Snapping up the young

It wasn’t so long ago that Chelsea was in trouble for grabbing two teenaged players, Michael Woods and Tom Taiwo, from Leeds United. The grabber-in-chief being Frank Arnesen, once a splendid player for Denmark and Ajax, but in more recent times, something of what you might call a child catcher.

Have the birds come home to roost at last? Will FIFA’s two-year ban on any transfer activity by Chelsea, found guilty of suborning Gael Kakuta, when 16-years-old, from Lens, stay? Chelsea, in police parlance, were bang to rights, but they have of course appealed and this could absurdly — if they delay the lodging of it long enough — stay its execution; enabling them to dabble in the transfer market again when it opens next January.

It wasn’t so long ago that Chelsea were in trouble for grabbing two teenaged players, Michael Woods and Tom Taiwo, from Leeds United. The grabber-in-chief being Frank Arnesen, once a splendid inside-forward, if one may still use the term, for Denmark and Ajax, but in more recent times, something of what you might call a child catcher first for Spurs then across London for Chelsea. Who, in fact, have recently promoted him to a more senior position. Chelsea didn’t get rapped by UEFA or FIFA on this occasion, but the Premier League awarded Leeds the sum of £5 million. Since when, little or nothing has been heard of the two players who might have done far better to have stayed with Leeds, rather than with a club which can call upon the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s billions.

Manchester United have also of late been under fire. Lazio are still furious that they have whisked away without a penny that fine young striker, Federico Macheda, and there are several other young Italians on their books. Not to mention a possible case to be brought by Fiorentina for a youngster who they claim has been lured away; United, perhaps predictably, deny it.

And Arsenal? The French have had, like the Spanish, particular reason to resent their swoops and incursions. A few years ago, the officials who run the famous youth academy at Clairefontaine were outraged when the Gunners scooped up the highly promising young striker, Jeremie Aliadiere, though there was nothing they could do about it. In the event, Aliadiere, despite his unquestioned talents, never quite cracked it with Arsenal, who lent him out to several clubs and finally sold him to Middlesbrough, where he flourished.

Nicolas Anelka, however, was and is a striker who has flourished all over the place. At the time the Gunners lured him away from Paris Saint Germain — yes, they too were justifiably infuriated — he was a teenaged centre-forward, good enough to play for the first team, though not as regularly as he, in his extreme ambition and self esteem, would have liked. So Arsenal whipped him away for nothing, almost condescendingly later threw PSG a mere five hundred thousand pounds, and subsequently sold the ever rebellious Anelka to Real Madrid, for the bagatelle of £23 million. The problem for Continental clubs, and the colossal advantage for such English clubs, being that the rules in Europe, by and large, do not allow their clubs to bind young players to them in their early teens. And even in the case of Anelka their later teens.

Thus, the Gunners were able to pounce on the immensely talented, 15-year-old Cesc Fabregas, a discovery and high hope of Barcelona. Nothing even a club as big as Barca could do. They could indeed only watch to see Fabregas become the outstanding Arsenal midfielder of his era. Undaunted, the Gunners stole away another Barca fledgling in Fran Merida; Barca took the somewhat roundabout route of suing the player himself. But he is still at Arsenal, who paid the £2 million awarded to Barca in court.

The truth is, however, that there is nothing new under the sun. If not with Arsenal, whose cradle snatching policies are of somewhat recent origin, then in historic cases of Manchester United and Chelsea. Both notorious in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the way they snatched young talent which would logically have been nurtured elsewhere. Bobby Charlton, that sainted figure, in particular. My impeccable source being his close relative, once the idol of Newcastle United, centre-forward Jackie Milburn.

Years ago, I frequently used to talk to Jackie when Newcastle came down to London in the old Great Northern Hotel, near Kings Cross station where in those distant and less affluent times, teams from the North tended to stay. And Jackie told me, with regret, that Bobby had, in fact, been promised as a brilliant 15-year-old to Newcastle, only for Manchester United to swoop and entice him away. And here comes the clincher. Jackie assured me that Bobby’s mother, Cissie, told him she regretted what had happened, but that Manchester United had offered the family £750 — big money then — which they couldn’t afford to refuse. In later years, this was denied both by Cissie and by Bobby’s brother Jackie, to me personally. But it surely has the ring of truth.

Chelsea had a notorious chief scout and fixer in the shape of the Scot, Jimmy Thompson, all too well known for suborning young talent, which might have gone else where. Surely Jimmy Greaves, one of the most prolific goal-scorers of his age, an out and out Cockney from the East End of London, would have been a natural acquisition for local West Ham United, rather going right the way across London to Chelsea, in the South West of the capital.

Still, in much more, recent times, didn’t West Ham snatch the then highly promising teenaged striker, Jermain Defoe, from Charlton? The player who has just excelled himself in the England team with fine displays against Holland and Slovenia? What’s to be done? FIFA’s Sepp Blatter is at one with Leeds United’s aggrieved Ken Bates (they’ve just forced Everton disgorge more than a million for stealing a young defender), want clubs not only to be fined for such depredations, but to be docked League points. Meanwhile, Blatter and the South African FA deplore the recent setting up of an unofficial academy to develop, and sell local talent.