When it first emerged that Chelsea were interested in Cole Palmer last summer, it was a bit mad to think that 24 hours later, he’d be in London getting ready for his medical. The deal was as fast-moving as it was baffling, with the 21-year-old commanding a transfer fee which could rise to £42.5 million.
The value of the deal, for me, was never in doubt from a Manchester City point of view. We’d managed to milk Todd Boehly for about £50 million the summer before when they took a very-much-on-the-decline Raheem Sterling off our hands with only one year left on his deal. We were now able to get another slice of the amortisation exploitation pie as a player who had made a grand total of three Premier League starts was now able to command a transfer fee of £40+ million.
Of course, with Palmer being an academy graduate, the deal represented pure profit on the books so from the club’s point of view the deal was even more appealing on that front. Such is the pitfall on the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules (but we’ll get to that another time…).
Palmer himself was coming off the back of a bit of an explosion onto the scene in the non-City world. Having made little contribution to the treble win in the 2022/23 season, restricted very much to some sub appearances at the start of the season in the league and then barely featuring until the title was already won, he then went to the Under-21 European Championships with England in the summer, getting himself a goal and three assists across the semi-final and final and featuring heavily throughout.
Riyad Mahrez left the club in the summer transfer window and it felt like Palmer would finally have a platform to try and cement a place in the team. Stylistically, Palmer was the closest thing City had to Mahrez at the time and we would definitely miss that silky presence on the right who could float a cross into the back post on his left foot from the right wing.
Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden bring their own qualities to that position, but the departure of Mahrez definitely saw a unique skillset walk out of the door, a skillset which many (myself included) felt the squad needed if it was available. This should have been Palmer’s time to step forward.
And step forward he did. He came off the bench against Arsenal in the Community Shield, City’s first game of the season, and immediately stamped his mark on the game as he gave City the lead, calmly cutting in on his left at the corner of the area and picking out the opposite top corner as if it was a training exercise. There’s a reason he’s earned the nickname “Cold Palmer” at Chelsea and it’s largely due to how effortless he can make even the most difficult of skills look.
Ten days later, Palmer would get on the scoresheet again as he started the UEFA Super Cup, scoring City’s only goal of the game to level the score and take it to penalties. He showed even more maturity in his game as he shouted “Cole’s!” to Erling Haaland of all people, instructing him to leave the ball so he could head it into the net.
So, what happened?
Well the story is different depending on who you listen to. Pep Guardiola tells the story of a player who was unhappy with his game time and wanted to leave for regular football. An easy chat, “Okay, no problem, off you go”. Nice and simple.
Palmer tells a different story, one of a player who wanted to leave on loan to get regular minutes elsewhere to be ready for the following season and was told, quite bluntly, either you stay or you’re getting sold. He opted for the latter and Chelsea were more than willing to come forward with an offer.
Who’s telling the truth? Well, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, though I lean slightly more in favour of Palmer. Despite playing vital roles in both the Community Shield and Super Cup, scoring the only two goals of those games, he was given ten minutes of game time in the three Premier League games which surrounded them, a substitute appearance against Burnley on the opening day being his only source of minutes.
Against Newcastle and Sheffield United, he remained on the bench for the entire game. Newcastle is perhaps understandable, however if you’re not getting any minutes against Sheffield United with the fixtures already piling up early in the season, then you’re well within your rights to start thinking your chances will be limited throughout the rest of the season
Palmer was coming off the back of a couple of years where he’d actually played relatively little. Injury hampered him in the 21/22 season and the intensity of the treble run-in meant his options were also limited in the 22/23 season. Despite this, he made 41 appearances over his time at the club, however this totalled to 1,481 minutes (though understandably his introduction to first team football came via sub appearances). To put that into perspective, he’s played 1,652 minutes for Chelsea in 22 appearances since joining them.
In my opinion, he was right to question his game time, particularly in light of the lack of Premier League minutes he’d received while the transfer window was still open. The club had also opened negotiations for Jeremy Doku, who would obviously take more minutes off Palmer on the wings, hardly a show of confidence that Palmer could step up to fill the void left by Mahrez.
I’ve no doubt he’d have gone to Pep and asked to leave for game time, it’s just whether that conversation was around a loan deal or a permanent move. A loan deal at the age of 21, a time where you should be learning from Pep and the rest of the squad, would never sit right with Guardiola. He respects players like Foden and Rico Lewis who’ll hang around and keep their eye on the bigger picture, rather than the immediacy of playing every single week here and now. It’s why players never come back from loans and actually get any real chance in the side, because once they’re gone they’re out of Pep’s mind, mostly for good.
So, in that sense, Pep forcing a transfer would make some sense. It may well not have been as blunt as Palmer’s made it out to be, although maybe it was. He wouldn’t be the first player to be on the receiving end of Pep’s sharp tongue behind closed doors and he won’t be the last, and the club certainly wouldn’t have been eager to get rid given his homegrown status within City. However they’d probably also looked at £40 million of pure transfer profit and had their arms twisted.
The result of all of this, however, is that every time Palmer plays well for Chelsea, City fans are up in arms about how we should never have let him go. Of course, if he was the Cole Palmer we see now when we had sold him, we obviously would never have let him go, not for the fee we accepted. However the only reason he’s putting in the performances and numbers that he is at Chelsea is because, such is the absolute state of Chelsea’s Frankenstein squad, he’s already their best attacking player.
He’s better than current day Raheem Sterling, better than £70 million Mudryk, better than any other winger they’ve got at the club. Of course he looks amazing when he’s starting virtually every game for them.
Would he have done that at City? Well, I think the first three games of the season tell you everything you need to know there. Foden and Bernardo have been rotating minutes on the right hand side for City this season – would anybody seriously start Palmer there ahead of either of those two?
Palmer’s recent scintillating performances for Chelsea have come in the 10 role under Pochettino, a role which City don’t even really utilise. Moving deeper into the 8, we’re in a situation where we have Bernardo, Foden, Alvarez, Nunes, Kovacic playing around those positions. Palmer’s not starting ahead of all, if any, of them with any regularity.
It’s frustrating to see your academy products leave and be amazing elsewhere. Lavia having a brilliant season at Southampton when we were lumbered with Kalvin Phillips as a barely-passable backup for Rodri was infuriating, yet it’s impossible to argue that Lavia would have been subject to the same conditions as Palmer if he stayed, only amplified by the fact that Rodri is literally undroppable. He’d never have become the player he developed into at Southampton if he remained at City.
Watching Palmer score penalties for fun, whilst I’m still convinced we’ll boot every single one we’re given into row Z, hurts me big time. But he was never going to make it at City in the way he has at Chelsea. He’d have been a squad player for us and therefore would probably not have found the same consistency and output he’s finding now. Some City fans would probably be absolutely fine with him fulfilling that role in the squad for us, I know I would, but he wouldn’t be.
We’re in a world now where the players from our academy who aren’t good enough to make it to our first team are obviously good enough for other Premier League clubs. Bazunu, Lavia, Palmer, McAtee no doubt will be next. This is the price we pay for having a starting line-up filled with players who are in contention for FIFA World XIs.
Youngsters have to be both extremely talented and/or extremely patient to make it at the club, and the latter is hard to come by when players of Palmer’s quality can play regularly for clubs the size of Chelsea if they wish. The only real exceptions are Foden and Lewis, who were both playing semi-regular football when they were 18 years old. Palmer was 21 and had been given Premier League minutes you could count on two hands in 3 games to kick off the season after the best summer of his life and some important moments in the Community Shield and Super Cup. It’s no wonder he got itchy feet.
The transfer has ultimately worked out for both parties. City were probably looking at the numbers being offered by Chelsea and rubbing their hands together, cackling in pure FFP as Chelsea did what they do best. Chelsea, meanwhile, were probably loving the fact that they’d picked up a Mason Mount replacement for roughly £20 million less than they sold him for, gaining a player with similar promise that Mount showed at his age and somebody who’s immediately started to repay the promise they expected from him.
We just have to accept he’s gone and move on. Sometimes your kids stay with you forever, seeing you through to old age and you eventually slip into the afterlife with them as your favourite son, having stuck with you through thick and thin. Sometimes they leave home and you never hear from them again.
That wasn’t one of my best metaphors. I’m struggling for an ending.
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