Half a dozen Premier League clubs had watched Burns at Southend. And the practice of investing so much money in so much raw talent is hardly a recent development: Raheem Sterling was 15 when he joined Liverpool from Queens Park Rangers for £500,000 in 2010, and Jordon Ibe, then 16, made the same journey from Wycombe Wanderers two years later. What has changed, though, is not just the prices clubs are prepared to pay, but the ages of the players they try to sign.
Dave Horrocks, the development officer at Fletcher Moss Rangers — the community team in south Manchester that produced Marcus Rashford, Danny Welbeck and a raft of other stars — said scouts from professional clubs now attended not just “most of the games our sides play, but training sessions, too.”
Their focus is on ever-younger age groups. Matches involving 8- and 9-year-old players are scouted, with the most promising invited to take part in training sessions at the professional clubs, with a view to being offered permanent places in their academies. Horrocks complained to one club recently because one of its talent spotters had approached a 4-year-old and his parents in a parking lot, contravening Fletcher Moss’s strict rules.
It is not just the big clubs, however, that are doing all they can to snatch up prospects. If anything, the battle between the sportswear brands, and particularly the market leaders Adidas and Nike, to put their stamp on the next generation is even more intense.
While smaller-scale players on the scene — such as Puma, Under Armour and New Balance — still prefer to focus on securing contracts with established stars, Adidas and Nike both have established talent identification departments, an approach they have honed in America in sports like basketball and football and have since exported to European soccer.
Neil Smillie, formerly a player with Crystal Palace and Brighton, has headed Nike’s department for more than a decade. In 2013, Adidas appointed McDermott to a similar role, and last year the company also brought in a chief European scout, to tie together the company’s scouting operations across the continent.
Many of the brand-affiliated scouts are part-time employees; to some extent, both rely on their leaders’ contacts within clubs to alert them to players of particular talent. Alli is a case in point.
“Karl Robinson, who was manager of M.K. Dons at the time, is a great advocate for Adidas, and he let us know that Dele was someone worth watching,” McDermott said.
Alli agreed to an endorsement deal with Adidas when he was only 16, but his blistering success since then serves to underline the value of building relationships with players before they have come to prominence. “The idea is to make the players fall in love with Adidas at a young age,” McDermott said.
Just as with the clubs, that age is growing younger and younger. Phil Foden, another Manchester City prodigy, agreed to a deal with Nike at 14; Ben Elliott, a 13-year-old prospect at Chelsea, is reported to have attracted the attention of the company as well. The companies do not try to spread themselves too thin: McDermott estimated that Adidas has “75 to 100” prospects on contract, with 30 or 40 more on looser terms.
For both companies, specific deals with teenagers fall into three categories. Some are so-called kit-only agreements in which players will be sent a certain number of pairs of footwear, as well as other apparel, a specified number of times a season. Others are given store cards, loaded with as much as £5,000 of credit a year (more than $6,000), to spend on the brand’s goods.
Only the very best prospects are paid directly, in deals often negotiated with agents or, for under-16s, signed by their parents or guardians. A vast majority of these contracts are worth a few thousand dollars a year, and typically last for just a couple of years, though a handful of youth players are already drawing five-figure sums to wear boots at a time when playing for the first team, on television, is still years off.
The hope, of course, is that showing trust in young players will help secure their loyalty if and when they go on to become global stars, but the brands do all they can to limit their exposure.
Endorsement contracts contain, as standard, a “matching rights” clause, meaning that a player who decides not to renew a contract cannot entertain offers from rival brands for at least two months after the end of his current deal, and is forbidden to sign with any of them for six months.
During that period, under such clauses, the label has the right to match any offer the player receives; if it is willing to meet the new terms, the player is required to re-sign, effectively securing him at market rate for the duration of his career.
Few within soccer object to the brands’ determination to acquire young talent. While the Football Association, which governs the game in England, demands that player agents meet a raft of regulations before dealing with minors, it has no such rules governing endorsements.
Dermot Drummy, formerly the head of Chelsea’s academy and now the manager at Crawley, remembers seeing “the Nike guy, the Adidas guy” and the rest on the sidelines during youth games, but he said he never found any reason to take issue with their behavior.
“They are doing what the clubs are doing and what the agents are doing,” Drummy said. “The deals aren’t anything massive, and they’re not at extortionate rates. They are casting the net and trying to bring in the talent.”
To many, the brands are a blessing. Their involvement can save the parents of young players, often from underprivileged backgrounds, hundreds of dollars a year.
Others are a little more ambivalent. For some time, Liverpool had a rule at its academy that any apparel sent to players with endorsement deals had to be delivered to them at home, fearing that the presence of such packages could engender envy or resentment among players who had not been picked up.
Horrocks, operating at Fletcher Moss Rangers, in a world a long way from such deals, worries that instilling such a sense of self-worth in teenagers discourages the idea that they have to “work for their rewards.”
The brands, though, like the clubs, do not worry about that. All that matters is being first in the search for the next big thing.