City make play for future with $436m centre

Above: Promising talents get to train in the City Football Academy that boasts all the bells and whistles. Right: Coach Jason Wilcox's side have not lost in eight U-18 Premier League matches this season.
Above: Promising talents get to train in the City Football Academy that boasts all the bells and whistles. PHOTO: MANCHESTER CITY FC ST PHOTO: DEEPANRAJ GANESAN
Above: Promising talents get to train in the City Football Academy that boasts all the bells and whistles. Right: Coach Jason Wilcox's side have not lost in eight U-18 Premier League matches this season.
Coach Jason Wilcox's side have not lost in eight U-18 Premier League matches this season.PHOTO: MANCHESTER CITY FC ST PHOTO: DEEPANRAJ GANESAN

When Manchester City lost 1-2 to West Ham on Sept 19, manager Manuel Pellegrini set a new English Premier League (EPL) record when he fielded a starting XI reportedly worth £308.8 million (S$668.3 million).

But if the club's owner Sheikh Mansour Zayed Al Nahyan has his way, splashing out the cash to field an array of big-money signings will soon be a thing of the past.

With the City Football Academy (CFA), officially opened last December, now in place, the club are intent on starting a conveyor belt of homegrown talent good enough for the first team.

"We are building a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars - Sheikh Mansour, Sept 2008" - these are the words on a plaque at the academy's reception, outlining the mission.

Costing £200 million to build, the CFA lies adjacent to the club's Etihad Stadium home ground.

GREAT FOUNDATION

Being with the EDS helped me a lot... especially coach Patrick (Vieira), who encouraged me during training and gave me confidence to play and to work hard so that I could eventually go up to the first team.

KELECHI IHEANACHO, the striker who netted City's winner against Crystal Palace

Two-thirds of the 32ha site are dedicated to youth development, while City's first team use the remaining space for training and accommodation before home games.

Other highlights include a full-size indoor synthetic pitch, two gyms, medical rooms, a relaxation lounge, classrooms, swimming pools and office space.

  • THE FUTURE?

  • Academy players that could break into Manchester City's first-team in the near future:


    GEORGE EVANS, 20, ENGLISH

    Became only the second player since Chris Chantler (now unattached) to represent the club at all levels - from Under-8s right through to the senior team, when he came on as a substitute during City's 4-1 win over Sunderland in the League Cup on Sept 22. Able to play in either defence or midfield.

     



    ANGUS GUNN, 19, ENGLISH

    An England U-21 international, goalkeeper Gunn was named in City's squad for the group stage of the 2015-16 Uefa Champions League.

     



    BRANDON BARKER, 18, ENGLISH

    A City academy player since the age of eight, the winger was named Academy Player's Player of the Year last season after 13 goals in 32 appearances for the U-18s.

     



    JACK BYRNE, 19, IRISH

    Dublin-born Byrne made his Ireland U-21s debut aged just 18 and the midfielder has regularly impressed in City's Elite Development Squad in the past season.

More than 450 players, from the Under-6s right through to the first team, train on the 16 on-site pitches. There is also a 7,000-capacity stadium for youth matches.

While City have a global scouting network, much of CFA's focus is on polishing local talent.

Of the players in the academy, 75 per cent are drawn from the Greater Manchester area.

The coaches are no lightweights either. Former Blackburn Rovers winger Jason Wilcox and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira handle the U-18s and Elite Developmental Squad (EDS) respectively.

Outlining his goal to The Sunday Times, Wilcox said: "The aim is clear. Patrick and I are solely driven to get players into our first team.

"We share a common goal which is to be the best academy in the world. If you are in the building, I think everyone believes that and I don't think we are far off."

The results have been positive so far as Wilcox's side are unbeaten in eight U-18 Premier League matches this season.

"We have a fantastic youth programme, an outstanding facility and, on top of that, driven people who want to make these young players' lives as memorable as possible. We are making massive strides as an academy.

"We won't stop until we fulfil the wishes of our owner, which is to get our own players to the first team. We're going to be a leading force in English football for some time. I've no doubts about that."

Wilcox's words will be welcomed by fans who want to see a homegrown player make the grade.

There has been consternation over a lack of talented youngsters coming through the ranks in a squad full of expensive signings.

"We love the current players and they are world-class but I think most fans want to watch one of our own - a player who has come up through the ranks.

"We have not had that in a while," said fan Shaun Murphy who has been supporting City for 13 years.

In fact, since Sheikh Mansour took control of City in 2008, only one academy graduate has made more than one Premier League start - defender Dedryck Boyata. The Belgian has since joined Celtic.

  • THE PAST

  • City players from the academy that made first-team debuts

  • SHAUN WRIGHT-PHILLIPS
    Age 17 against Burnley, Aug 24, 1999
    Now at New York Red Bulls

  • JOEY BARTON
    Age 21 against Bolton, April 5, 2003
    Now at Burnley

  • STEPHEN IRELAND
    Age 19 against Bolton, Sept 18, 2005
    Now at Stoke

  • MICAH RICHARDS
    Age 17 against Arsenal, Oct 22, 2005
    Now at Aston Villa

  • DANIEL STURRIDGE
    Age 17 against Reading, Feb 3, 2007
    Now at Liverpool

  • KASPER SCHMEICHEL
    Age 19 against West Ham, Aug 11, 2007
    Now at Leicester City

But there have been signs that things are about to change.

Striker Kelechi Iheanacho, who joined the academy in 2013, was part of City's EDS who won the U-21 Premier League International Cup last year.

The 18-year-old Nigerian recently came on to net a stoppage-time winner for City in their 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.

Iheanacho told The Sunday Times: "Being with the EDS helped me a lot in terms of training and confidence, especially coach Patrick, who encouraged me during training and gave me confidence to play and to work hard so that I could eventually go up to the first team.

"I am confident that there are more players who will come up to the first team if they are given the chance, because they are all very good and driven to succeed."

City have spared nothing in ensuring their youth players are on the right path to success.

There are cooking classes to teach players to prepare nutritious meals. A walk through the campus reveals an abundance of posters with motivational messages.

"Train like a professional, Eat like a professional, Drink like a professional, Tweet like a professional," said one.

An eye-catching picture of Sergio Aguero ripping off his shirt in celebration of the goal that won the 2011-12 EPL title adorns the wall of the gym, alongside the time the winner was scored: 93.20.

Given the resources pumped into the CFA, City will be hoping that, in the near future, it will not be a quicksilver Argentinian nurtured in Buenos Aires who is immortalised, but a player from their own backyard instead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'City make play for future with $436m centre'. Print Edition | Subscribe