Should more United youngsters follow Sam Graham to the Central Coast?

Academy players from England’s top sides are conventionally sent out on-loan down the English pyramid system, obtaining first-team football at a club in a lower division than their parent club. However, modern football is adapting with more and more young English talents preferring to be sent abroad in a bid for regular football, instead of rocketing down to a league below.

Sheffield United are a club following this trend, currently having three academy prospects out on-loan outside of Britain which leaves the question, is it more effective sending academy players out on-loan abroad?

Sam Graham and Stephen Mallon, both joined the A-League outfit Central Coast Mariners in January and have both been brought directly into the club’s first-team plans. Whilst, Jordan Doherty joined Tampa Bay Rowdies, who are coached by former Blades defender Neil Collins.

Focusing on Graham’s career so far, having developed in United’s Shirecliffe academy since the age of 10, the 18-year-old defender had no knowledge of football outside of Sheffield. Therefore, to give the youngster some valuable first-team experience, Chris Wilder sent him out on-loan to League Two club Oldham Athletic at the start of this current campaign. However failing to impress then manager Frankie Bunn, Graham only managed a handful of league appearances which led to him returning to Bramall Lane early January.

A-League Rd 20 - Central Coast v Brisbane : News Photo

Sam Graham celebrates as the Central Coast Mariners battle back against Brisbane Roar FC

Since then, the young centre-half joined the Australian side, and has managed to print his name on the starting line-up of every league fixture since his arrival. But, not only is Graham receiving consistent first-team football, he is also getting the leisure of experiencing a different countries lifestyle and culture, in conjunction with improving his footballing ability.

In an exclusive interview with Mariners coach Andy Thomson, when asked how Graham and Mallon had fitted into the group, he said: “The boys adapted to the Australian game almost instantly and are always putting in 100% commitment during training.”

“We know their situation, and their desire to play football matches, and so far they’re giving us no reason to sit them out. We obviously don’t have the financial power of some of the other clubs in our league but having a partnership with a big club like Sheffield United is a great asset, and you’ve got to thank Monty for that. I can only see the relationship between the two clubs growing stronger in the coming years.”

Soccer - Hyundai A-League - Central Coast Mariners vs. Queensland Roar : News Photo

The Central Coast Stadium, formerly Bluetongue Stadium

Nonetheless, the Blades aren’t the first British team to capture rewards of having a foreign affiliate, Chelsea have sent several wonderkids over to Vitesse in the Netherlands to attain first-team football. Mason Mount, and Lewis Baker are two examples, who spent a season in Holland, before making their careers back in England, as both players are now enjoying successful spells at Derby and Reading respectively.

On a smaller scale, West-Midlands outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers have recently formed an affiliation with Spanish club FC Jumilla. The Wanderers currently have five of their academy prospects out on-loan there, with the hope these youngsters can gain experience to be able to challenge for a first-team spot back in England.

Former St Mirren coach Thomson also spoke about his beliefs on why younger English talent should take the venture away from England and challenge themselves in an unfamiliar environment.

“I do think more young British players should challenge themselves and move away from Britain if they’re not getting enough first-team chances. Putting yourself out of your comfort zone and trying to adapt to other countries rules and style of play will only help you develop, as I’ve learnt during my time coaching outside of Britain,” Thomson said.

“Learning and getting advise from a number of different coaches can only benefit young players, and especially if the foreign clubs where you are loaned have a similar philosophy like Sheffield United and us, it can only benefit a player when they return back home.”

Categorically, it may start to become a regular occurrence for top-flight British clubs to send their talented academy prospects on-loan to foreign countries, instead of keeping them in a domestic league. Displaying, that it could be more effective for player development, if players are able to gain first-team experiences outside of the English system.


Chengdu Blades: The Failed Experiment

Many football fans will remember the notoriously introduced ‘Silver goal’ rule at the European Championships in 2000, as well as the ’35-yard Shootout’ which was predominately used in the United States. However, in Sheffield these two failed footballing experiments aren’t even included in the conversation, compared to the time Sheffield United Football Club invested in Chinese outfit Chengdu Tiancheng. 

In January 2006, Chengdu Tiancheng became the first foreign-owned Chinese club ever, with Sheffield United chairman Kevin McCabe investing into the club which at the time was only 10 years old.

The club was then renamed to ‘Chengdu Blades’ to reflect a clear partnership with the South Yorkshire based club. With, the Chengdu Sports Centre also becoming the home to the familiar red and white stripes and crossed swords logo.

Sheffield United Completes Takeover Of China's Chengdu Five Bulls Club : News Photo

Kevin McCabe completes takeover of China’s Chengdu Club

McCabe originally believed this investment would secure rewards in the future, due to the rise of Chinese culture in the city of Sheffield, and the huge number of Chinese students wishing to study in the city. He began to build an audience for the Chinese outfit immediately, welcoming the Chengdu Blades for a talk at the University of Sheffield, and a parade around the city. In conjunction, the club store stocked endless amounts of the Chinese clubs’ shirts and merchandise which proved surprisingly popular.

In addition, the initial idea of the partnership was to extend the Sheffield United brand following their promotion to the English Premier League, as well as attempting to widen the club’s scouting system to Asia. McCabe in the long-haul wanted to the Chinese club to find players, which could be brought to the UK, and coached in the Sheffield Academy leading to an eventual first team call-up.

Chengdu Blades v Chelsea - Pre Season Friendly : News Photo


Legends of Chinese football, and former Sheffield United talents; Sun Jihai, and Li Tie were both transferred to play for the Sichuan side, who were also furnished with former Derby and Middlesbrough midfielder, Don O’Riordan as their Director of Football.

In an exclusive interview, O’Riordan talked about his relationship with Chairman McCabe and what attracted him to China, by stating: “McCabe is a great businessman, with a great long-term plan to connect Sheffield United all over the globe. I thought the Chengdu branch was a fantastic opportunity for myself, and a great way of expanding what was already a fantastic British football club.”

During O’Riordan’s time in China, the Blades were very successful, gaining promotion back to the Chinese Super League just two seasons after the buyout from McCabe. Drawing their concluding fixture of the campaign 0-0 against third placed Jiangsu Shuntian to ensure a promotion party.

Chengdu Blades v Chelsea - Pre Season Friendly : News Photo

Chelsea FC v Chengdu Blades – Pre-season friendly

A further three years of success in the CSL, saw them finish as high as seventh in the league. To add to this, 15 trainees from the Chinese outfit went on to play for the first team, or join the UK sides’ academy, showing a favourable outcome from increasing the club’s scouting network.

Unfortunately, disaster struck the Chinese Blades, as the club was relegated to the Chinese League One in 2009, for allegations of match-fixing in the lower divisions a few seasons prior which was proven to be correct. Chengdu’s President Xu Hongtao had previously bribed Qingboa’s manager Liu Hongwei 300 thousand yuan, and a fake invoice of 200 thousand yuan, for a one-month rental of the club’s training centre. Qingboa in fixture against Chengdu strangely fielded a second-string team, which led to them losing 2-0 to the Blades, which was never investigated until years later. When several clubs reported Hongtao for his corruption and constant attempt at commercial bribery.

The corruption and subsequent relegation were a deal-breaker for McCabe and Sheffield United, as the now Galway United Ladies manager O’Riordan explained: “From what i’m aware, the Club wasn’t generating that much profit for United, and with the club’s struggles in the Championship that same year, McCabe was already prepared to drop his investment.”

“I’m not sure whether the attitude surrounding Chinese football has changed, but certainly from my time there, the direction of the Chinese League was heading in the wrong way. There was an evident barrier between me, the players, and the those above me, if the Chinese owners were to listen to us foreigners and use our knowledge and experience of the game, i’m sure Chinese football would have improved domestically and internationally a lot sooner.”

Chengdu Blades v Chelsea - Pre Season Friendly : News Photo

Additionally, when asked what he thought specifically went wrong with the Chengdu franchise, he responded: “Me and McCabe had a great relationship, and despite my lack of experience coaching, he knew I had a good knowledge of the business side of football.”

“The affiliation with Sheffield United was never the issue, if anything that only gave them more power over the rest of the division. There’s a serious issue with how clubs over in China are ran, and I think it’s still there today. Money will never be an issue for most of China’s top sides, but a lot of those club’s need to strategize how to use their money efficiently.”

Conclusively, following the loss of investment from the Sheffield club, Chengdu experienced some financial difficulties and struggled to maintain any sort of competitive form. This resulted in the club dissolving in 2015, due to insufficient funding and a lack of interest for further investment as a result of their history of corruption, proving how Kevin McCabe’s investment into Chinese football may be one of the worst failed experiments in the history of the game.