"We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket"
(Frank Sobotka, The Wire)
Frank Sobotka wasn't talking about either England or its national sport, but he might as well have been. Just as with Baltimore's dockyards, so too in Premier League football academies: as the reach of profit-coveting tentacles has steadily extended, productivity on the domestic front has taken a sharp decline. The rot set in long ago but this summer's departure of a dilapidated Steven Gerrard – the modern-day epitome of football's local hero – has thrown it into sharper focus than ever. The number of academy graduates heading the cast at England's leading clubs is now desperately sparse.
There's John Terry, of course, still plugging away with that signature dead-eyed resolve. And there's Jack Wilshere, on the occasions he makes it onto the pitch in one piece. Slightly further down, there's Harry Kane. And then... well, and then that's about it. We're down to the Jon Flanagans, Tyler Blacketts, and Ruben Loftus-Cheeks. Overwhelmingly, local boys done good now exist around the outer fringes of the top clubs, if they exist at all – and have an insect-like life span to boot.
Rewind 10 years, and things were rather different. Alongside Saint Steven himself, Liverpool's team was bound to its locality through the defensive nous and indecipherable yelps of Jamie Carragher; Manchester United's through Gary Neville, Wes Brown, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Even Arsenal – who would soon incite the wrath of a generation of future Ukip voters by naming English football's first all-foreign matchday squad – could point to Ashley Cole as a fixture in the side. In the 2004/05 season, the combined league appearances for academy graduates for the top four was 326. Ten years later, that figure stands at 114.
So what exactly has changed? Certainly, academies have not gotten any worse. Liverpool's has undergone a recent sprucing up, while Manchester City have made sure to exchange a good few sacks of petrodollars for a sparkly new complex, and even hired the suits in charge of Barcelona's La Masia to run the thing. Manchester United and Arsenal have kept up with the times accordingly and offer the crème de la crème of facilities and staff; Chelsea have never been prolific but are arguably more productive than ever.
What has changed, though, is the economy in which the clubs exist – the money. Money at stake, and money to spend.
As the Premier League's profile has risen, the patience of club owners has fallen as steadily as the rain in Blade Runner. In 1992, the competition's founding season, the average tenure of a top-flight manager was 2.7 years. Take out Arsene Wenger – a wild outlier – and it now stands at 0.95 years. Today's managers stalk the touchline with crosshairs constantly trained on them from the directors' box, and the reason is simple: downturn in results = downturn in revenue. Money at stake.
At the same time, clubs increasingly see the solution to any and every problem as lying in a shiny new signing. Exactly 20 years ago, the reigning champions, Blackburn – who were pioneering the art of buying the league while Chelsea were still suckling on the miserly teat of Ken Bates – had purchased precisely two first-team players across the previous calendar year. Runners up Manchester United had signed one (hello, David May!) and Nottingham Forest, who finished third, three. Behind them, Liverpool had signed three. The equivalent figures for last season's top four are eight, five, five, and eight. Down in sixth, Liverpool trump the lot, with nine. Money to spend.
It would take a particularly selfless breed of manager to look five years into the future when it's the next five weeks that his own career hinges on. And with money no object, why risk bedding Patrick Bamford into your strike force when you could simply parachute in Radamel Falcao on a year's loan? Why go out of the way to usher in James Wilson when you could, well, parachute in Radamel Falcao on a year's loan?
Five years ago, when the Premier League's bigwigs came to the jolting realisation that they were being cast as the villains in England's sorry demise, they took swift action. The result was a rule stating every club in the division must name no fewer than eight players in each season's squad who are 'home-grown'.
Those inverted commas, though, are there for a reason. Because these home-grown players qualify as such simply by having spent three of their seasons at an English club – any club – before turning 21. Or to put it simply, for the big-hitters, home-grown players can be bought far more quickly, and far more easily, than they can be grown.
The rule may have conspicuously failed to rouse a dormant generation of locally sourced Roy Races, but consolation can be had in its faintly hilarious byproduct of turning the transfer strategies of iron-fisted superclubs into a rather tiresome box-ticking exercise. Manchester City have been especially unwilling to disguise a number of their buys as anything more than mere admin, having signed the likes of Richard Wright, Jack Rodwell, and Scott Sinclair with no intention of ever engaging them in a match of football and tossing them down the food chain after a year or two of backstage stagnation. And forgive the fatalism, but if there are no public sightings of Fabian Delph between now and a low-key transfer to West Brom in a couple of years' time, it will come as little shock to anyone.
This practice of rabid talent-hoovering runs well beyond first-team affairs. When Raheem Sterling's head was turned by the glimpse of well-paying thigh flashed his way by Man City this summer, it was the second such episode of his career – half a decade ago, with Sterling just 15, it was Liverpool playing the moneyed seductress, Queens Park Rangers the jilted housewife. Jordan Ibe, Sterling's purported heir at Anfield, was poached from Wycombe Wanderers at the same age, while a generation further down, starlets Sheyi Ojo and Jerome Sinclair were taken off the hands of MK Dons and West Brom respectively, both aged 14 – fourteen! – for a small fee.
To the uninitiated, it can come as a surprise that Joe Hart, for instance, was forged not in Salford but in Shrewsbury. Or that the likes of Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Isaac Hayden, Danny Rose, Nick Powell and Paddy McNair aren't gallant products or their clubs' surrounding neighbourhood, but were all wooed from the lower, poorer leagues before they'd learned to shave. But for those who can afford it, its standard practice.
Much of the time even the talent that's coming through at the top isn't really 'coming through' at all – England's richest clubs merely exist at the thin end of a free-flowing bottleneck system, fixed firmly in place by good old economic imbalance. With the latest TV rights deal marking a 70% rise on the previous one, the scales are only moving one way.
Roy Hodgson, during one of his trademark expectation-management sermons back in February, found himself circling a central truth when he complained of England's top flight being "a European league played on English soil". Hodgson being Hodgson, though, his fatal error was thinking too small: the Premier League's catchment area isn't confined only to Europe. A quick look Chelsea's academy kids shows that the fat end of the bottleneck system now stretches as far as Brunei, Ecuador and the Ivory Coast.
England's biggest clubs have become curators, rather than creators, of excellent young players. When nets are being cast to the furthest reaches of the globe, simple law of averages suggests that only a small proportion of these rosy-cheeked wunderkinds will hail from British shores. And even when they do, most can expect to meet a brick wall once it comes to getting into a starting XI and the Falcao Factor comes into play.
When Saturday rolls around and it comes to picking a team, short-termism trumps all. Here's Jose Mourinho, speaking last week on this very issue: "It's quite fair that people are trying to get solutions for more local players. But the players and the agents would like this: 'Oh I need five matches in a row to prove myself'. You need five matches in a row? Oh, fantastic! You don't need five matches in a row. You need 10 minutes. In 10 minutes you can show me if you are ready or if you are not ready."
There you have it, spewed freely from the mouth of the most revered horse in the business: the mere prospect of a youth teamer getting a five-match grace period laughed off as a pipe dream of yesteryear. It's not a mantra likely to acquaint Chelsea's debutants-in-waiting with the warm embrace of self-assurance, but, given the trigger finger on Roman Abramovich, you can see Jose's rationale.
Elite-level club football in England is a bombastic dog-eat-dog pantomime of title chases and sack races where self-preservation is the order of the day, every day. Underpinning it all is the unrelenting tide of cash from a league whose mission to market itself to the world has been unforeseeably successful and shows no sign of slowing. And once this form of rampant economic expansion gets underway, it rarely stops to consider such local-scale matters as past heritage or future prospects, no matter how much the little guys might plead for it. Just ask Frank Sobotka.