Harry Kewell was not at Watford’s awards evening last night – and there was no sign of the eight released players who have spent the season playing for the club’s under-21 side.
As we exclusively revealed in our print edition last month captain George Byers, Mahlondo Martin, Jorell Johnson, Bernard Mensah, Alfie Young, Josh Doherty and Luke Simpson were all told days after the final under-21 game of a tough season that their contracts will not be renewed and they are free to find another club. Matthew Hall, the defender who was given an extended scholarship after suffering a serious knee injury, has not been offered terms as a professional. Byers, we understand, has been invited to train with Bolton Wanderers during pre-season.
None of the eight or Kewell were spotted at the awards evening last night when Alex Jakubiak, their under-21 teammate, was named Development Player of the Season. Carl Stewart was there as was academy manager Chris McGuane.
The news their Watford careers are over is likely to have come as a blow to the eight, some of whom have been at the club since 2008. Byers, 19, joined the club aged seven while Johnson and Mensah came through the productive Harefield Academy. Their departure and the confirmed arrival of the likes of Adalberto Peñaranda (18) and Jerome Sinclair (19) – plus information that Ally Malle (17) and Albert Rusnak (21) are on their way – among others represents a shift in emphasis and change in approach when looking at teenagers capable of, one day, playing for the first team.
“Our academy needs to be seen as a beacon,” said chief executive Scott Duxbury when we spoke exclusively to him early last month. “The academy will always be important to us but in order to serve the needs of the first team our focus will be on securing the best 16-plus players who can have a realistic chance of first team involvement in a few years.”
Watford will continue to plough resources into harvesting the best schoolboy talent and finding the next Nigel Gibbs, Paul Robinson, Tommy Smith, Lloyd Doyley or Sean Murray, but the landscape has now changed following the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) initiated by the Premier League in 2011. Watford could spend eight years developing a young player and then lose him to one of the big clubs at 16 for a set fee of a couple of hundred thousand pounds. They would then get around a further £1m if the player makes 100 Premier League appearances, by which time he will be a multi-million pound asset for his new club. All the while Watford are spending between £1m and £1.8m to run their academy.
Indeed, Watford lost highly-rated England Under-16 forward Jadon Sancho, who was on the Hornets’ books from the age of seven and boarded at Harefield Academy, to Manchester City last year. City paid £66,000 up front for the 14-year-old, with the fee rising to £500,000 based on clauses and appearances. Watford requested a ten per cent sell-on fee was inserted in the deal. He is rising swiftly through the ranks at City and came on as a sub in both legs of the FA Youth Cup final with Chelsea.
Following an internal review, Watford’s UK scouts will focus on the raft of teenagers released by or out of contract at Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United and offer them a more realistic pathway to a first team, or include them in the Pozzos’ renowned player-trading model.
The Pozzos-Duxbury reign has barely put a foot wrong since they took over in 2012 and transformed the club, but the one gripe from supporters is when they’ll next be able to sing a player is ‘one of our own’. Murray was the last home-grown player to come through the system. Tommie Hoban made his debut after Murray but he joined from Arsenal at the age of 14.
“We are rooted in the community,” said Duxbury. “English football is about Roy of the Rovers, little Johnny next door who can come and play for the first team. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s a part of English football. The supporters love to see a home-grown academy player coming through. That’s why you need an academy as otherwise you lose your soul, you lose your financial engagement. The 8s to 16s will become part of our community programme. They’ll still be the elite and the best in the community but it’s got to be inclusive; you are part of Watford, you are part of the Watford family and enjoy yourselves.”