Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From disarray to the Double: the fall and rise of City's youth policy

Following last night’s historic double (academy league table here) it's probably a good time to remind ourselves how different things once were.

I’ve just been reading My Name Is Len Davies, I'm a Football Scout, the autobiography of a former youth team scout, who joined City in 1974. In the book, which was published in 2000, Davies correctly predicted great things for our youth teams by the middle of the decade, but he also details the shocking neglect of our youth system under the chairmanship of Peter Swales.

According to Davies, the decline began in 1980, when new manager John Bond brought in Tony Scott to replace youth team boss Steve Fleet.

Fleet had taken City's juniors to the Youth Cup final in the previous two seasons and his youth system had produced players such as Peter Barnes, Kenny Clements, Gary Owen, Paul Power and Tommy Caton, and was at that time nurturing the 1986 Youth Cup-winning side that included Andy Hinchcliffe, David White and Paul Lake. Scott, on the other hand, was working as a butcher at the time of his appointment.

Scott resigned as City’s youth team boss soon after taking charge, in order to take up church work in Australia. His replacement was the 'ruthless and very dogmatic' Ted Davies, and the ill-feeling amongst colleagues that followed his appointment, combined with the lack of funds from the board, soon took its toll.

New managers came and went over the next decade - Billy McNeil, Jimmy Frizzell, Mel Machin and Howard Kendall – but according to Len Davies, they all failed to adequately address the neglect of the youth set-up.

One manager who did begin to tackle the problem was Peter Reid, who brought in veteran scout Jack Chapman to oversee the youth team. Chapman quickly won his colleagues' respect at the club, but lost his job after Brian Horton was appointed.

By the time Francis Lee became chairman in February 1994, the years of underinvestment had made the situation critical.

'The ranks were not now producing to the extent they had done in the past. Luck alone wasn't enough. There were frictions that were very apparent and there was no-one with the foresight to save the sinking ship. The youth policy was very low, as was the first team, they were on a slide and no one from the chairman, Peter Swales downwards, came forth with any direction or purpose to combat this downward trend,' Davies wrote.

Recruiting young talent had also became a problem. In the 1990/91 season, an 11-year-old Wes Brown came for a trial at City, but his father was so incensed at the 'lack of civility' he received that he immediately left, vowing that he would never to allow any of his children to have a trial at City again.

It was a couple of years before the problem was properly addressed (Davies reveals that between 1993 and 1996 there had never been a single get-together of scouts, as there had been in the past, to discuss youth development) but things changed following the appointment of Frank Clark in December 1996. Clark, and his assistant Alan Hill, saw the need for a major overhaul of the youth system. Lee agreed, and promised the necessary finance would be available, but the brutal way the changes were implemented left a bitter aftertaste.

At that time Colin Bell and Terry Farrell were joint Youth Development Officers, reporting to senior youth team coach Neil McNab. The three had been doing a decent job on a shoestring budget, with the youth team finishing top, joint top and third in the previous three seasons, but a personality clash between Bell and McNab, and a conflict between their roles, was causing problems.

Clark solution was to call Bell and Farrell into the Platt Lane complex in May 1997 and give them the sack. McNab was also dismissed.

Bell described the events in his autobiography Reluctant Hero (Clark doesn’t mention the sackings in his autobiography): 'I’d barely sat down when, in a clinical and cold way, Clark simply said, ‘We’re dispensing with your services.’ The only explanation I was given was that they wanted to ‘sort out the department’.'

Davies, although unhappy with the youth set-up at that time, called the sackings 'too drastic a measure'. For Bell, who did the job for little money and who didn’t even ask for a pay rise when he went from working one day a week to four, it was a shocking way to be treated. After successfully taking the case to an industrial tribunal, Bell refused to attend City games for several seasons afterwards.

But Clark’s next decision was to sow the seeds of City's future youth successes. I was always under the impression that Joe Royle was responsible for bringing Jim Cassell to City, particularly as he was Royle's chief scout at Oldham. But according to Davies, it was Alan Hill who first approached Cassell, who agreed to take charge of City’s youth system after a meeting with Clark and Lee.

Cassell is a former book-keeper and local government officer, whose playing career lasted only two games at Bury in the mid-1960s. In Blue Moon: Down Among the Dead Men, Mark Hodkinson describes him as ‘thoughtful and shrewd, candid and friendly, immaculate in a suit and tie and wire-framed glasses, the original Gentleman Jim’.

'Gentleman' Jim immediately brought his 'fastidiously methodical' approach to the job. "There was no one picking up the bits of paper off the floor, no one taking care of the detail," Cassell said.

In the summer of 1998, he presented a 51-page dossier to new chairman David Bernstein and the board. According to Hodkinson, it revealed 'a club run by people without real job specifications, where the hierarchical structure was muddled and essential facilities had to be borrowed, or were missing altogether'.

Bernstein authorised £500,000 to implement the reforms, which is probably the shrewdest investment the club have ever made.

Cassell's first coup was picking up a 15-year-old Shaun Wright Phillips, who had been released by Forest, and he is responsible for signing Micah Richards from Oldham's youth academy aged 14.

Other academy staff have also played a vital role. Joey Barton was signed by head of recruitment Barry Poynton after he was released by Everton. Before joining City, Poynton was Everton’s youth recruitment chief. He heads up a team of more than 40 scouts, the vast majority of whom are part-time.

In Sunday's Observer, Cassell for the first time revealed just how profitable City's academy has been.

The academy has cost City £10.5million since 1998, while last year the running costs were £1.6m - £400,000 less than the current salary of Chelsea’s youth team boss. But Cassell reveals that the club has banked £32.5m from the sale of academy players.

Here’s a list of the academy players who have moved to other clubs:

On top of that £22m profit, the academy players still at the club (listed below) must now be worth at least £40m, while the future value of our current kids is anybody’s guess.

In Blue Moon, the author claims that a fair amount of hostility was aimed towards Cassell in the late 1990s, with the academy boss portrayed by some at the club as 'the school-teacher twit caught blinking in the hurly-burly of football', whose decency was mistaken for meekness.

After last night’s triumph, no-one can doubt the debt this club owes to 'Gentleman Jim'. Maybe a fitting tribute would be a song in his honour at the Portsmouth game.

Anyone got any suggestions?


Anonymous said...

I think an end of season tribute (rather than against Portsmouth) to the Youth Team and Jim Cassell & colleagues would be very appropriate and I have emailed the club to suggest a lap of honour by all those involved in the Youth & Academy should be conducted before the Fulham game. This would give what should hopefully be a fuller house the opportunity to express our appreciation to JC. I'd like to ask others to consider emailing the club to endorse this idea.

Anonymous said...

If Wes Brown was 11 in 1981, that means he was born in 1970.

So he's now 38 is he?

Adam said...

Another very interesting post from a great blog. Keep up the good work!

It's upsetting to think that while City's academy was in disarray, all the best young local talent was heading straight to man utd. Perhaps if City had got their act together sooner, there wouldn't have been the seemingly endless stream of talented young players flowing from utd's academy during the early 90s. Without some serious competition in the Manchester area, parents had no choice but to send their kids to utd. Unfortunately, it is the success of the utd academy during the 90s that surely sowed the seeds of their current footballing hegemony.

Now it seems as if the tables have turned. Utd have themselves chosen to focus less on their academy opting instead to pay tens of millions for close to the finished article. Rooney, Ronaldo, Nani and Anderson clearly exemplify this policy. Perhaps this has contributed to City's recent youth success.

Anonymous said...

Great article and a great idea about the lap of honour.

Anonymous said...

rbjqywyyour facts arent quite right.cassell was joined at the club after a month by poynton who brought swp,barton and micah

Anonymous said...

Please tell me why,
Do we have Cassell in the sky,
Oh tell me why,
Is our Jim Cassell way up high

Andrew said...

Ah, that should have been the 1990-91 season that Brown came for a trial. That's now been amended.

Yeah, a lap of honour is a great idea. Be interesting to see how the club responds.

The reference to Cassell bringing in SWP and Micah comes from the MEN, but I'll check that.


I suppose the state of our youth system directly impacts on United's. I wonder how much United's failure to bring on youth players over the last decade is down to us beating them to the best local talent?

Adam said...


Yes, I think there must be a causal link between the two academies. I guess that over the past decade, given the choice, local kids probably preferred to join City because the path to the first-team wasn't blocked by superstars costing tens of millions of pounds like it was at Utd.

However, I'm not convinced that snatching a greater share of *local* talent is necessarily a big factor in the success of City's academy. (Although it probably was a very important factor for Utd in the 90s when City's academy was non-existent). SWP, Barton, Richards, Ireland are perhaps the academy's most successful products, and none of them are local.

A more significant factor in the success must be the individual scouts who spot those players deemed sub-par by other clubs (Barton, SWP and Richards). Also, the actual quality of the coaching must play a big role given the sheer number of players that the academy has produced that are still playing.

Anonymous said...

I posted the first comment above re the lap of honour and am obviously pleased that it's been well received. Please can I ask again that if you support this idea, you drop the club a short email via the official website?

I haven't come across this blog before, but am a regular poster under on the MUEN site as 'The Realist, SW14' and would like to say how good it is to read some interesting and articulate comments here, of which there are not always too many on the MUEN site. My thanks to the blog's proprietor !

Anonymous said...

i dont know why but i sometimes feel slightly dissapointed when i look at some of the transfer fees recieved for some of these players, in particular Tyrone Mears and Ish Miller, and too a lesser extent Etuhu (other circumstances surrounding the transfer obviosly), Croft, Elliot, Whelan.
i know its a gamble for clubs to pay money for youngsters but most of the above are probably worth a lot more now than their transfer fees

Anonymous said...

top article. i worked with a guy whose lad was on city's books when Colin Bell was ousted from the youth system. All the records (paper based ) went walk about and no one could contact the kids. Fortunately the level of professionalism has risen immensely and last nights trophy is a fiiting tribute to the work of Jimm Cassell and his team.

Andrew said...


I wouldn't want to underplay the role of the scouts and coaches, but I do feel the efforts made to get youngsters here in the first place is also crucial.

Len Davies was at Leeds before he joined City, and felt that Don Revie's involvement in the youth team (Revie would often visit parents personally to secure a signature) made a huge difference.

The Realist,

Thanks. The site's been running for a couple of years, so you might want to look at the archive over at