Terry Duffelen
Thu 10 July 2008

Bostock & Bondage

If John Bostock ever goes on to fulfil his promise, he may find himself associated with similar headlines to the above but in an entirely different context. Bostock is a 16 year old wonderkid. A midfielder held in the same esteem as Rooney, Walcott and Ramsey. The kind of player destined for greatness. When such a player comes through to a club like Palace they rarely stick around for very long before they're off to a bigger club to fulfil their destiny/rot in the reserves. In such a situation, the role of the club is to cash in as much as possible by getting the player on a contract, putting them in the side and waiting for the offers to roll in. Palace have been blessed in that they have a number of such players in Victor Moses, Lee Hills and Sean Scannell who, all being well, will become permanent fixtures in Palace’s first team next season before inevitably moving on, probably for big money. Unfortunately, for the club at least, Bostock will not be joining them.

Bostock joined the Palace academy at the age of seven. He's a local lad and a season ticket holder. Last season, at fifteen, he made his first team debut. He was offered a professional contract by club chairman Simon Jordan and a place in the heart of the team by manager Neil Warnock. According to Palace, he said yes. However, by the time it came to putting pen to paper, he'd done what teenagers are prone to do, and changed his mind. Tottenham Hotspur offered him a better deal and as a youth player not on a professional contract he was perfectly entitled to move north of the river, so he did.

The reaction from Palace was predictable and perhaps understandable. Jordan was livid. He cancelled Bostock's season ticket and refunded his money. As the club who brought him through the youth ranks, Palace were entitled to a transfer fee. Since an amount couldn’t be agreed with Spurs the decision went to a tribunal, a system notorious in its conservatism. Tottenham were instructed to pay £700,000 rising to £1.25 million subject to conditions. Jordan went mad, appearing on Sky Sports News ranting and raving. Aaron Ramsey, a year older and with only a few more games experience behind him went to Arsenal for £5 million. Bostock could conceivably have gone for millions more than the tribunal determined had he been sold on the open market. Where, he asked, is the incentive for smaller clubs to develop talent if they are going to get stitched on the price? It’s difficult, particularly for me since I'm a Palace supporter, not to feel sympathy with them and other clubs in the past and future who have and will lose out like this.

The problem fundamentally is the transfer market itself. Some of the prices paid for untried talent beggars belief. In that respect, you can't blame a tribunal for refusing to get involved in all this senseless price-taggery. At the same time, the transfer market exists and clubs like Palace rely on it as a revenue stream. It may be crazy but it’s there. Southampton (Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott) and Cardiff City (Aaron Ramsey) have garnered huge transfer fees by combining the market with a strong youth policy. Shouldn't all clubs who nurture quality players expect to reap similar rewards?

On the surface, it’s difficult to come up with a solution, short of ditching the transfer market and shifting the way the game is financed and its players exchanged to another system and there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for that course. People are entitled to sell their labour to whoever will buy. Bostock's clearly an ambitious lad in a hurry who believes that his prospects will improve in the Tottenham reserves rather than in the Palace first team. I'm sure he's being paid more as well. But at the same time, it hardly seems fair on Palace that they have invested in this lad and not be able to profit where other clubs have. There must be plenty of stories that don't occupy headlines all over Europe of clubs who have lost out in this way.

Ideally, a system should be devised where youth players who, irrespective of signing a professional contract with their club, can move on while the clubs get compensated according to the market rate. Two ways of doing this spring to mind:

Change the rules to compel the Transfer Tribunal to take the transfer market rate into account when determining a valuation.

Bond the player to the club until the age of 18 or 21. That way a player is contracted by default and would guarantee a fee based on the market rate.

Both ideas are problematic.

Taking the tribunal route still leaves lots of room for dispute. Clubs are always disagreeing about player valuations (Gareth Barry) and there will always be problems establishing the criteria for determining what the correct market rate is supposed to be.

The second option sounds medieval doesn't it? Yet the practise of bonding trainees to companies from an early age continues to this day. A couple of years ago I visited a firm in Cambridge who supply aircraft for the RAF (don't ask). They took 16-year-olds on straight from school and trained them up to perform highly skilled and specialised work. They were bonded to the firm for 10 years to stop them from upping and leaving for a rival firm who offered them more money. "We don't want to spend all this time and money training them up only to see them f**k off to the competition" I was told. They would be free to move on while still only in their mid-twenties when there bondage period ends and the more I thought about it the less oppressive an idea it seemed.

It may be that bonding players to a club is a more elegant solution (although ten years seems a very long time). There is existing Government legislation to cover this form of employment which would have the benefit of restricting the involvement of bungling football officials in drafting new rules. There will need to be adequate protection for young players against exploitation from clubs but in a culture of poaching and tapping up, bonding young players to their clubs may help secure revenue for that club while stopping bigger clubs and avaricious agents from agitating for a move before they have to shell out for a whopping transfer fee. At the same time the player is given the security of a contract at a critical stage of their development.

In all likelihood nothing will change. The current system suits the big clubs. How long it will be though before lower division clubs decide that their resources are better spent on strengthening their first team rather than wasting time and money on players who are just going to “f**k off to the competition” as soon as a decent offer comes along? It’s got to be easier and cheaper than going to all the trouble of employing coaches and recruiting youngsters, right?

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