FEATURE: The Kids Are Alright

Manchester City’s Youth Academy has been much-revered across the UK since its reincarnation in 1998, then under the guidance of Jim Cassell. In less than two decades, there have been a number of graduates who have gone on to big things – to begin with, 46 of them have made some sort of appearance for the club’s first team. Obviously, this varies; some have become regulars while some made a two or three minute cameo at the end of a match and have since moved on.

There have been 21 who have gone on to represent their country at senior level, with a further 16 who have been involved for their national team’s youth side.

“It’s so pleasing to see so many given the opportunity,” Cassell told the Blue Moon Podcast before he left his post with the academy to take up a role in Abu Dhabi. “The manager has to buy into it, the club has to buy into it and they have to believe in what we’re doing at the academy. We were very fortunate throughout my time here to have total support from the club.

“Even going back to 1997-98 when we were relegated to the lowest point in our history,” he continues, “the only budget not to be cut was the academy’s. That showed the early commitment from the board of the day and, of course, the rest is history now with the fantastic resource and support we’ve got from Sheikh Mansour.

“Nobody is good enough to say ‘he’s going to be a Premier League player’ when you see a boy of seven or eight. What we do try to do is to encourage them to love the game. Part of our role is to get them to the first team, but more importantly is to get them a career within the game because this becomes their life.”

Kelechi Iheanacho is the latest to make the step up to the first team – at a time when it’s harder than ever before to make an impression on the senior playing squad, given the quality that’s already there and the aims and objectives for the season. In the old days of securing Premier League survival and then coasting towards the end of the campaign, there was always the chance that a few kids could make the bench and then subsequently be given minutes in the top flight in the final couple of dead rubber matches.

It’s been a while since City have had a good run of dead rubbers, and when they have, there’s been fringe players also playing for a place in the team the next season.

On top of that, and let’s be honest, it’s not in Manuel Pellegrini’s interest to develop youth talent. He’s probably not going to be the manager when that investment pays off. That’s not a City issue per se, more a football problem – the life cycle of the gaffer these days is usually something between three and five years, if he’s lucky. In a world that demands instant success, it takes balls for someone to stand up and not sign a striker, putting their faith in one of the youngsters making the step up, as the Chilean has done this year.

In the end, Iheanacho turned a draw into a victory 54 seconds after coming off the bench in his second senior appearance. He’d played three minutes for the first team before then, in a fixture that was already won a fortnight before. That’s some way to repay the faith the manager had in him.

The Nigerian joins a long list of players who have netted for the Blues after their promotion to the first team squad. Some have gone on to make a real impact at Eastlands, while others have had to leave in order to get regular games. Iheanacho is now one of the 18 who have netted on a senior level having come through the club’s youth setup since Cassell revolutionised it.

It all started in the latest incarnation of the academy with Shaun Wright-Phillips. Aged 17, the little winger made his City debut coming on as a substitute against Burnley in the League Cup in 1999 in a kit that absolutely drowned him. “All the kit and the shirt was miles too big for me,” he said in an interview with the Blue Moon Podcast. “They didn’t have anything in my size, so it was quite funny.”

Wright-Phillips would go on to have two spells at Maine Road and Eastlands and become a true fans’ favourite. He’d make almost 300 appearances for the club across nine seasons in Manchester, scoring 47 times – and it might have been a better goals tally had his first strike for the club not been taken off him.

He forced the ball over the line at Port Vale, after coming on as a substitute with the team trailing 1-0 at Vale Park. He was part of the turnaround that saw the Blues win 2-1, but his effort was deemed to be an own goal by Mark Snijders in the end. It took him two more years and 34 more appearances to get off the mark officially, as he rounded off the scoring at The New Den when City won 3-2 against Millwall in December 2001.

And he says it was a weird afternoon: “I’ll definitely claim it [the goal at Port Vale] because after that it took me a long time to actually score. It was quite strange. Me and Darren Huckerby were playing Pro Evolution Soccer in the hotel room and we said it’d be so mad if I got my first goal at the time when there were no fans. And then it just happened to go that way.”

Due to crowd trouble at the fixture in the past, City supporters had been banned from attending the match in South-East London.

Wright-Phillips would go on to score some memorable goals for the club as he cemented his place in its history. In many ways, it was sad that he wasn’t around long enough to enjoy the success that arrived at Eastlands during his second spell, as he left in the summer after Roberto Mancini’s side lifted the FA Cup in 2011. In many more ways, it’s probably also very fitting that it was against his new team that the Blues won their first Premier League title and he was able to join in the celebrations afterwards, when QPR were confirmed as safe.

Two other City academy graduates started that match in 2012 for the opposition, too. Joey Barton, sent off midway through the second half for an elbow on Carlos Tevez, came through the youth setup during the club’s final season at Maine Road. His first goal came 21 minutes into his third game for the club, as he deflected an effort into the Tottenham Hotspur net at White Hart Lane in a 2-0 win.

Meanwhile, Nedum Onuoha – the other ex-City player on the pitch – had to wait a little longer to get off the mark. “I got to the stage where I just thought I was never going to score,” he told me for the Blue Moon Podcast. The defender expected to be like another centre-half who barely hit the net: “I think it was Claus Lundekvam at Southampton who went for most of his career without scoring.”

Onuoha would eventually find the net in his fourth year, bagging the winner also against Tottenham. Sven Goran Eriksson’s City had been trailing to a first half Robbie Keane goal, when Stephen Ireland had a stroke of luck to touch home when marginally offside – before the defender struck with a bullet header from a corner.

“The cross came in inch perfect and I just powered the header and then did an embarrassing celebration towards my family,” he remembers. I put it to him that he was blowing kisses to the whole crowd. “That’s exactly right,” he laughs. “I was blowing kisses all over the place. I thought I was doing it to my family, but they were probably in a different stand.”

Another central defender that came through the club’s academy was able to get off the mark fairly quickly and far more memorably. In fact, Micah Richards is probably still infamous outside of the club and its fanbase for the header that equalised for his side in the dying seconds of an FA Cup tie at Villa Park thanks to his post-match interview. When asked how he was feeling by Garth Crooks, live on BBC One, the youngster replied: “It was just great to be out there… f*cking… I just can’t believe it. One minute we were 1-0 down and then the last minute I got the goal. There’s not much more I can ask for, really.”

He would later make a name for himself as one of the most impressive right backs in England, especially during City’s 2011-12 title winning campaign. However, after just four senior appearances and in only his second start for the club, he became synonymous with the sweary post-match interview.

Some players, however, haven’t been able to build on their starts to their careers in the first team and have ended up moving on. There have been a number in recent seasons – Marcos Lopes opened his account against Watford in a 3-0 FA Cup win in January 2013, becoming the youngest ever scorer for the club at 17 years and nine days old. However, he’d make a total of five appearances for City before his £8.4m move to Monaco at the start of the current season.

Jose Pozo did something similar, as he netted his first and only goal for the club on his debut in the 7-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup in 2014. He’d play just three more times before moving to Almeria in Spain.

Others have had slightly longer City careers, but still not made the cut – whether the club were just surviving in the Premier League or whether they were winning it. Lee Croft scored his only goal in an away defeat to Fulham in October 2005, but eventually moved to Norwich for £600k the following summer. And it was against Norwich where Willo Flood bagged his only City strike – thanks to his volley creeping through Rob Green’s hands – before he went on to forge a career in the Scottish Premier League.

Bradley Wright-Phillips scored on his Premier League debut, in an away defeat at Middlesbrough, and then again at home to Birmingham the following season. His career took him to the lower leagues before he joined New York Red Bulls, where older brother Shaun moved last summer, too.

Some first goals for the club from academy products have been more crucial than others. Michael Johnson ended City’s eight-month run at home without a league strike when he bent one around Derby goalkeeper Stephen Bywater three minutes before half time in the first game at Eastlands in 2007-08. That outside-of-the-foot effort was cool, calm and clinical – and a glimpse of what the midfielder could do before his injury problems had a devastating effect on his career.

Stephen Ireland opened his account for the Blues the season after joining the first team set-up. By his own admission he had a slow start to his career and, speaking to the BBC’s Football Focus in 2009, said he “was the best player in training but couldn’t replicate it on a Saturday”. By Boxing Day 2006, his volley against Sheffield United at Bramhall Lane secured a 1-0 win in a campaign when victories were difficult for Stuart Pearce’s side to come by. It was to make up a run over results over Christmas that went a long way to survival in the top flight.

And now Iheanacho’s name can be added to those ranks. Whatever comes of the Nigerian at City – and right now big things are expected – he’s kept the club’s winning start to the season going and helped to ease the Blues 11 points ahead of the reigning champions.

With the new academy now in place at the Etihad Campus, questions will be asked about when City will be producing young talent for the first team on a regular basis. Of course, right now is too soon to be expecting results – it only opened last year, after all – but Iheanacho’s burst onto the scene can only be a good thing in the short term.

Who knows how good it could be in the long run.

Written by David Mooney.


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