Aaron Mooy's likely Manchester City exit raises questions in Australia

Manchester City will bank what is set to be an Australian record transfer fee as pure profit after they signed the midfielder for nothing from Melbourne City

The City Football Academy in Melbourne’s north is one of the most impressive sporting amenities in Australia. Architecturally, the complex funnels the attention of staff towards the training ground, as a permanent reminder of the site’s purpose. Those pitches use state of the art hybrid grass technology and their most recent occupants included Lionel Messi, with Argentina using the centre as a training base for the recent SuperClàsico. The facility cost its owners, the City Football Group (CFG), $15m. For context, they acquired City’s A-League licence for $11.25m.

On a tour of the centre shortly after it opened I was taken from the reception atrium into the inner sanctum. One of the first things to emerge behind the security doors was the communal lounge where staff and players ate lunch and played video games. In the corner of the room a noisy table tennis contest was taking place. Among the participants was Aaron Mooy.

Mooy is now on the verge of a $17m transfer from Manchester City to another Premier League club. His new home is likely to be Huddersfield Town, where he spent the past season on loan helping the Terriers to the top flight for the first time since 1972. Manchester City will bank that Australian record transfer fee as pure profit after they signed the midfielder for nothing from their stablemate, Melbourne City. After proving his credentials in the Championship Mooy’s value has unquestionably risen, but it nonetheless raises some awkward questions over the ability of a $17m asset to leave the A-League without the competition receiving any direct compensation.

The absence of transfer fees between A-League clubs means Melbourne City can sign a player like Mooy for nothing and then gift him to Manchester, only for the parent organisation to receive a fee when the player’s registration is eventually transferred to a club outside the group’s ownership. It is a brilliant investment strategy, pump primed by the best facilities, coaching staff and scouting networks to incubate talent. The CFG has effectively turned the A-League into a de facto academy.

John van ’t Schip’s long-term replacement as City’s head coach is Warren Joyce. At face value this appears an odd choice. Joyce is neither a marquee manager to help put bums on seats, nor does he have a track record of A-League success, or even familiarity with the competition. What Joyce is though is a development coach of some repute, having steered a generation of Manchester United youngsters, including Paul Pogba, into the big time during his eight years on the backroom staff at Old Trafford. Of course CFG will hope Joyce delivers silverware as head coach but seen from a group-wide perspective he is perfectly credentialled to marshall the Australian-arm of a player development and scouting network that, in Mooy alone, has accounted for a major proportion of the costs of operating such a distance from headquarters.

The CFG are profiting from a complex and long-standing economic puzzle. The A-League does not operate transfer fees between clubs in a bid to manage costs, and, along with the salary cap, maintain as even a competition as possible. A similar strategy applies to the tier below where NPL clubs are barely rewarded when a player progresses to a higher level. It may not be conclusively proven but it can be easily argued these mechanisms remove incentives to invest in and develop talent. It’s one of the many criticisms of Australia’s flawed football pyramid.

A recent Professional Footballers Australia study takes this abstract issue and places it in the real world. PFA’s research indicates 18 to 21 year old professionals are not receiving as much game time as they should, a problem PFA boss John Didulica put down to fewer young players demanding selection. “To be internationally successful we need to produce world-class footballers,” Didulica told the Herald Sun. “Our ­research shows that playing regularly between the ages of 18-21 is critical to this. It’s not the responsibility of A-League coaches to run a ­development team, their job is to select the players on merit so that the team can win a game. Responsibility rests with the sport, it needs to be able to develop players that can play at the highest level at a young age.”

When Mooy headed north on his first class Etihad Airways journey, Luke Brattan was travelling the opposite route to fill the hole in Melbourne City’s midfield. Brattan was Mooy’s mineshaft canary. Signed from Brisbane Roar on a free by Manchester City, he was immediately loaned to Bolton Wanderers, but his time in England was unsuccessful and after a season a return to Australia was beckoning. Knowing he could be handballed to Melbourne provided the original deal a failsafe insurance policy. Had Brattan prospered like Mooy and earned a lucrative transfer – kerching. Should he fail, his talents at A-League level were proven and a move to Melbourne City for a Socceroo in his mid-20s was not going to disappoint the feeder club.

As well as Mooy and Brattan, Manchester City have also signed Anthony Caceres from the A-League, although they did pay Central Coast Mariners a reported $500,000 for his services. Caceres was immediately loaned to Melbourne City, bypassing any middlemen. This provoked such an outcry from rival coaches and administrators FFA was compelled to respond. The Caceres rule now means organisations like CFG have to wait a season before furnishing their Australian franchise with a star if they are first transferred out of the country.

In an ideal world FFA would expand such a governance model to ensure a greater return on investment in all transfers, so that when the likes of Mooy and perhaps soon Bruce Kamau or Ruon Tongyik generate revenue, some of it flows down the food chain. But FFA is clearly not operating in an ideal world. Moreover CFG’s Simon Pearce is reportedly an increasingly influential figure behind the scenes in negotiations between clubs and the governing body which seem inevitably to resolve in the clubs’ favour.

But is it as simple as closing a few loopholes and asserting authority? There is a risk FFA could end up cutting its nose off to spite its face. CFG’s footprint, outlined in part above, encompasses an unrivalled commitment to women’s football and a investment in youth development that should serve to not only benefit the group’s bottom line but also Australian national teams now and in the future. This is especially pertinent with FFA’s recent decision to mothball the Canberra-based centre of excellence. CFG have increased exposure to the A-League through the recruitment of David Villa and Tim Cahill, and the scouting networks that have furnished the competition with Bruno Fornaroli and Fernando Brandan. City’s approach may be to the detriment of rival clubs, but by their sheer scale they will inevitably have some advantage and their self-interest may well benefit the game overall in this country.

The issues Mooy’s progress raise require addressing not in isolation, but as part of the overall realignment of the A-League and the management of football in Australia. The sooner that nettle is grasped, the better.