When thick smoke rose over Manchester City’s expensive new training ground in early April, you could forgive the supporters a moment of panic. So much has been invested, financially and emotionally, into that complex. Fortunately for them, the smoke was rising from a chemical fire on a nearby street. Their plans for the future continue undaunted.
This has not been a pleasant season for City’s supporters. The Class of 2015’s defence of the title has been every bit as wretched as the Class of 2013. Results have been poor, Champions League qualification is in doubt, the players looked tired and Manuel Pellegrini’s position is in jeopardy. Only the youth teams offer any kind of reassurance.
City’s academy side were beaten by Chelsea in the first leg of the Youth Cup Final on April 20, but their progress was encouraging, not least because it relied upon the use of 11 Mancunians throughout the competition. There has been progress in Europe as well. In March, Manchester City’s U19 side reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Youth League, losing to Roma, but only after being reduced to nine men. Patrick Vieira’s young team, who continue to ride high in the new look U21 domestic league, will have learned much from the experience.
It was clear that the players, staff and fans were disappointed to miss out on a chance to lift a trophy, but in youth football, success is not measure by trophies, but by the number of players you can develop and integrate into the first-team. On that front, City have much to prove.
When Pellegrini’s first team were beaten comfortably by Barcelona, people called for an injection of youth. Pressure mounted on the club as instant dividends were demanded from the eye watering £200m investment they made on building the Etihad Campus.
The centrepiece of the development, the 7,000 seater stadium, opened in January with City beating Schalke 5-1 in the Premier League International Cup. Afterwards, Vieira spoke about how this would be a huge step for his young players.
“Today was really good because there was pressure,” he said. “This is the kind of situation where we want to put them, so they can learn a lot about themselves, but they can learn as well what it’s like in the first team, it’s a big difference but this is a massive step for us.”
That opening game against the young German side brought around 3,500 people through the gates. Pellegrini’s first team were due to play later in the afternoon, so many took up the opportunity to watch the next batch of stars before heading across the road, over a 190 metre bridge, to the Etihad Stadium.
You could have almost called it a carnival atmosphere if it wasn’t a bitterly cold Sunday in Manchester. Behind the goals, a hardcore section congregated together with banners that you would later see in the main stadium, adapting songs usually reserved for more established players. Arsenal’s “Thierry Henry” song was belted out for young French winger Thierry Ambrose.
During the first three months of its existence, the Academy Stadium has hosted everything from UEFA Youth League to U21 Premier League to the first ever games played by new Major League Soccer franchise, New York City FC.
Close to the pitch and small in size, not only is it possible to hear everything the fans are saying, but you know that the players can hear every word. When the attendances are low, you quickly spot the friends and family seating along the sidelines. You begin to recognise the faces and the voices constantly cheering on certain individuals.
Others have non-family reasons for watching individuals. Due to the lower capacity, the scouts can’t hide among the masses, blending into the background. They are very visible, clutching their team sheets and notepads.
City’s U21 Premier League game against Fulham brought scouts in like migrating geese. They say very little, a few handshakes are exchanged with shrewd nods made towards familiar faces. Depending on who City are playing, you will generally find between 10 and 30 scouts at any one game.
You will also find a smattering of player’s agents, looking on with pound signs in their eyes, they are there to either monitor their existing assets, or look for new blood that they can potentially mould and shape into valuable commodities.
The supporters don’t always seem familiar with the players. One young fan was cornered by the in house TV station before a game and was asked for his favourite player. The blank stare said it all. But the City crowd will remain interested as long as it costs a fraction what they have to pay to watch the first-team across the road. It is not only the players who have ambitions of making it over the bridge to the larger arena.
As for how many of the players will make the progression, that is anyone’s guess. Predicting the rise of young players is a thankless task. But at least the club can say that it is doing everything in its power to maximise their development. They have the stadium, they have the coaches, they have the facilities. And when you look at the senior team’s struggles, you wonder how long it will be before they have the opportunity as well.
You can follow Andew Gibney on Twitter (@Gibney_A)