West Bromwich Albion announced their retained list today and, along with the great news that most senior pros whose contracts are up at the end of June have agreed to a one month extension, was the not unexpected announcement that Nathan Ferguson will leave the club next week.
It is a sad indictment of modern football that Ferguson has chosen to turn his back on the club that has nurtured his footballing talent for the last eleven years, with no guarantee that the club will receive the compensation that they deserve.
By all reports, the 19-year-old Birmingham-born defender is a very pleasant, polite and likeable young man but evidently has an agent who has convinced him that his future should be away from the only football environment he has known.
He joined the club at the age of eight and signed his first professional contract with the club in July 2017 – the three year contract he signed is the longest that can be given to a 16-year-old.
Two years later, when Slaven Bilić arrived at the Hawthorns, Fergsuon had been in one first team matchday squad, for the Premier League trip to Anfield in December 2017, and was yet to make his first team debut. He had not been on loan anywhere and, at that point, there was no suggestion that he was about to become a first team regular and, therefore, no need to have discussed a contract extension.
You can obviously criticise the coaching staff at the club for not recognising his talent before then, but it may not have been evident before last summer. Nonetheless, Bilić saw something in the young centre back, as he was at that point, and brought him into the first team fold handing him his first team debut at right back on the opening day of the season at Nottingham Forest.
He was instantly comfortable in the first team and showed his ability by making a seamless switch to left back when Kieran Gibbs was injured and won a place in the hearts of the Baggies fans, at least temporarily, when he scored his only goal for the club at QPR in September.
By this time, the club had offered him a lucrative a new five-year contract but the alarm bells started ringing when he, or his representatives, failed to agree terms. As the January window approached, there was still no clarity as to the youngster’s future.
Ultimately, Luke Dowling and the club hierarchy felt that they would have to cash in on the player to avoid losing him for a pittance, as they did with Louie Barry when he moved to Barcelona for £235,000 (a fee that remains unpaid), and a deal was agreed with Crystal Palace late in the window.
That collapsed when he failed a medical despite having played 90 minutes a few days earlier, and Albion were left to pick up the pieces and fund his treatment.
Still there was no desire to negotiate from Ferguson or his agent, and the news has now be confirmed that his contract will expire next week with the expectation that he will sign for Crystal Palace.
That prospect, at least, rules out the miserly FIFA compensation that would be due were he to move abroad, and, given that a fee of £10 million plus £1 million in add-ons had previously been agreed, Albion will hope that the tribunal fee would be something close to that.
It remains hugely disappointing, however. While players will counter that clubs show no loyalty when it is in their interest to release a player, but West Bromwich Albion have invested in Nathan Ferguson for 11 years, as they do with scores of young players, without any guarantee that they will make the grade.
There was no ill feeling on behalf of Romaine Sawyers whose story was very similar to that of Ferguson up until last summer. Sawyers, however, was released without making a first team appearance, probably more due to Albion being in the Premier League at the time, but after making progress away from the Hawthorns, he was delighted to return last summer.
I guess that money talks, and it certainly does with agents in these situations. His representative will make much more money from this deal than from Ferguson signing a new contract with Albion, and for me that level of self-interest makes it very difficult to ensure that young players are being properly advised.
I don’t deny the fact that Ferguson is entitled to earn as much money as he can in what is a short career, but does he not feel any loyalty towards the club that have made him the player that he is? Could he not have signed a contract with an agreement that, if Albion didn’t go up this season he would be allowed to leave or, that if they did he could go next summer if he wanted to? That would have protected his value to the club and probably given him a better chance of playing first team football.
Hopefully Albion will get something like fair value for Ferguson, but the rules as they are make academies a less than safe investment. Something needs to change if academies as good as Albion’s are to continue to produce quality players – the ability for future stars to leave on a whim without a guarantee of proper compensation as Louie Barry, Izzy Brown, Morgan Rogers and Nathan Ferguson have done makes it a tough financial balance to strike, and one that Jeremy Peace certainly struggled to reconcile.
The Bosman Ruling corrected an imbalance in the transfer system that favoured the clubs too much but I wonder whether, for young players in particular, the rules have been skewed a little too far the other way.
Ultimately, however, my comments are the result of an emotional reaction. As fans, we always like to see the young players come through and it makes it that much harder to take when it becomes obvious that they don’t love the club as much as we do.