By Steven Green
Another year and another transfer window. Throughout the month of January clubs all over Europe frantically try to conduct business, and whilst some gain significant firepower, others lose crucial cogs in their machine. It’s a brutal month for managers and fans alike, but there is a certain type of club that it usually spells doom for: The selling club.
Like a baton that nobody wants, the notion of being a selling club is usually placed on small to midsize provincial sides, which after a short period of sustainability in their domestic league have been deemed ripe for the harvest as larger sides cherry pick the highest performers (it’s also worth noting that any team can be classed as a selling club, but for the sake of continuity we will go with this definition).
There’s an old adage in football that there is no time for sentimentality, and for fans of selling clubs this couldn’t be truer. No sooner has the club shop run out of a player’s name for the back of the replica shirts, the player is subject of a big money move to another club. It’s a harsh reality, but for a term that is usually considered an insult, is it really so bad?
Well, yes and no. The obvious question is why do clubs sell their best players in exchange of building for the future? Crewe Alexandra have often been regarded as having an excellent youth set up, with two recent graduates, Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood, securing moves to Manchester United and Aston Villa respectively just last summer.
Over the years they’ve had the likes of David Platt and Neil Lennon pass through the gates of Gresty Road and go onto bigger and better things, but for Crewe, their academy is what keeps them in business, as clubs frequently pay over the premium for younger players; so it makes sense to take up these offers when they come in.
This is crucial for small sides like Crewe who don’t have, or ever will have the fan base, facilities, or complete squad to climb higher.
However, for larger clubs, like Arsenal and Aston Villa, who have both had the selling club tag placed upon them, it can prove problematic. As we know, both sides have run into problems since moving their bigger stars on, albeit for a profit. Wenger has seen success elude him, and now has to face angry fans and antsy board members on a weekly basis. Villa, on the other hand, have suffered a dramatic downturn in fortune since their quartet of England international midfielders haven’t been replaced.
Youth systems aside, a club needs to be able to replace these players as quickly as possible, which they have not done by spending wisely. It also helps if a club can abstain from bad management decisions like ongoing tactical errors or constant personnel changes. Something that the aforementioned Premier League sides have failed to do recently.
FC Utrecht in the Dutch Eredivisie have somehow managed to bypass some of these factors despite having several managerial changes in recent years, and are a great example of how a selling club can consistently move on their best players yet remain competitive.
Since 2003, Utrecht have sold a number of players that have gone on to become, or are in the process of becoming, household names. Dirk Kuyt, Edson Braafheld, Michel Vorm, Erik Pieters, Kevin Strootman, Dries Mertens, and Ricky Van Wolfswinkle have all been through the doors at Galgenwaard, and that’s not mentioning the recent interest from several Premier League clubs for Zambian striker Jacob Mulurenga.
These players have all gone onto join bigger sides and all are now representing their national teams. However, only the combined €15 million deal that took Strootman and Mertens to PSV made any substantial profit for the club; as Vorm was sold to Swansea for £1.5 million, PSV took Pieters for €2.5 million and Van Wolfswinkle left for Sporting Lisbon for €5.4 million, the exact same price that he cost the club when he arrived from Vitesse in 2009.
In 2008, Utrecht were taken over by Van Seumeren (who also own AZ) and it was shortly announced afterwards that the money generated from this takeover would go into further development within their scouting and youth systems, which is no surprise considering that the names on that list all came from the academy or were purchased for a relatively small amount from other provincial sides.
This is where Utrecht has found success. They utilise their scouting department by identifying an asset who will perform for the club and increase in value when the time comes to move them on. A healthy youth academy also helps.
Utrecht isn’t the only club that operate in this manner. The Netherlands has always been one of football’s most active exporters of players, but it is a league with it’s own set of clubs regularly monopolising the honours and those just below, or on the periphery have had to find ways to adapt, which Utrecht have done.
Despite letting a host of stars go, Utrecht sit in sixth place in the Eredivisie table at the time of writing. The all-round stability of the club has meant that they’ve been in no rush to replace anybody, but there’s no doubt that strengthening the playing staff always remains a priority.
So, while it may be frustrating sometimes to support a selling club, they are an integral part of the football landscape. If it weren’t for Lille, there’d be no Hazard; if it weren’t for Stuttgart, there’d be no Gomez; and if it weren’t for Monaco, there’d have been no Henry, and so on.
Selling clubs are ideal pressure-free environments for young stars to learn, and without them the some of the players we love to watch most likely wouldn’t have reached the peaks that they have.
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