One look around Manchester City’s Academy is enough to tell you that this is a place of aspiration. From the delicately manicured pitches through to the pristine changing rooms, the calibre of the coaching staff to the intensity of the training drills, everything is geared towards producing footballers of the highest quality. Since its grand opening in 1998, over 30 players have graduated to City’s first team – a record which places the club’s youth system alongside the likes of West Ham United, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough for productivity. As Manchester City take to the pitch at White Hart Lane on the opening weekend of this Premier League campaign, however, the fruits of its labour will be conspicuous by their absence.
The past half-decade had been a particularly successful period for the club’s youth setup. In that time, monstrous athletes Nedum Onuoha and Micah Richards exploded onto the scene in defence. Artists as well as artisans made the breakthrough, most notably in central midfield where Michael Johnson and Stephen Ireland became regulars within months of one another. In attack too, where many English clubs have failed to produce top-class talent, Daniel Sturridge and Vlademir Weiss offered a mixture of explosive power and subtle dribbling. One by one, their presence in the squad has waned to the point now where they are actively being targeted by other clubs.
To illustrate this point, Nedum Onuoha has completed a season-long loan move to Sunderland, citing the assurance of a starting place every week as his motive to leave Eastlands.
“The way things were going for me at Manchester City, I didn’t really think I was going to be a part of things this season,” the long-time England Under-21 international reasoned. “I didn’t really see myself being in contention at City, but hopefully I have the same chance as everybody else here.”
Onuoha’s words upon leaving City will resonate. Towards the end of last season, he seemed to have found a way into the line-up, impressing from right-back with his willingness to support the attack. His searing pace also meant his ability to recover in defensive situations was a valuable asset and he even managed to score against Birmingham in a 5-1 victory. From a position of relative importance in the City squad in May, Onuoha felt he had been reduced to a mere spectator within one transfer window, hence the rationale for his departure.
During the summer, £10.4 million was spent on the versatile Jerome Boateng. The German’s ability to comfortably play anywhere across the defence must have set alarm bells ringing for the equally versatile Onuoha. His worst fears would have been further confirmed by the further signings of Yaya Toure and Aleksander Kolarov. Chances as part of a 25-man squad would be severely restricted.
Whilst Onuoha’s departure is symbolic of expenditure prevailing over nurturing Academy graduates at Eastlands, he is rumoured to be followed by Stephen Ireland and Micah Richards. A regular goal-getter from midfield during the 2008/09 season, Ireland’s stock has fallen so dramatically that he has not even been named in the squad for their Europa League tie with FC Timosoara of Romania.
Whilst Onouha, Ireland and Richards look likely to fulfil their potential elsewhere, no one player’s decline has been more pronounced than that of Michael Johnson. His emergence evoked misty-eyed comparisons to Colin Bell. He bestrode the midfield with trademark grace, spraying passes hither and thither and gliding late into the penalty area to threaten goals. Today he is more likely to waddle than glide across midfields, owing to the club’s neglect of him whilst injured. True, he also has himself to blame, but a club intent on reaping the rewards of its Academy would have been less hasty in jettisoning him. Allowed to progress, his – as well as that of Ireland, Richards and Onuoha – was a talent worth the millions paid for City’s stars. Theirs are talents which have fundamentally been allowed to meander and decline because of the immensity of the club’s riches.
It has been a long time since Manchester City went into a season with so few players who have grown up with the club, who have been a part of the club as they have grown into men. Alan Hansen once said that you’ll never win anything with kids. He was wrong, of course, because Manchester United’s kids were allowed to blossom. City’s haven’t been. Whether that will prove to be a mistake will begin to reveal itself on Saturday evening.