Tuesday's press conference at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training facility seemed likely to be a standard affair for a Copa del Rey tie. Until, in response to a predictable question from a reporter about whether the next day's first-leg against third-tier Alcoyano would be used to give a first-team opportunity to some promising kids, Jose Mourinho produced a piece of paper and read from it.
"From 1999 to 2003, 17 players made debuts with the first team: Aranda, Zarate, Minambres, Raul Bravo, Pavon, Portillo, Valdo, Ruben... Of all of them, the ones who have had the best career have been Raul Bravo and Pavon. Later on, with Mr. Pellegrini, three young players debuted, with a total of nine minutes between them. Before that, Miguel Torres had 25 matches. And before that, Riki, Nunez... It was not me who broke with this tradition, just the opposite. I want players who make their debuts and play in the first team, not players to make the list longer. I have this list with almost 30 players..."
Mourinho's speech was clearly a pre-meditated response to those in the Madrid media who, with Marcelo, Fabio Coentrao and Alvaro Arbeloa unavailable through injury, had mounted a mini-campaign for Madrid Castilla defender Nacho Fernandez to play left-back in the senior side. The coach's decision to instead play Michael Essien out of position in defence had then been criticised, with some going as far as to call it an insult to the club's La Fabrica youth system.
While Mourinho has a point that this campaign was wrongheaded - Nacho is 22, right-footed and playing centre-half for Castilla, while Essien has filled in better than most expected - it was not good manners to sarcastically read out the names of those he was calling failures. Some have disappeared from the game, but plenty are having solid La Liga careers, including Valdo at Levante, Aranda and Javier Paredes at Real Zaragoza, Riki at Deportivo la Coruna and Alberto Bueno at Real Valladolid. More than 30 former Castilla players are currently featuring for 10 other Primera clubs. They might not be Madrid-quality, but they are not bad players.
Observers were quick to point out that Mourinho's list did not include the youth products who are currently in his own first team - most obviously captain Iker Casillas. More seriously, he also left out the recent La Fabrica products who would be valuable senior squad members now but were allowed to leave without getting a chance in the first team. Chelsea's Juan Mata, Valencia's Roberto Soldado, Manchester City's Javi Garcia, Atletico right-back Juanfran Torres, Fiorentina midfielder Borja Valero and Sevilla keeper Diego Lopez all left the Bernabeu very young and completed their development into full Spain internationals elsewhere. Then there are Jose Callejon and Alvaro Arbeloa, youth team products who had to go elsewhere to get a first-team chance, but who are now important squad members back at the Bernabeu.
This is clearly an issue for Madrid, who managed to scout the promising youngsters, but then let them go without gaining the full benefit. Valero, now at Fiorentina, told El Pais earlier this month about how he came to leave Madrid in 2007 for Real Mallorca after making just two senior appearances.
"I made each step up from 11 years old and when you reach the last floor they tell you cannot climb any more, you need to find another place to keep developing," he said. "It was difficult there, for the competition, for the demand there is to win every year. A kid of 18 or 20 years needs some patience and at Madrid patience is impossible."
With new presidents and sporting directors bringing in their own men, La Fabrica has had five directors since 2003 and there has been little continuity in youth policy at the club. First-team coaches needing immediate success to keep their job tend not to give kids time to find their feet at senior level. This institutional failing has gone on for years. The last canterano to establish himself in the first team was Casillas, who made his debut back in 1999 under John Toshack. The last homegrown generation to thrive was the Quinta del Buitre, lead by Emilio Butragueno, back in the 1980s.
With this impatience - from fans, coaches and presidents - La Fabrica has become a source of revenue for the club, not players for the first team. Last summer €11 million was raised by selling striker Joselu, 22, to Hoffenheim and right-back Daniel Carvajal, 20, who might have been useful this week, to Bayer Leverkusen. They club received another £7 million from QPR for Esteban Granero, who was sold for a second time, on the same day that Essien arrived on loan. That exchange was not understood by many in Madrid. There were more raised eyebrows last season when teenage defender Jorge Mendes, who shares a name with his and Mourinho's agent, was given a debut against Ajax in the Champions League despite not being a first choice for Castilla coach Alberto Toril.
Adding to the angst among Madrid fans and pundits is the contrast with Barcelona's La Masia academy with its constant conveyor belt of talent. The comparison is harsh as there do not seem to be many Xavis or Messis (or even Matas or Soldados) among La Fabrica's current crop. Nacho was flavour of this month in AS and Marca, but was an unused sub for Spain Under-21 coach Julen Lopetegui against Denmark for their recent play-off, and has been behind four Barca players - Montoya, Carles Planas, Marc Bartra and Marc Muniesa - in the international queue. Really promising players just do not seem to be coming through at Madrid.
Mourinho definitely holds this opinion. On Tuesday he suggested that the current Castilla team had too many mediocre players in their mid-20s and not enough promising teenagers, as Toril was too focused on getting short-term results in the Segunda Division. For Wednesday night's Copa game he rested six first teamers, but called up just three youngsters (midfielders Jose Rodriguez, 17, and Nacho's brother Alex, 20, and goalkeeper Ruben Yanez, 19) to his skimpy 17-man squad.
Nacho and attacker Alvaro Morata, who have senior contracts but play for Castilla when not needed by Mourinho, started the game. But so did Ricardo Carvalho, 34, for his first appearance of the season. Nacho did okay at left-back, without pulling up any trees, as Madrid won 4-1 against the third-tier side. Alex was withdrawn at half-time after a quiet 45 minutes, for Rodriguez to come on and become the story of the night by scoring the third goal with a curling 15-yard strike and showing composure and passing ability in midfield.
This was then hailed by AS on Thursday morning as evidence that Mourinho had been wrong to criticise the youth system ("La Fabrica Works" said its cover), but the coach stressed after the game that Rodriguez was not getting enough game time from Toril to develop into a top player. You could argue both are right, and both are wrong. What is certain is that Madrid's Fabrica needs a refit from top to bottom.