When Southampton sold a 17 year old Gareth Bale to Tottenham back in 2007, they received a fee of £5m up front with a further £5m in potential add-ons. Tottenham ended up settling the add-ons at only £2m due to Southampton’s cash crisis in 2008. At the time of his transfer, Bale had made 45 first team appearances scoring 5 goals, was a full international and was the reigning Football League Young Player of the Year.
On Sunday, Fulham sold 18 year old Patrick Roberts to Manchester City for a reported £5m up front with a further £6m in add-ons and a reported 20% sell on clause. Roberts’ entire Fulham career amounted to 22 appearances, of which only 3 were starts, and no goals.
Of course it is flippant to simply compare Bale’s transfer with Roberts’, not least with 8 years between them meaning the transfer market is a different place. Yet, on the face of it, this was a pretty good piece of business from Fulham, given the entirety of Roberts’ value is in his potential.
When you take into account that Roberts’ had only one year remaining on his contract and had handed in a transfer request, the transfer begins to look like quite the bounty under the circumstances.
Ignoring the financial and logical aspects of the transfer for a moment, I am sad Roberts has gone. Like when Dimitar Berbatov or Mousa Dembele left, there is always going to be a disappointment when an entertainer leaves. The sadness of Roberts leaving is compounded as the player was genuinely home grown, having been at the club since he was 13.
Clubs like Fulham don’t often produce players with Roberts’ potential for excitement and if they do they are normally snapped up before they make the first team. For example, Roberts’ new team mate Raheem Sterling left QPR before kicking a ball at first team level.
However, truth be told, Roberts was never likely to develop into the player many of us think he can become at Fulham. Look at the best creative and attacking players in the world, how many of them became great at a non-elite club? Or at least not at a top club in any particular country? Messi has been at Barcelona since he was a boy. Ronaldo learnt his trade at Sporting Lisbon before joining Manchester United. There are countless others.
Attacking football and footballers need talent around them and space to operate in. It is a lot easier to make mistakes and get away with them when your 10 teammates are still good enough to get results. Clubs like Fulham don’t have that luxury, hence Roberts’ lack of substantial minutes last season.
He may be some way from featuring regularly for Manchester City’s first team, but in an environment where he is surrounded by world class attacking players on a daily basis, Patrick will be given every opportunity to learn and develop. At Fulham, he was already one of the most dangerous attacking players. Had he stayed this year, every appearance would have been met with increasing expectations to deliver.
There is, of course, a fear that the move to City is for the wrong reasons [money], and that he is only there to make up the homegrown quota as required for UEFA’s competitions.
The transfer is a catch 22 situation. Whilst game time at Fulham would have brought its challenges, it would at least be game time. It is not inconceivable that in four years’ time we will be reading headlines of a 22-year old Roberts moving to Sunderland, Stoke or Aston Villa having failed to make an impression on the star-ridden first team at Eastlands.
However, Roberts was not guaranteed game time even if he stayed. As alluded to earlier, Fulham do not have the luxury of being able to carry players simply to aid their development. In the marathon Championship season every point and every game count. Players need to perform or they won’t play. This mantra, like it or not, was why Kit Symons chose to leave Patrick on the bench more often than not last season.
It is easy to get emotional over the transfer of a home grown player of Roberts’ talent. He was so exciting when he did get the odd 5 minutes, that it was easy to want more. The few minutes when Roberts, Christensen, Woodrow and McCormack were on the field together were some of the most exciting we saw all season.
Indeed I was told about halfway through last season that Roberts himself was growing frustrated and wanted more game time. That this was followed by an allusion that he would look to leave if it wasn’t forthcoming was no real surprise.
Whilst I do subscribe to the theory that he was under-used and thus his exit was somewhat expedited, I find it hard to really blame anyone. Had he played more, there is no guarantee he wouldn’t have been sold, and the impact of more minutes on his price could have gone either way.
Our league position was so precarious last season that playing someone of Roberts’ inexperience and stature would have constituted a risk that perhaps wasn’t worth taking. On the rare occasion that he did start, his impact was marginal.
Given that we survived and have now received a transfer windfall regardless, the whole situation is hard to criticise. It is merely disappointing that we didn’t get to see more of Patrick before he left, even if they could only have been cameo appearances.
In the academy system Fulham are attempting to develop, there will probably need to be a significant sale every summer. Funds can then be appropriated to the academy to enable the ongoing development of players and also be used to strengthen the first team with battle ready players from elsewhere.
What happens next will be crucial for the likes of Emerson Hyndman, Moussa Dembele and Lasse Vigen Christensen. If the money received enables greater resolve to be applied to the stance on these players should suitors come calling then Roberts’ departure may have served the greater good. After all, no one prospect is greater than the club.
Should we return to the Premier League, then there is also a greater prospect we can retain our best young players.
For now, I wish Roberts well in his next chapter. We can all look on proudly as he develops, my hope being that Manchester City allow him to do so. It’d be nice to see that sell on clause grow too.
P.s Fulham today released a fascinating video interview with Mike Rigg explaining youth development and by inference the Roberts transfer. It’s must watch stuff and can be viewed here