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Should the Premier League adopt Serie A’s co-ownership system?

The summer is approaching. Fast. The FIFA World Cup in Brazil. And… The dreaded envelopes. Fans of Calcio know what I’m referring to. The decision-making process over co-ownership deals. Though big Italian clubs don’t tend to bring through their youth talents on their own, almost always farming them out due to their spending power and adherence to the principle of “experience over youth”, I believe English Football could learn from their Italian counterparts where the farming out of young players is concerned.

Having watched and been mightily impressed by Josh McEachran playing for Chelsea at youth and reserve level over the past few years, it was rather disappointing to realise that the current Wigan loanee hasn’t yet made his mark on the senior stage at his parent club. Since January 2012 to today, McEachran has been loaned out to Swansea City, Middlesbrough, Watford and Wigan Athletic. That’s 4 clubs in little over 2 years. An average of 6 months for each loan spell.

In contrast, Daniel Sturridge was on a similar situation to McEachran. Sturridge was loaned out to Bolton Wanderers, where he scored 8 goals in 12 appearances before returning to Chelsea and having moderate success at senior level till he left them for Liverpool.

How can a young prospect be expected to kick on and grow when, as is the case on average, he’s on the move again and again? The club that brings in the youngster has to shoulder some of the blame, but not all. These clubs have absolutely no vested interest in the long-term development of these young players. The loan didn’t work out? Simple solution – 1 out, 1 in. With such a policy in the loan market, every successful loan spell for a young prospect in England will probably have had at least a handful more as collateral losses. For every Daniel Sturridge, there are many Josh McEachrans. Is that worth it? Can the damage be avoided or, at least, minimised?

I believe the answer is yes. The Italian model of co-ownership, if the English FA implements it, would be an improvement over the current loan system. Whilst there was controversy over West Ham and 3rd party ownership that aided their eventual escape from relegation in the 2006/07 Premier League campaign, this is a different matter and should not be tainted by the negativity of the aforementioned Tevez & Mascherano controversy at West Ham.

Simply put, as the term suggests, a co-ownership deal would be just 2 clubs each having a 50% interest in a single player. Naturally, only 1 of the 2 sides would have the sporting rights of the said player, hence the player would be on that club’s squad. With these smaller clubs having a financial interest in the player, these players would effectively be treated as “1 of their own”, rather than an insurance policy to be brought in as and when required. An example would be current Juventus playmaker Sebastian Giovinco. After an initial season-long loan deal at Parma, the Gialloblù exercised their right to co-ownership and bought 50% of Giovinco for €3m. After an impressive 2011/12, Juventus bought back Parma’s half of Giovinco for €11m. In the space of 2010 to 2012 – a loan deal between Juventus and Parma, to a co-ownership then a return to the Bianconeri. Parma gained a player who became a key part of their side, albeit for just 2 seasons, and ended their involvement €8m better off. Giovinco gained valuable senior level experience and also debuted for the Azzurri whilst at Parma. Juventus gained a more experienced version of their young prospect, who had been with the club since he was 9. Win, win and win.

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Whilst Giovinco hasn’t gone on to fulfil his potential since returning to Juve, the loan spell did nothing but help him grow and improve. A smaller club profited financially as well. That Giovinco hasn’t pushed on cannot be blamed on his time away from Juventus. Of course, not every co-ownership deal turns out successful, indeed some players have their ownerships constantly swapped about for years, but this system certainly gives youngsters a better chance of regular minutes with these clubs having a vested interest, especially financially.

Now, revisiting the aforementioned Josh McEachran situation, would he have been played more and received greater coaching focus any of his previous loan spells at Swansea, Middlesbrough or Watford if any of those clubs had owned a 50% stake in him? I’d think so.

“The envelopes” is how co-ownership deals, that haven’t been successfully negotiated between the respective clubs, are decided at the end of each season. The 2 clubs, having been unable to settle on either side buying out the other or a continuation of the existing co-ownership deal, submit bids to Calcio’s governing body, the FIGC. Neither side knows what amount the other have bid. The club with the higher bid will buy out the other 50% of the player for that price. The losing party has contractual obligations to accept the winning club’s bid. It’s not as messy as the West Ham-3rd party incident, which is for a whole other day and would be worth a whole article of its own.

One thing against an implementation of the co-ownership could be the big Premier League clubs, due to the risks involved in the envelope process. For example, imagine the uproar if Adnan Januzaj were co-owned by both Manchester United and Swansea City. Through the envelopes, Swansea bid the higher amount. Januzaj becomes 100% owns by Swansea. Would the system get most of the blame? Maybe. Maybe not. Looking at this example objectively, I’d blame Manchester United for not valuing Januzaj higher than what Swansea value him at. Also, United, with their immense financial clout, should’ve successfully bought out Swansea’s half or negotiated a status quo before the deal even went to the envelopes.

The co-ownership deal helps big clubs as well. This system gives them the ability to acquire a stake in a promising youngster without needing to bring him into their senior squad, where he probably wouldn’t get sufficient minutes to develop his game and realise his potential. For instance, take Juventus’ deal for Italian youngster Domenico Berardi. Juve currently own 50% of Berardi, with Sassuolo the other co-owner. The Bianconeri are able to monitor Berardi’s progress at senior level as well as having a definitive say on whether he eventually makes his way to Turin. For example, with Liverpool’s reported interest in Derby County starlet Will Hughes, Liverpool could purchase 50% of Hughes but monitor his progress at Derby. Hughes wouldn’t have to leave his home and would be able to continue developing his game as he has done so far. Derby would keep a key player in their fight for promotion to the Premier League. Liverpool would have a say in where the England U21 midfielder ends up when he does leave Derby. It works for all parties, if one smartly plays the system.

As with any part of life, errors do happen in the envelope blind auctions. The most recent example would be current on-loan Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano. The Italian was co-owned by Serie A sides Bologna, whom he was playing for then, and Inter. In the summer of 2011, the Viviano co-ownership deal went to the envelopes. Bologna reportedly had a deal lined up to sell Viviano to Roma, assuming they won the blind auction. Bologna sporting director Stefano Pedrelli filled in the wrong section of the bid form. Instead of bidding €4.7m for Inter’s 50% of Viviano, the form stated that Pedrelli had bid half(€2.35m) the intended amount. Inter won the blind auction via a bid of €4.1m. Roma went on to sign Maarten Stekelenburg, who is now at Fulham after a disappointing spell in the Eternal City.

Though Calcio is no longer the pinnacle of world Football, English Football as they like to label it, “the best league in the world”, could still learn a few things from their Italian counterparts. Why would a club focus on developing another club’s young talent when they could just get in another if one loan signing fails? Why not give these clubs an incentive to develop their loan signings?

Co-ownership vs the current loan market system? Think about it.

To discuss this and many other football topics, join thousands of fans at R/Football

Mark Ooi

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