Imagine for a moment that instead of turning out for Celtic’s under-20s at Cappielow last night, the same 13-year-old Messi-anic talent, Karamoko Dembele, made his debut for Morton’s under-20 side. With all the scouts in Scotland and beyond watching his ever move, what chance Morton fans would be in a position to watch the lad grace their first team for anything more than a fleeting moment?
Celtic, among many others, would be all over the situation. His advisers would ensure that when he approaches his 16th birthday his career options were as open as possible – that’s if he’s still part of Morton’s development setup by that stage.
It’s easy to see Morton’s place in the food-chain. They would be totally incapable of offering a young player anything remotely like the compensation the likes of Celtic would. Self-awareness regarding the food-chain position is less common.
A few years back I watched a preseason game at a lower league club with a scout who worked for Manchester City, as well as a few lesser lights. When the subject got around to Celtic’s then equally Messi-anic prodigy, Islam Feruz, there was little the scout didn’t know about the player.
He could quote every stat and report ever written on Islam, but he didn’t make comfortable listening. “The boy will never play for Celtic”, was his verdict. “All the big English clubs want him and one of them will offer so much money, he’ll not refuse. Celtic can’t come close to offering the same.” I had plenty of hope that he would be wrong but as Islam’s 16th birthday approached, Chelsea outbid all others to transform his bank balance beyond all recognition. His subsequent demise is a footnote in the tale of player development.
Clubs cannot offer a professional contract until a young player turns 16. It does the developing club no good whatsoever to have a prodigy, evident to the world, before this age. Once he’s 16, he can be offered a professional contract, and the club can secure a subsequent transfer fee. If he leaves before this, the most the club will earn is a modest training compensation fee. Even if the parent club manages to secure the player on a contract, it’s likely to be something like Martin Odegaard’s at Strømsgodset – due to expire while the boy is still a boy, limiting game time and transfer fees accordingly.
Will Karamoko Dembele make it? If he does, will he be the exception to the rule that takes Teenage Kickers into the financial stratosphere before they are ready? Let’s hope it’s yes on both counts, but consider me skeptical for the next three years until we find out. On both counts. Until then we we can enjoy watching a great talent come through the ranks, but nothing more significant.