Hear from the U's Director of Football
In the Premier League, this time of year is all about transfer speculation involving numbers with so many zero’s that it belongs to a different planet. Will Rooney stay or go? Will Suarez stay or go? Will Bale stay or go? It keeps Sky Sports News in business and never before has everyone known exactly how many days, hours, minutes and seconds there are until 5pm On Monday 2nd September.
Well, even at our level, the transfer window creates some issues and problems. Football, and particularly recruitment, is all about expecting the unexpected but even with that premise, it would have been hard to imagine that one week into the season we would have three out of four centre backs injured. With Tom Elliott, Andy Pugh and Kevin Roberts also sidelined, it meant that we finished the game at Aldershot with six senior players out of action. The haul of seven points and the quality of our performance last Saturday is even more impressive in that context.
There is a misnomer that scouting or the process of recruitment ever stops. It doesn’t. We never stop looking. We never stop monitoring players, identifying potential targets, networking or covering games. There may also be the assumption that you can instantly sign a player that you identify. You can’t. The degree of complicating factors differs greatly but it is now quite unusual for a player not to have an agent and whilst some facilitate deals, others don’t! There are many conversations, a huge amount of background work and an endless amount of miles, work, phone calls and meetings but that is still no guarantee that a deal will ever even come to fruition. Money helps. Despite recent insinuations in the press, we have not signed good players because we have spent a lot of money. We haven’t. We’ve signed good players through months of research, scouting and a really targeted approach. That has led us to identifying good players that other clubs have overlooked maybe because they played for unfashionable clubs, or maybe because they played for clubs a long way away, or maybe because other clubs have a less arduous recruitment process than ours. Money is a quick way of doing things and can turn player’s heads. Paying someone more money doesn’t make them a better player though. Therefore, we always have our value for a player, we have our wage structures and if a player we believe will improve the team and strengthen the squad can tick both boxes then we will always do our best to sign them. If not, we don’t. Our way is through hard work and therefore attracting the right type of character as well as fulfilling the qualities that Richard requires in each position in terms of their physical and technical profile. It means that we sign players for the right reason, often for less money than they can get elsewhere and we definitely get value for money. It is only by sticking strictly to our financial parameters and negotiating hard with every agent can we make the budget stretch to sufficient quantity of the right quality.
Just to put things into context, our budget is now at the level of four years ago, when we failed to beat a team in the top ten and our eventual tenth place finish was our highest position in the league all season. It’s dwarfed by two clubs and will be outside the next group of “big clubs”. It is competitive and we will strive to overachieve. With how well Dave now runs the club, it can also grow as we are successful and revenues grow. On field success attracts bigger crowds and allows you to add players from a position of strength and financial security.
Most clubs in this league lie about their playing budget. We know what we spend and I can assure everyone that we have a chairman that is far too astute to risk the club’s future by overspending. We also have a pretty good idea what everyone else is spending because of the number of conversations we have with managers, players and agents. It does make me smile what some clubs say publicly! Our board has made a judgement that investment in the team at a sustainable and sensible level, with the football infrastructure now in place, will equate to increased revenue through success on the pitch and the ability to maximise revenue off the pitch through our committed commercial staff. The law of diminishing returns means that if you cut costs too much, you will reduce the quality of the team to such an extent that it will not be successful on the pitch, thus reducing gate receipts and the potential of commercial revenue. The balance of investment versus the potential return/risk is a tough one. However, we believe that we will always get greater value than money spent because of our staff, processes, infrastructure and philosophy. That’s why our squad probably looks more expensive than it actually is. Our lack of depth shows the financial restrictions that limits quantity. Equally, the quality of the squad has improved immeasurably. The next conundrum is adding quantity, without compromising quality. To do that, we need income to keep exceeding the budget so we can keep strengthening. In the short-term, with our propensity of injuries, we may have to consider a loan player or free agent. Finding either of those options at this time of the year is extremely difficult.
Despite how well Liam played on Saturday, we needed a centre back before the weekend, so we certainly need one now! We have spent a lot of hours on the phone but clubs are very reluctant to let out senior players on the fringe of their first team. Those we like and have enquired about are either not available because the club will not allow them out on loan or the player wants to stay thinking an opportunity in their team is worth waiting for beyond the first two weeks of the season . The opposite is true, which means that players we are offered and would come are young, inexperienced and a greater risk. We also like to see players that we want to sign, even on loan, and an added problem is that it’s impossible to see many young players in Under 21 games so early in the season. Timing is everything in football and the timing of our injuries has made finding reinforcements of the right quality very difficult.
You can see why the last few weeks have already taken us to places as far flung as Dublin to Dover, Harrogate to Solihull, Leicester to Brentford, in addition to regular haunts such as Wrexham, Luton, Lincoln, Dartford and Woking! And it’s not yet September!
This time of year also brings frustrations. Firstly, the rules mean that even if a player only signs non-contract terms beyond the transfer window closing, he cannot sign for anyone outside the transfer window. That means players who are free agents cannot sign short-term deals because it then precludes them signing for another club until January. That is almost tantamount to restraint of trade because clubs are more likely to initially offer unattached players short-term deals at this time of the season and because of the rules, players needing to earn a living cannot agree. From the clubs perspective, we cannot offer players an opportunity because we cannot commit until January when there is a short term need or the player needs time to get fit, having missed pre-season training because they don’t have a club. It all equals a lot of players sitting tight until the window closes in September.
Secondly, whilst some agents are honest and straightforward, others are not. For example, we have been speaking to an agent about a player at another club. The agent will not negotiate with that club because of his relationship with their manager that he does not want to jeopardise. He would put his best interests ahead of his player’s. It’s scandalous.
Rest assured, as Richard stated in the press, we are very active. However, also rest assured that we will not sign someone for the sake of it. We will follow the due processes and show the diligence that is our policy regardless of the fact that we have injuries and the season has already started.
Finally, in my last notes I talked about the ongoing challenges of operating our youth system within the parameters given to us by the football authorities: no funding, no protection and no games! Well, since then thoughts of trips through the channel tunnel and easyJet flights to every fixture have been dispelled thanks to Ginge and his brilliance at compiling a games programme from scratch. It is also testament to our growing reputation within the biggest clubs in this country. Therefore, our U9’s to U16’s now boast fixtures that includes Chelsea, Tottenham, Norwich, Fulham, QPR, Crystal Palace, Bristol City, West Brom, Nottingham Forest, Brighton and, most recently confirmed, against Manchester City. Others will follow. It’s hard to believe that Cambridge United can genuinely compete with these massive clubs and that we have enough respect from these clubs that they readily agree to play us.
Richard mentioned in the press on Wednesday the quality of our scholars and how they do not look out of place when they train with the first team. Anyone watching CRC on the last two Wednesdays will have thought the same. We have a lot of talent and a lot of potential within this group. The fact that we have so many technically good footballers and exciting players means that any of their matches at the R Costings Abbey Stadium should be a real spectacle. Whilst these two matches brought different results, the players showed the same desire to pass the ball, rotate, play with intelligence and stick to our principles. They will not always win. That’s football. And they are young players, learning their trade, so as a necessary ingredient of their development, they will make mistakes. But they are well led and well coached so they will always entertain, always try to do the right things and always play in the right way. They deserve more support. I cannot think of anything better for fans than to have seen the first few steps of any young player along the long path of their development when they eventually make their first team debut. That’s what makes producing your own players so special.
It’s the part of the iceberg that’s closest to the surface and it doesn’t cost much to see it!
Enjoy this afternoon’s game and try to match the brilliant atmosphere you created against Halifax.