project headed by two of the Catalan club’s most distinguished administrators is hard to ignore.
Director of football Txiki Begiristain’s remit is wide-ranging. It is hoped his vast array of contacts in South America – scouts, agents and club officials – will give City a crucial advantage for securing talented youngsters in a key market going forward, but he is also charged with creating a viable pathway through the youth ranks to the first team.
All of City’s youth teams have now adopted training methods practised by Barcelona, while Pellegrini is required to take a keen interest in the progress of the club’s prospects. He will often make the trip to Hyde FC’s Ewen Fields with Begiristain and assistant Brian Kidd to watch reserve matches, as well as following the club’s inaugural Uefa Youth League campaign.
The results will not be immediate but, given their current quality, City do not need them to be. And if everything goes to plan, there may soon come a time when Manchester United’s era-defining ‘Class of 92’ will no longer have to be viewed with grudging envy by their noisy neighbours.
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