The City Academy - impressive, but is it fearsome?

September 14, 2012 in Premier League

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Today, construction work on the ‘City Football Academy’ has officially kicked off. The 80-acre site, adjacent to the home of the current Premierleague Champions, the Etihad Stadium, is to be transformed into a state-of-the-art training facility where players from the first and youth teams alike will train day-to-day. The plans include a 7,000 seater stadium to be used for reserve and youth team matches, 16 training pitches including an indoor facility, special areas for goalkeeper and fitness training, medical facilities as well as the headquarters for the club’s office staff.

Manchester City are investing £100m to create one of the world’s most premier sporting institutions, which has been designed after a long consultation period, including visits to similar training facilities across the world. So when Patrick Vieira tell us it will be the world’s very best facility of its kind, he is undeniably saying it with a weight of evidence behind him.

The City Football Academy is certainly an ambitious and impressive project. The concept images and video released today demonstrates the confidence and desire which flows through a club which for so long has been second best in its hometown. For the coaches, players and fans, the project is inspiring. For rival clubs, the City Football Academy is imposing.  There is good news for locals too, as City have set aside five acres for local facilities, including a school and leisure facilities, as well as the swathe of jobs that comes with investment in local infrastructure. That a club’s entire set up, top to bottom, is located more or less within sight is a rare and unique opportunity, one which City have grasped. The site will well and truly be City’s domain. And all this on the back of City’s historic title winning season in which City proved that they were by some distance the nation’s top team - no resting on laurels here. So City unreservedly deserve credit for looking forwards, investing in their future and in their surroundings, and all whilst it would be easy for them to sit back and put their feet up.

However, with UEFA’s FFP seemingly having its effect on City’s summer spending (bear in mind, it still totalled £50m - still big and likely to result in another loss), one of the hopes is that the City Football Academy produces world-class talent meaning City no longer have to splurge big sums of money to bring top players to the club. In fairness, I am yet to hear too much of that kind of talk from those within the City boardroom itself, but it’s certainly the opinion of many of the fans.

This is, however, one aspect of the plans which I remain sceptical about. Almost every City fan I speak to tells me that as a United fan (and I guess it applies to anybody not a City fan), I should be afraid, worried, quaking in my boots. That City will be not just the richest club about, but also home to THE single greatest youth facility in the world, one that every young player will want to be at and one which will produce the world’s best talent. But I’m just not. Impressed - undoubtedly. Fearful - not quite.

I just don’t see it like that. There is no doubt that the City Football Academy will improve the likelihood that City can both attract top young talents and produce their own. However, I am far from convinced the results are guaranteed. As a Manchester United fan, I am more than familiar with youth development being central to the club’s identity and forward planning. In our case, a modern and high class youth facility has not paid dividends when compared its infinitely more basic predecessor. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham honed their skills at Manchester United’s ‘The Cliff’ facility - the club’s training centre since the 50′s, so old fashioned and so outdated that the public were free to walk onto the fields themselves.

Since moving to Carrington’s plush changing rooms and perfectly kept pitches, the production line has run dry - at least in terms of producing world class talent. Sure, players have made their way into the first team, but not one that comes close to the ilk of Giggs, Scholes or Beckham. The best and latest facility doesn’t necessarily result in the best players. The top English talents of the last few years have come from clubs such as Southampton and West Ham, who do have good facilities, but nothing that the nation’s biggest clubs can offer. A club like Arsenal, which is based from its foundations upwards on giving youth a chance, has only two notable names to emerge from its youth programme - Ashley Cole and Jack Wilshere.

Developing young talent and bringing it through to the first team is about a lot more than a modern training venue. It requires expert coaching and an environment and ethos which lends itself to giving young talent every chance of success. By and large, that is something which doesn’t depend on money alone - more on the direction a club is willing to take. When it comes to nurturing young talent from the youth teams to the first team, the City Football Academy’s success hinges on those talents being given every chance to prove themselves good enough. To be given places in match day squads ahead of multi-million pound signings and minutes on the pitch - something which as of yet I am yet to see evidence of at City, though perhaps that will now begin to change. And after that, a whole lot of patience too. Because even when all of the above is said and done, it might not work out; you can never be sure a player will make the grade no matter how good they look in training and at youth level, no matter how good the facility.

So this isn’t to say that the £100m City Football Academy won’t produce the type of talent which saves Sheikh Mansour from spending the £100m he spent on Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri, David Silva and Yaya Toure. It very well might, and once the building works are complete, City will be in a better position than they are today. But it is by no means nailed on. And so for now - I’m not frightened and I rest easy in the knowledge that it’ll be at least 10 years before I might possibly end up with egg on my face.

City fans should be excited, the plans are magnificent and the kind every fan dreams of for their own club. I’m just not sure a generation of world class talent and the worry of rival fans are certain to follow.