The worrying talent drain away from Plymouth Argyle
Plymouth Argyle are having to get used to losing some of their top young prospects before they make it to the first team. Chief Football Writer Chris Errington looks at a worrying trend for the Pilgrims.
THE DEPARTURE of 17-year-old goalkeeper Christian Walton to Brighton and Hove Albion is the latest in an increasing and worrying trend for Plymouth Argyle.
The Pilgrims are still identifying teenage talent, and nurturing it in their centre of excellence. That is not the problem.
But the cream of the crop are then being lured away from Home Park before they ever reach the professional ranks – and, in some cases, even before they become apprentices.
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Walton is one of four players from the same age group who were in Argyle's youth set-up but are now at clubs in the top two divisions of English football.
The Pilgrims are simply not in a position to put a stop to this, not only for financial reasons but also because of their fall from grace on the pitch over recent times.
Were Argyle still a Championship club, as they were from 2004 to 2010, it might be different, but it is a different matter when you are languishing near the bottom of League Two.
Walton, who comes from Wadebridge in north Cornwall, was in his first year as an apprentice at Home Park.
His age group at Argyle's centre of excellence also included defenders Dan Barrow and Lloyd Jones, plus striker Sam Gallagher.
All three of them were bought by other clubs before they made it into the apprentice ranks.
Barrow and Jones were signed for small fees, by West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool, respectively, in the summer of 2011 while the Pilgrims were mired in administration and desperately short of any cash.
Gallagher moved to Southampton last April for an undisclosed fee but, by all accounts, it was for an amount of money which was more realistic for his ability level and potential for the future.
Jones, a 17-year-old former Devonport High School for Boys student, has already achieved a lot at Liverpool.
He plays regularly for the Reds in the NextGen Series, an under-19 equivalent of the UEFA Champions' League.
Argyle's financial collapse at the start of 2011 under the burden of crippling debts also led to the sale of another two home-developed prospects.
At least striker Joe Mason and defender Jack Stephens did play some matches for the first team, but nowhere near as many as would have been hoped.
Mason (pictured) was sold to Cardiff City for an undisclosed six-figure fee in January 2011 and Stephens was snapped up by Southampton for £150,000 a couple of months later – at the age of 17.
Add those two to Walton, Jones, Barrow and Gallagher and the true extent of the talent drain out of Home Park becomes apparent.
Several Premier League and Championship clubs had been tracking the progress of Walton for some time before Brighton made their move for him.
Apparently, there were a whole host of scouts watching him at an Argyle under-18s away game against Bristol Rovers earlier this season, for example.
The Pilgrims have received an undisclosed fee for Walton from Brighton, with further add-ons possible in the future.
It was at Brighton's request that the amount of money they have paid for Walton was not revealed publicly. However, I understand it is a six-figure sum.
Brighton are clearly pleased with the capture of Walton, judging by the comments of their goalkeeping coach Andy Beasley.
He said: "Bringing players in like Christian gives you that bit of excitement and you want to see him grow.
"He's very level headed and I'm looking forward to seeing him flourish."
When I spoke to Argyle academy manager Kevin Hodges earlier in the season, he spoke very highly about the ability of Walton.
He hoped Walton would break into the first team at some point before leaving for bigger and better things.
Hodges was realistic enough to know, however, that Walton could be snapped up before then, and such has been the case.
Walton would have had more chance of first-team football at Argyle than Brighton, but the chance to sign a long-term contract for an ambitious Championship club with top-class facilities would tempt a lot of people.
People I know and trust reckon Walton could all go all the way to the top, and good luck to him, but success is by no means guaranteed.
Take Aaron Spear, for example. He was part of Argyle's centre of excellence when he moved to Newcastle United as a 15-year-old in 2008.
He was described in some sections of the media as 'the new Wayne Rooney', which probably did not do him any favours.
Spear appeared for Newcastle reserves but did not break into the first team and left the Tyneside club in 2011.
He has since played in Iceland, although he recently had a short spell with South West Peninsula League club Elburton Villa.
Walton's departure leaves Argyle with a vacancy to fill when it comes to the under-18s' keeper.
It would probably have been filled by Andrew Hannah, a 15-year-old student at Ilfracombe Community College but he is out injured for six weeks, so a new recruit will be required.
Despite the talent drain, there are still positives coming out of youth development at Argyle.
Take 17-year-old striker Tyler Harvey, who is set to make the transition from apprentice to professional this summer.
He has already scored at first-team level after getting goals regularly for the under-18s.
Left-back Ben Purrington, who is not 17 until May, is also highly rated at Home Park.
He impressed manager John Sheridan when he played as a substitute for an Argyle XI in a recent away game against Saltash United and has been training with the senior squad.
Nine members of Argyle's centre of excellence have also been offered two-year apprentice contracts, starting in July.
Two members of the successful under-16s team from Hele's School in Plympton – Callum Hall and Tom Moxham – have already accepted them. Responses from all of the youngsters and their families must be received by March 4.