Age Over Ability Is 'Arsenal Style' Football Lunacy

nigel smithCorrespondent IJune 17, 2009

ROME - MAY 27:  Sir Alex Ferguson manager of Manchester United looks dejected after Barcelona won the UEFA Champions League Final match between Barcelona and Manchester United at the Stadio Olimpico on May 27, 2009 in Rome, Italy. Barcelona won 2-0.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Does the spectre of Arsenal’s slow decline hang over United’s “decision” to adopt an age over ability transfer policy?

Press reports claim that Sir Alex has agreed to only recruit players under 26 years of age who could later command a high re-sale value.

“Manchester United have made a long-term decision not to sign any players aged 26 or above for large transfer fees because of new financial stipulations that have been put in place at Old Trafford to shape the club's recruitment policy,” the Guardian declared.

“Dimitar Berbatov, who was 27 when he signed from Tottenham Hotspur last September, has been described as the "last of his kind"

The mention of Berbatov is cute. With the jury still out over the value of the Bulgarian’s contribution last year, the presence of his name in the opening paragraph could lead fans to sing hosannas in the street in praise of Messrs. Gill, Ferguson and Glazer.

Fans now have every reason to conclude that the ‘age over ability’ criterion will mean a parade of emerging, energetic, desperate-to-please young lions at Old Trafford, who could go on to enjoy the best years of their career at the club.

Of course, the soon-to-be-transferred Cristiano Ronaldo is the poster-boy of such a policy. To a lesser extent, so is Michael Carrick, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Nani and Anderson.

So far so good.

But the policy is fraught with danger as Arsenal’s recent experience shows only too glaringly.

Five years ago, the ‘Invincibles’ were the team to beat—big players with big reputations at the peak of their powers. Arsene Wenger should have used the team to create more glorious chapters in Arsenal’s history. Instead, the financial demands of a new stadium and an apparently “purist” instinct, led the Arsenal manager to invest in younger players as the older heads departed for one last payday.

Arsenal has paid a heavy price. The team has won nothing for four years apart from the neutrals favourite award in 2008. Viera and Henry have yet to be adequately replaced. Whilst no one would deny the pleasing nature of Arsenal’s football, the quality of Walcott or the rich potential of Wilshire, the likes of D’Aby, Denilson, Eboue et al have yet to show sustained competitiveness and were reduced to the role of bystanders as United, Liverpool, and Chelsea surged last term.

That’s the trouble with youth. It can dazzle and it can also frustrate. Worse, it can flatly disappoint. Take your pick from Alan Smith, David Bellion,  Kleberson, Jordi Cruyff, Lee Sharpe, or Djemba Djemba.

Two years ago, Jose Mourinho suggested that Wenger was lucky to still be in a job given his lack of recent success. The Emirates crowd grew restless last year as another campaign looked likely to bear no fruit. United fans, coaxed by media assassins, are likely to demand the manager’s head in a far shorter time span if United are once again re-acquainted with failure.

The age over talent policy also smacks of a de facto wage cap—young players are cheap.

It also hangs a sign saying ‘Feeder Club’ over the gates of Old Trafford. Europe’s glitterati—Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and AC Milan—might see United as a source of rich pickings. As Ferguson knows only too well, teams with fat cheque books get no love but they often get better results.

The transfer commitment can also be taken as yet more evidence of the long-feared Glazer effect. United simply cannot afford the big beasts of the football jungle because the money has to be diverted elsewhere. For the record, a near £70 million is required just to pay the annual interest on the £650 million debt.

The age over talent agenda is also football lunacy. Whilst no one wants to see overpaid mercenaries on the payroll at Old Trafford, every fan  has an interest in the manager finding gems like Eric Cantona and Teddy Sheringham. Look at the job Zola did at Chelsea!

Fans with older memories will recall fondly Jimmy Greenhoff’s arrival at the club. Hardly in the first flush of youth, Greenhoff became a pivotal player, admittedly in an average side.

It may be the case that youngsters could benefit from wiser, cannier, older players able to school them in the arts of champions. The alternative is the headless chicken scenario.

It may be that United’s age over talent plans receive a warm welcome only because ‘United agree to prudent transfer policy’ is the type of headline to put fans to sleep.

It does however, make far better sense.


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