Driving out of a Premier League club's training ground last week, in the opposite direction came a young player in a very expensive car. The player in question was an academy product who has played fewer than five senior games for his club. The value of the car suggested that his salary was not appearance-related.
It would be wrong to name the player because it is not his fault that his club want to pay him so handsomely to turn out for their reserves. The car was not borrowed (or stolen) because he is on a professional deal. I do not resent young footballers who earn big money, I resent the underlying social prejudice in this country that does not like working-class boys getting rich for playing football. But that is an argument for another day.
Last week the thought that occurred was Frank Lampard's argument that academy footballers should still be cleaning the boots of the senior players in order to teach them humility and ambition to succeed. Humility and ambition are certainly to be prized but you do not necessarily have to clean boots to learn them. Gordon Taylor's point that the time could be better spent studying for academic qualifications struck more of a chord.
Lampard was well-intentioned but the fundamental problem is not that young players are no longer cleaning boots. The problem is the academy system that has screwed the development of young footballers to the extent that the old-fashioned apprenticeships they served no longer exist. It is a system that has been undermined by English football's oldest friend and biggest problem: money.
Once upon a time, players at English clubs would leave school at 16 and serve two years as an apprentice, in which time they would hope to impress sufficiently to be offered a professional contract. The exceptional players then, as now, might break into the first team before then but the basic principle was the same everywhere.
The change has come as the stakes have been raised by clubs in recruiting young players. The Premier League academy rules dictate that no player under the age of 11 can sign for a club academy unless he lives within a one-hour radius of the club. For players over the age of 11 that widens to a 90-minute radius but that second stage is immaterial. By then every decent young player has been signed and leaving one club's academy to join another is about as simple as getting out the Cosa Nostra.
So what do clubs do? They buy young players from overseas or they bring in young players from beyond their academy radius at great cost. They often do this by moving the whole family within their catchment area and, in return for uprooting the family, they promise a professional deal for the child in question as soon as he turns 17, the youngest any player can sign professionally. This deal is promised regardless of performance. Accordingly the apprenticeship, now known as an academy scholarship, is no longer a trial.
At Chelsea's academy, for instance, young players are graded. The best, often established youth internationals with major football-playing nations, sign contracts worth upwards of £75,000 a year when they turn 17. At grade B, players who are judged as slightly less promising, but with potential, can earn between £40,000 and £70,000 a year from 17. Those at grade C get a scholarship. They earn about £100 a week.
In the past, all apprentices were on the same wage (their digs and food were covered by the club) and played in the hope of winning a professional contract. Now there is a huge disparity in wages between players who turn out every week in the same youth team. At 17, those who are on a promise of a professional deal, often those who have come from further afield or abroad, are fast-tracked on to salaries that dwarf those of their team-mates.
More than cleaning boots, washing out the baths or sweeping terraces, it is money that changes the attitudes of young players. It must be hard to teach a young man about hunger and enthusiasm when he has a BMW X5 waiting for him in the car park. But the Premier League academy rules are forcing clubs into making bigger investments in young players who are completely unproven because, to get around the rules, they have to move the family, as well as the child.
Let's not be too sentimental. The best young players and their families have always attracted under-the-table offers from big clubs: new fitted kitchens and cars for parents, tickets for matches, even something as trivial as a club shirt adorned with the name of the young prospect. In their pre-Roman Abramovich days, Chelsea would attempt to impress young players and their families with a no-expenses spared day out at – wait for it – Wimbledon dog track.
Cleaning boots will not change young footballers, but protecting them from the corrosive effect of big-money deals until they are mature enough to deal with it just might. Fifa's plan to abolish international transfers of players under the age of 18 could work as long as the restriction on English clubs signing players in a falsely imposed geographical catchment area is abolished.
That way English clubs can go back to picking the young English players they want without having to persuade them with enormous professional contracts and a new house in another part of the country for their family. Football should always be about good young players proving themselves and the attendant joy and despair. That is part of growing up. A system in which wealth comes before success is no preparation at all for real life.
Under-21s look very average against France
Here is a statistic to make you worry about the future of the England team. In his commentary on the England Under-21s match against their French counterparts on Tuesday, Setanta's Jim Proudfoot pointed out that there were 10 Englishmen on the pitch who had played more senior club games than the most experienced French player in the opposing XI.
The England team averaged 128 club games each. In the French team it was 46. Four of the French players played outside their country's top flight. Yet they beat England 2-0 and looked by far the better team. The excuse that young English players are not getting the chance with their clubs does not hold water any more. They just aren't as good.