Vienna is not entirely typical of the sort of location a group of lads in their early 20s would choose to go for a few nights in the summer. Ajax, a team of young, inexperienced players contested the 1995 Champions League against the much older, sturdier and robust AC Milan. Despite losing twice to Ajax in the group stage the Rossoneri were of course going to win as the media at the time had constantly admonished that “experience counts for everything”. After 85 minutes of play a 19 year old Patrick Kluivert scored the game’s only goal and Louis Van Gaal’s men left The Earnst Happel Stadion with the Champions League trophy.
Though Kluivert was only 19 years old he was very much part of the furniture having signed with Ajax aged 8. Their squad that day contained 13 home grown players and the average age of the entire 16 man squad at recruitment was just about 17. With a group of nascent and unheard of players, some earning as little as £500 a week, the club had won Europe’s greatest prize with only two players over 25. Only Real Madrid in 2000 can claim to have won the trophy with as young a squad though the Ajax starting 11 had been with the club for an average of 8 years – a surely never to be repeated feat.
Johnny Giles was commentating on the game for RTE and quipped that Marco Simone, who was wearing all white boots with the all-white kit, “looks like he has just made his 1st Communion tonight”. Some of the Ajax players that night were young enough to probably still have their communion money.
The table clearly demonstrates how the landscape for player recruitment has fundamentally changed. Many of the teams are from Eastern Europe and in some cases export 8 times as many of their cadets as they have playing in their own team.
In Eastern Europe a team can expect to give a debut* to about 1.43 players per team per season. In the top 5 leagues this figure is .68 debuts* (based on ave values over previous 3 seasons). It would appear that the major clubs are less willing to take a risk on new, unproven talent. So it would seem the days of younger squads lifting Europe’s elite prize mainly with players trained in house will be unlikely to happen again - unless Dinamo Minsk can mount a challenge.
* Debut refers to a players 1st ever professional appearance in a senior team as opposed to their 1st match for a new club
** Previous work on player age and recruitment can be read here