As the world gets smaller, the chase to find football’s next big thing has become a cut-throat, global exercise for the game’s richest clubs.
After nearly two decades as Arsenal’s Academy director, Liam Brady has seen enough changes to know it’s time someone else was trying to chase down those spotty teenagers and their agents.
ven after 18 years, often literally mapping Arsenal’s future, there are still puzzles that even Liam Brady — or that left foot of his you could open a tin of beans with — can’t unlock.
Offered ability or attitude, do you sign a 12-year-old Mario Balotelli or a same-aged Roy Keane?
“You’d want both of them to come through,” the ex-Arsenal Academy director deadpans.
“You always want the one who has the unbelievable ability, because he can make it to the very top if he gets his head right, and the penny drops what he can achieve. But with some of them, the penny never drops.
“A kid that has the determination but not necessarily the skill? You’ll get him a good career, they’re the ones in the majority, the ones who do get careers in the game. The players who have all the skill, but lack the mentality — they’re the ones who don’t always make it to the very highest level.”
Balotelli v Keane? “Keane would have more or a chance, for sure. But people put up with Balotelli, don’t they, because he can do unbelievable things. You won’t give up on him, would you? I’ve spoken to Arsene about the most gifted players and I say ‘he’s good Arsene, but he’s a bit troublesome’. And he says, ‘Liam, all the best players are troublesome’.”
In his 18 years as Arsenal’s head of youth development, and the memorable nine years as a player at Highbury, 58-year-old Liam Brady experienced personal and collective highs beyond ordinary comprehension. Telling a 14-year-old lad, eyes moist with tears, legs weak, stomach sick, that he has no future at Arsenal was not one of them.
“It’s very difficult,” he says. “You’re there, and you know he, and his parents, are begging for the words not to come out of your mouth. You’ve got to almost steel yourself for a couple of days and know that it’s in the offing. Be strong and decisive, but also kind, compassionate and understanding and give the kid and his parents something to move on with.
“I had to make decisions at under 12, 14, 16 and 18 whether a player was going to be offered further registration or contracts, and that’s something I won’t miss.
“I’ve let kids go at 14 who are making a very good living in the game. In recent times, I think I could have got Raheem Sterling if I’d really gone for him, but I didn’t go through with that one. Players we don’t keep often go on and have a good career in the game. It isn’t an end. Ok, he’s leaving Arsenal, but clubs are always ringing us saying ‘well, tell us about this fella, and give me a list of the lads who are leaving’. That isn’t said to soften the blow for the lad, that’s the truth. Within weeks, these lads have moved to another academy.
“I saw a kid recently — Lewis Grabbon — Norwich have paid around £3m (€3.76) to Bournemouth for him, I let that kid go when he was 14. Dwight Gayle, who is playing for Crystal Palace, we let him go too, he cost Palace a couple of million. Invariably when you leave Arsenal, at the very very minimum, other clubs will want to take a look at you on trial. You don’t just leave Arsenal and go back to amateur football.”
Brady, as anyone who knows him will attest, is not a man for fools. He was clear-minded enough in the final moments of the 1979 FA Cup final to catch Manchester United cold while most of his colleagues stood paralysed at conceding two late goals in three mad minutes. And while he will retain a contract with Arsenal as an ambassador, he is not especially misty-eyed at leaving his Academy role.
“It was no wrench in any shape or form,” he says with that tv studio blunt-edge. “You’ve had an innings and you know it’s over, and I told the club in good time that I wasn’t going to stay on. It’s a new chapter for Arsenal, I want them to get even more young talent coming through. That’s the philosophy that gave me my playing career. I got a chance at 17, I got a good grounding at Arsenal Football Club. It doesn’t get enough credit for that really.
“Leaving a role of responsibility I’ve had for the last 18 years, yes that’s going to be strange. I usually wake up every morning with problems to deal with, decisions to make. But that’s the reason I am getting out of it.”
He took on the role, in a happy coincidence, the year Arsene Wenger took over as manager. But the job now is nothing like the job then.
“Player and parent power has come to the fore over the last four or five years. Because of the competition at the very top of English football and the money that’s involved — the money gets into the youth development area as well — there is huge competition. Whereas in 1996 and for ten years, it was all about persuading the parents and the boy that the club was right for him.
“But now you can have a boy at your club from the age of eight, and then he can say ‘I’ve got a better offer from somewhere else’, so that creates a whole new set of issues to deal with. You’ve got agents who are giving the parents another side of the story — the financial bottom line — so that’s made it much more difficult.
“Also, the system in England has become a lot more bureaucratic — they’ve created this categorisation of clubs and academies. Arsenal has got to be in Category 1 because, well, we’re Arsenal. To be a Category 1 club, you’ve got to have huge numbers of staff, huge amounts of previewing, reviewing, assessing — and it’s got to be all logged. Boxes to be ticked. That’s not the job I came into.”
So the sepia-tinted ideal of a manager driving back through the black of night from a wet and windy Rotherham after snapping up the next big thing in five minutes in the manager’s back office?
“No decision is made in five minutes anymore. There’s negotiations with the agent, then the agent comes back and more talks ensue. I have always used Arsene when it came to the crunch over whether we wanted to get a particular player from outside, or one of our players who was having his head turned. In that, he’d be a tremendous help.
“The next big thing? That’s media talk, isn’t it. Wilshere was signposted by the people that count, not media people.”
I mention some of the next great things that never were: Luke Freeman. Jermaine Pennant. Emmanuel Frimpong. Ones that appeared destined for a life less ordinary.
“Jermaine [Pennant] did very well to get as far as he has from the background he came from, he did bloody well. But Wilshere, you heard from the people who knew that we had something special. Luke Freeman? Gillingham needed a bit of money, Arsenal came in and said we’ll have a bit of a gamble on this lad and the press went ‘Arsenal sign young superstar from Gillingham’.
“Other lads are too headstrong. They can’t be told. Social media, unacceptable behaviour — these are all problems of modern society. Arsene won’t put up with that and I tell the young lads if their behaviour is, in any way, erratic or unreliable, either they change their ways or change their club. Unfortunately, there’s a lot don’t have the intelligence to hear what people are telling them.
“I accept it is difficult for a kid of 15. We go into detail and explain to them. There are standards at this club: there’s nobody in that [senior] dressing room will leave Arsene Wenger waiting when the bus is leaving, or he misses a flight, or doesn’t come in for training because he says he’s not well. And that’s not just at Arsenal, that’s all the top clubs.
“I also played at Juventus where the standards are incredibly high. You’ve got to have respect for your profession and the people who make decisions in your profession. The other thing I’ve said is don’t get on the wrong side of people — you don’t have to be an arse-licker or a brown-nose, but do as you’re told and you’ll get on.
“I was instrumental is getting (Wojciech) Szczesny from Poland and I’ve said to him on occasions, ‘I played with two of the best keepers of all time, Pat Jennings and Dino Zoff, and they never said a word’. They never wanted to say anything in the media. All they wanted to do was keep their goal intact and their defence in shape. And they played their careers at the very highest level. Listen to what I’m saying. Wojciech could be one of the best, because in goalkeeping terms he is very young.”
The number of players — or lack of them — that have found their way through the Academy programme at Arsenal to the first team has always been a point of heated debate among Arsenal fans.
Was it the system or Wenger’s refusal to look right under his nose that restricted breakthrough opportunities to the likes of Ashley Cole and, more recently, Kieran Gibbs?
If there was ever tension between Brady and Wenger on this issue, Brady offers no sign of it.
“When Arsene came, we had no young players at all — that’s why I got the job. The board realised they had taken their eye off the ball and other teams, particularly Manchester United, had moved ahead of them.
“It took a while before Ashley [Cole] made the first team — David Grondin was brought in from France at 17 and was playing in the reserves, while Ashley was still in the youth team even though he was a better player. But Arsene had to get proof of it before he changed his mind about who should be heir to Nigel Winterburn.
“Sometimes going out on loan is a big part of the process. Ashley went to Palace and within months we were getting offers of a million quid for him. And the club is then thinking ‘Hang on a minute, let’s get this kid back’.
“Arsene brought a huge improvement in recruitment and development of young players, but these days, money dictates standards. If you can afford the staff, the purchase of players... Chelsea probably have the best young players in England at the moment, but it’s all down to money. Because if you are a parent, you wouldn’t be letting your kid go to Chelsea ’cos he’s getting in the first team, would you? So you’re going for the money, but Chelsea, like others, have also made huge mistakes.
“With the boys that I’ve seen in the last two years — when they [Chelsea] won the Youth Cup and got beaten in the final — they are throwing money at it. Now that leaves us with a decision to make: are we going to get involved in that? That’s not my decision any more, but I think we should. We’ve got to be more aggressive, let’s say. If you get one or two players now at 16, are you better off paying the money now than multiples of that in a couple of years?
Or did the club choose not to go down that route?
“No I don’t think we’ve been able to. The first signing of that scale was Ozil last year, that was the only one in the last ten years where you’d have said ‘wow that is a marquee signing’. I don’t think Arshavin was, nor Wiltord, nor Reyes. At Chelsea they can buy Diego Costa and Fabregas in one hit. Arsenal could have got Cesc back, but he wasn’t a priority with all the midfielders we’ve got. Yes, it sticks in the craw, but what are you going to do about it — pay £30m (€37.6m) for a player you don’t need? Maybe if you’re Manchester City, you can do that, but Arsenal are at a spending level alongside the likes of Liverpool, Inter Milan, AC Milan. There’s a money level above that featuring Chelsea, Barca, Man City, Bayern, Madrid and you’d have to include Man United in that.”
Wenger has added another marquee signing this summer in Chile’s Alexis Sanchez and supplemented it with quality replacements for the departed Lukas Fabianski and Bacary Sagna. It will inevitably make Academy breakthrough even more difficult for Brady’s replacement, Andres Jonker. But the global trawl continues.
“We have several players who have chances,” Brady argues, “but only time will tell.”
Barcelona are looking to add to their collection of ex-Arsenal stock with the possible purchase of Thomas Vermaelen. It’s an interesting contradiction because business the other way has not been smooth, with the Catalans furious that Arsenal have nicked some of their nascent talent.
“Barcelona have been very good with a sleight of hand themselves,” Brady interrupts, “whether it’s in Spain or outside the country. They’ve manoeuvred as much, if not more, than any other club. What we have there is a situation where we have a scout on the ground who knows Barcelona inside out. I didn’t get much involved in any of those deals — he would go straight to the club and say ‘this kid, we can get him out of Barcelona at 16’. We’ve done that four or five times but we’ve really only hit the jackpot so far with Fabregas. It’s bloody hard. Arsenal are operating at the very highest levels, trying to complete to win the Premier League, trying to go to the last rounds of the Champions League and you have to have some of the best players to do that. To make that breakthrough he has got to be exceptional.
“We probably have around 20 scouts on the payroll around the world, and they’re very good. The likes of Gilles Grimandi in France would have been pushing Sagna, Koscielny, Sanogo, Giroud. You scout every corner of the globe. You have to. Because if there’s a great 16-year-old in Argentina, you can bet your life Manchester City also know about him.”
In the end the job was less about kids in the favelas and more about staff appraisal and desk work. “The responsibility was getting too much for me. I was at a desk, not on a sideline, not coaching, scouting, advising. Youth development is the most important part, because a coach is no good if he hasn’t got good players to work with. That’s the same with the first team.
“My week used to revolve around matches on Saturdays and Sundays, and a lot of travel away to European tournaments, because one thing Arsene did say when he came in was, let’s not confine ourselves to players from the British Isles. Hence Anelka, Henry, Fabregas, Szczesny etc. It became a really interesting and smashing job — but the last two or three years it wasn’t the same job satisfaction for me and, to be fair to the club, I said I am going to retire, you need to make plans for the future.
“With kids now, you can’t afford to be that choosy anymore — because there aren’t enough of good players around — to say he has to have all the attributes and ingredients. You need to be able to say ‘well has he got some of the elements needed — skill, pace, football intelligence, temperament, winning mentality, grit — and you very rarely get all the elements. But if he has two or three, we will work on the others.
“I played in Italy with Juventus, Inter, Sampdoria, Ascoli, and even back then it was another level of professionalism regarding alcohol, diet, training, recuperation. Another level. That’s what Wenger has brought — that care and attention a player has to give his body to make sure he’s in the best shape. It’s no coincidence that certain players have left Arsenal. They didn’t meet the standards.”
Even since leaving the job though, the eye never switches off. Watching the first Brazil-Croatia game at the World Cup in the RTÉ studio, Brady’s fingers itched to text Wenger. He couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel room to get on the internet and check out Ivan Rakitic, Croatia’s holding midfielder. Another find. “I went straight onto Google, and there you are, he’s already promised to Barcelona...
“Anyway, I’ve had 18 years of that, and I want to get away from it all. The club have been excellent to me, they’ve said they want to me to carry on, they don’t want me to just walk away. What the ambassador role entails I don’t really know — it might be them saying ‘could you go off to the Far East, we’re doing a commercial deal over there, and we want a former player as part of the delegation?’
“Or it might be we’re interested in a young player from abroad, can you meet his parents, go to a match, stand on a sideline, have a look at him...”
Old School ways. The Brady way.
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