In a rather surprising move three weeks ago, Manchester United marked their academy product, James Garner, as available for transfer.
The 21-year-old has enjoyed two successful loan spells at Nottingham Forest, playing an intrinsic role in midfield on his way to the Premier League.
Garner, who has captained England at various youth levels, had been seen by avid United fans as a key player for the future; as a player who could have emulated previous midfield greats who have progressed through his academy system.
While on loan at Forest, Garner showed his ability to progress his footballing intelligence by being deployed in versatile roles by Steve Cooper. Having initially played in the deepest area of midfield, he evolved into an attacking-minded box-to-box player.
However, since his return to Old Trafford at the end of last season, things have not gone according to script.
With high hopes this season pinned on Garner establishing himself as a member of Manchester United’s first-team squad, the hierarchy instead placed a £15m sell-sign on the youngster in mid-August.
Unsurprisingly, a host of Premier League clubs expressed immediate interest. According to The Athletic, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Nottingham Forest and Leeds have inquired about a deal.
Everton sealed the transfer on deadline day, acquiring Garner on a four-year deal for an initial £9m (potential to reach £15.5m with add-ons). What does this transfer symbolize?
Discussing financial motivations in the first place, there are reasons to be surprised by the (current) fairly low fee.
Compared to other Premier League transfers involving young British players moving to different Premier League clubs, United’s money men seem to have grossly underestimated Garner.
Former Liverpool full-back Neco Williams was bought by newly promoted club Nottingham Forest for £17m, having appeared fourteen times for Fulham last season in the Championship.
Garner, on the other hand, made sixty-one appearances in total over an eighteen-month period in the Championship with Forest. United valued him at £3 million less than the amount Liverpool earned for Williams.
Although this comparison screams incompetence within United’s hierarchical decision-making, there are mitigating factors for William’s excessive fee: the Welshman has already acquired twenty-one caps and thirteen Premier League appearances under Jürgen Klopp.
Indeed, this would be a valid argument were it not for Dylan Levitt: a fellow United academy product who moved to Dundee United this summer.
Dundee bought Levitt for just £300,000 following a Scottish-inspired loan spell. Known for his passing, his silky technical ability and his composed style of play, Levitt might have fit Ten Hag’s desired model for a midfielder.
Also a Welshman like Williams, Levitt has not only appeared twelve times for his country, but has also gained invaluable professional and personal experience playing abroad during his loan spell at Istra 1961 in Croatia.
United received 57 times less for Levitt than the fee Liverpool ordered for Williams. An embarrassing accusation about the club’s consistent inability to negotiate significant incoming fees.
Second, from a youth player’s point of view, what does Garner’s transfer list suggest to college academy teammates trying to slowly work their way into the first team?
Garner plied his trade in the Championship, to an incredibly fruitful degree; taught at the international youth level; he was pointed out by Juan Mata as a player to watch; he has had appearances in the United first team; and he plays in the position where United are depleted in both numbers and quality.
What does his transfer away from the club suggest, for example to Ethan Laird or Hannibal Mejbri? The pair are expected to feature prominently for Queens Park Rangers and Birmingham City respectively in this season’s Championship.
Should they call off his life’s work and hopes of playing long-term for his dream club? Garner’s transfer at a surprisingly low fee, for a player of his quality and experience, could put United’s youth network in jeopardy.
Why do the best young players, who are sold on the hopes and dreams of playing in Old Trafford’s first team football, sign a contract with a club that will sell them, regardless of the talent and efforts of the individual? In fact, sales of academy products can be expected and it is part of the football cycle. But even though Garner has earned his stripes and is still only 21, United were desperate to get rid of him (which the low asking price would suggest). Not the most optimistic message to send to hopeful youth.
Instead of furthering Garner’s development within the club, United are looking to fund expenses for young talent from other academies (see Antony’s latest extortionate deal, for example), untested so much in the “United standard” mentality as in the quality departments that Garner has strived for. .
Would the pressure of playing in the academy of one of the biggest clubs in the world, and the dedication, hard work and aspirations that come with it, be worth the inevitable betrayal?