We’re big fans of and believers in the youth system here at Cambridge. The CRC model is forward-thinking and astonishingly successful at producing players for the first team squad.
It was with some disappointment this week then to hear that Jonathon Thorpe – along with Luke Berry and Robbie Willmott one of the brightest prospects to have rolled off the production line since its inception – had had his contract with the club cancelled by mutual consent.
This was, ostensibly, because Thorpe was re-evaluating his options and considering going into further education, amid also rumours of homesickness. It’s heartening to know that Thorpe is switched on enough to be thinking about a career outside or beyond football and is, once more, a testament to the excellent educational grounding that is a core part of the CRC system. We look after our scholars not just as players but as people too.
However, it does raise the question of whether we are in fact just that little bit too nice.
Thorpe is a young lad who clearly has a good head on his shoulders to go with the skill in his feet. What baffles me slightly about his decision here is that he had done the hardest part – he wasn’t someone mulling over his options at the offer of a first contract; he was a professional footballer. And a very highly-rated one at that, who had already made a not insignificant amount of first team appearances for our club.
That’s a decision for him and him alone to make. He still had a year left to run on his deal and is a young man with a lot of years ahead of him, but if he feels now is the time to make a decision like this then you have to respect that choice.
What doesn’t sit too comfortably with me however is the club’s part in this. For CRC to be a success then it has to produce results. We’ve seen some: Willmott, Berry, Hughes, Coulson, McAuley and there are plenty of hopes for the future, such as Liam Hurst. But continued success is predicated on at some point getting a return on our investments, whether that is through the years of service we’ve got from the likes of Coulson and McAuley, or the future value of players, such as the £50,000 we got for Willmott or the potential for a future fee from Berry or Hughes.
In Thorpe’s case, we have just written off a total of four years worth of investment as well as any potential future gains from him – whether that were to be monetary or on the pitch. He was our player, he was under contract having been given the security of a two-and-a-half year deal when he was offered his first professional contract. I feel we’ve lost out in this and that’s a bit galling – it will be even more so if he does, as expected, end up signing for full-time Tamworth.
Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not blaming the player and nor, particularly, am I blaming the club. I may not understand Thorpe’s decision but I respect it and I also respect and, quietly, am pleased that we are the kind of club that is sensitive to a player’s life as a human being, not just as a footballer. Few clubs in our position would be the same.
We could have hardballed Thorpe; we could have held him to his contract or demanded a fee (he has shown enough on the pitch to suggest he would be an asset to many of the squads in this division). What is irksome though is that by not doing this and instead choosing the honourable path, it’s us who lose out – on the fantastic potential that Thorpe showed in our team and in the possibility of our long-term investment paying off in the future.
Are we too nice? Too concerned with our honourable image so we end up shooting ourselves in the foot? Possibly. There is a long-held frustration at the way we conduct transfer dealings. We’ve proved time and time again that we are not exactly what you’d call ‘canny operators’ in the transfer market – whether that’s with fees we pay, players we don’t utilise properly when we do bring them in, overly long contracts, inflated wages or under-selling ourselves when it comes to add-ons.
There is, of course, almost certainly more to it that we’re not being told. Maybe Richard Money simply doesn’t fancy Thorpe as a player, maybe there was a falling out, maybe Thorpe didn’t see a proper future for himself at Cambridge or indeed in football, maybe he really was homesick… We will almost certainly never know the full truth of the matter.
Whatever may or may not have happened is largely irrelevant however. The biggest issue here is that a club that is very forthright about moving towards sustainability and that prides itself on its youth system has just seen one of its brightest products slip through it’s fingers, while losing four years worth of investment in the process. I dearly hope those at the club understand how and why that happened and are honest with themselves when assessing what their part in it was and what, if anything, they could have done differently. It is not something we can afford to a make habit of.