After acquiring Manchester City in September 2008, new owner Sheik Mansour outlined a vision of the club being at the very forefront of the world game in terms of building for the future and developing talented players from within by boldly proclaiming;
“We are building a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars.”
This statement was widely derided by many at the time as a generic statement made by a man who was bound to treat City merely as a rich-man’s toy. The very same people may even have been vindicated in their belief as Mansour and his chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak set off on a spending spree over the next few years, bringing in ‘all-star’ names that started with the £32 million acquisition of Robinho and reaching an eye-watering peak in 2010 with buys such as Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and David Silva. Now, City still spend huge amounts of money — that point is undeniable when you see £49 million Raheem Sterling and £54 million Kevin De Bruyne added to the playing squad during the most recent transfer window — but something else is beginning to bear fruit in a corner of Greater Manchester. Indeed; it may, in the end, completely silence the doubters who so quickly leapt on Mansour’s vision of a more self-sufficient model being implemented.
The City Football Academy is the name given to the stunning facility completed last year that now stands on a piece of formerly derelict land just a stone’s throw away from the City of Manchester Stadium (or Etihad Stadium). The development, together with the stadium is called the Etihad Campus; and is the driving force behind a blueprint of there never being a Citizens squad without a significant home-grown presence in it by 2027. The key facet to the facility that City will hope help realize this dream is that two-thirds of the site is dedicated solely to the development of potential future stars. When you consider they’ll have the lion’s share of 16 pitches and a whole host of added extras that any discerning starlet would be happy to get used to; such as their own 7000 seater academy stadium, gyms and a dedicated medical center, it would take a very brave person to bet against a conveyor belt of talent being the bedrock on which City base their future success. It would, in fact, be an especially foolish bet; as that belt has already begun to creak into life. First off the production line? Kelechi Promise Iheanacho.
Iheanacho has been making the right noises now for the best part of a year, and certainly since he grabbed a couple of goals in City’s 2014-15 pre-season tour of the US against Kansas City and AC Milan – no mean feat for a 17 year old striker that had only up until then signed a pre-contract deal after agreeing to a move from Taye Academy in Nigeria. This was hot on the heels of particularly eye-catching performances in the 2013 Under-17 World Cup in the UAE, where Iheanacho won the Best Player Award (incidentally, beating new Chelsea recruit Nathan into second place) and notched 6 goals himself. After signing officially on his 18th birthday, Iheanacho set about cementing his place in the youth set-up, and particularly City’s Elite Development Squad; resulting in goals in the FA Youth Cup Final against Chelsea and the final of the inaugural Premier League International Cup against FC Porto.
The promise the youngster, born in Imo State, Nigeria, showed meant manager Manuel Pellegrini publicly stated that he would consider him for selection in the first team squad should he give him reason to by challenging his established stable of forwards. The departure of Edin Dzeko on loan to Roma meant this opportunity presented itself earlier than perhaps anybody thought and reaped incredible dividends. Iheanacho’s instinctive finish from close range deep into the game to hand City a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace was a mark of what he is capable of. A predatory and hungry striker, Iheanacho is blessed with all of the necessary ingredients to make a huge impact in the Premier League and become a truly brilliant player. Pacy, and with a keen poacher’s eye for goal unusually honed for somebody so raw, there will be more goals to come this season alone; let alone during the rest of his career.
It is, however, worth returning to the original point being made. Iheanacho’s progress is being fast-tracked by the City hierarchy as they seek to recoup the enormous £200 million investment made on the Etihad Campus. This would not have been possible, and almost certainly not considered very early on into Sheik Mansour’s reign without the right structure put in place around players of his undoubted quality. Iheanacho had been blessed with the chance to cut his teeth immediately in a magnificent set-up, playing in a stadium purely for the use of youngsters that most League One clubs would dream of owning and managed by a legend of the game in Patrick Vieira within a system designed to specifically target the development of elite players. It is all designed for the very long-term, and to give them exposure to the right and realistic conditions as soon as possible. There are undoubtedly extremely exciting times ahead for the club, and even fans and the officials of other established top-order clubs must be casting envious glances, wondering how they’ll combat an already powerful outfit that looks set to get stronger in the future.
The weekend saw the emergence of Iheanacho interestingly dovetail with that of Manchester United’s record teenage signing Anthony Martial – who also scored and made an impact against Liverpool. Both are perhaps the future of the two great teams, though at what cost will it be to United if they don’t get their, it must be said, not-as-prolific-anymore youth set-up up to speed in the face of the juggernaut that City’s well resourced and focussed one is? They can’t outspend City, neither can they rely on their famed system anymore – they certainly can’t keep forking out millions for unproven players like Martial year after year. City have them snookered. It is just one example for now, but certainly food for thought. Manchester City will also look to bring through the likes of Brandon Barker, Angelino, Oliver Ntcham, Seko Fofana, Enes Unal and Sinan Bytyqi in the next few seasons. Whilst there will undoubtedly be marquee signings continuing to arrive at the club, it seems the policy has shifted forever and that the club will look to improve and be successful with a core group of young players drenched in a philosophy – lessening the need for gargantuan fees being paid out, which will still be crucial in an era of Financial Fair Play. Everybody else has to face up to the challenge, not just United of course – though they will feel it most keenly as the two sides do battle over local boys. Kelechi Iheanacho is proof that Manchester City are not afraid to play young talent, he’s the first to benefit from a new vision. He won’t be the last.
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