Manchester United’s reputation for youth development stretches back as far as the Busy Babes. Indeed, the club’s devotion to nurturing its own talent has not only reaped ample rewards on the pitch but on the balance sheet too. In these days of hyper-inflated transfer fees, oil-rich owners and millionaire teenagers it’s a policy that makes sense.
What then should United fans make of the club’s decision to ditch a deal for talented Serbian midfielder Adem Ljajić just days before his expected arrival at Old Trafford? Ljajić, ostensibly brought to United in a £16.5 million joint deal with Zoran Tošić last January, will now not join the club after officials announced the deal was off this morning. Sir Alex Ferguson, having evaluated the player more closely in several visits to United’s training complex at Carrington, decided that Ljajić, 18, is no better than young prospects already at the club.
Fair enough. After all, the £10 million fee due on Ljajić is no small change, especially in times of global downturn and huge corporate debt.Many fans will also look favorably on Sir Alex Ferguson’s support for home-grown talent.
Yet, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the collapsed deal is the timing. Indeed, reports in the past week – clearly inaccurate – suggested that United was preparing room in the squad for the teenager by shipping out his compatriot Tošić on loan.
What of the past 12 months. The player has progressed from the Serbian under-19 squad to the under-21 team, appearing eight times over the past year. At his club, Partizan Belgrade, the player has reportedly been a star-turn this season, scoring five times and earning rave-reviews for his performances in the Europa League.
Not good enough, or just a little too expensive? Time will tell.
Moreover, there’s something slightly sullied about United’s dealings with the player, aside from the public relations disaster that it has provoked. The club’s choice of faceless statement to announce the death of the transfer was clearly news to the player’s agent. Presumably to the player himself. Until this morning that is.
Ljajić isn’t the first teenager offered the dream of playing for United. Over the past few years the club has embarked on a consistent policy of acquiring the best young talent from abroad. The reserve and youth teams at United contain no fewer than 12 players brought in from outside the British Isles who are 18 or below. Some of them may become stars at the club. Others will no doubt find themselves released to find their own way in an increasingly cynical industry.
Federico Macheda has already hit the headlines; Joshua King made his United début against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Carling Cup and Daniel Petrucci is a star of the Academy side. At this time, their futures at United look rosy.
It’s a policy not without controversy though. When United signed Paul Pogba from Le Harve this summer, the French outfit threatened to take the club to FIFA in search of a transfer ban, similar to that handed out to Chelsea. There were further claims from Fiorentina over Michele Fornasier and by Empoli in the case of Alberto Massacci and Manuel Pucciarelli.
Cast the mind back a little further and neither Barcelona nor Parma were acquiescent when United captured Gerard Piqué and Giuseppe Rossi.
Perhaps even more emphatic was former Brazil manager Carlos Alberto, who accused the club of “raping” Brazilian football after the transfers of Rafael and Favio da Silva.
In this context, the Ljajić saga is simply another piece of evidence that points to United’s view of the youth transfer market as little more than commoditised. Ship them in, ship them out. After all, the 12 aforementioned overseas teenagers on United’s books cost little more than one percent of Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer fee. One success in 100 is all it takes for the economics to stack up.
Meanwhile, Ljajić faces an uncertain future. At the time of the youngster’s signature – or more accurately, an option to sign – Ljajić was reportedly coveted by Real Madrid and Chelsea no less. He could yet move to one of Europe’s heavyweights. And if he does more evidence will stack up to support the theory that United is playing a tawdry game of economics with Europe’s youth.
In the meantime United’s management, with a proud youth development record from the Busy Babes, to Fergie’s Fledglings and the ‘class of ’92’ to protect, would do well to take a step back and ask themselves just how much of a player meat-market they will tolerate.
- United Rant – United’s “financial crisis” as Ljajić deal called off
- Red Rants – Ljajić transfer about face is a strange one
- United Youth – United pull plug on Ljajić deal
- View from Tier 3 – Ljajić deal dead – United is bad for your health