This is a golden era of British sport, maybe The Golden Era for British Sport. Third in a home Olympics medals table with the likes of Mo Farah and Jess Ennis preeminent in their disciplines; Andy Murray ending the wait for a British grand slam champion wait and more importantly is now also Wimbledon champion; excelling in golf with the likes of Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose; a series win for the Lions in Australia; A third straight Ashes victory; Our first ever Tour de France winner, quickly followed by our second. There is however a large, dark cloud marring that golden sky. British sport will forever remain in the shadow of football – we remain the home of the world’s most powerful and global sport. But British success in the sporting world has only served to polarise the failure of the England (and other home nations) football team.
Traditionally domestic sports leagues were designed to ensure that the national teams had a pool of competitive players from which to choose from. Football is however very different to its closest UK rivals, cricket and rugby, where the numbers of foreign or overseas players competing on a given day are controlled heavily. In both cricket and rugby top players will be removed from club environments for lengthy periods of time; in rugby to compete in the 6 Nations, Autumn Internationals etc; in cricket the toll has resulted in the awarding of central contracts by the ECB. The problem in football is more acute – simply just having enough English players playing regularly in the top league is proving troublesome.
In August 1992, the start of the first English Premier season, roughly 73% of starting teams consisted of English players. That inaugural round of fixtures actually had only 13 players who were not British or Irish. Incidentally that season also saw Coventry City field the last wholly English Starting XI. Fast forward to 2013 and this season’s opening round saw just 68 English players starting out of 220 – 34.1%, less than half the amount of 1992. Of that 34% almost 50% have been capped by England already…more a statement of Roy Hodgson’s diminished talent pool than any profligate awarding of caps. Let’s put that in further perspective by highlighting that the top leagues in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Holland still run in the 70% or above area.
It is no surprise…English talent comes at a huge premium and simply makes little financial sense. Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish wanted to build a British core resulting in the purchase of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam for a combined fee of around £77m. 24 months later, after highly publicised underperformance, Carroll, Downing and Adam were all sold at a massive loss (about £28m recouped and c200K per week wages) – needless to say Dalglish lost his job. This summer Liverpool have been insistent on buying value for money regarding transfer fees and wages: 8 players have been bought and only one (Tiago Ilori a Portuguese youth international born in London) can play for England; on the other hand Carroll (24; 9 England Caps (ECs)), Downing (29; 34 ECs), Jonjo Shelvey (21; 1 EC) and Jay Spearing (24) have all been sold, Danny Wilson (21; 5 Scotland Caps) has been released and Jamie Carragher (35; 38 ECS)has retired.
Spurs have also gone the same way – the recently departed Tom Huddlestone highlighted how when he joined them the focus was on acquiring top British talent). This summer Spurs have bought 7 senior players, all foreign, and have released or sold the likes of Scott Parker (32; 18 ECs), Huddlestone (26; 4 ECs), Steven Caulker (21; 1 EC)and David Bentley (29; 7 ECs). The new “world’s most expensive player” Gareth Bale’s replacement is Erik Lamela, a 21 year old Argentine.
Is it a wonder therefore that in this inflated market clubs choose to buy foreign players (who tend to be more technically trained and more educated) at reduced prices, and relatively low wages?
The knock on effect is that in the cut throat world of football management, few are willing to risk matches bleeding youngsters when they have a steady supply of experienced foreign internationals to invest in. Therefore opportunities for English youngsters diminish in the most crucial moment of their development, now even further exacerbated by the top teams investing heavily in foreign youth as well.
But this is all something of a vicious cycle. The English Premier League is the most watched and lucrative league in the world, arguably the most competitive, but certainly has the most depth in terms of wealth due to shared television rights. The top teams consistently make the final rounds of the Champions League. That is part in due to the strength of foreign players added to the English players. Ronaldo, Torres, Drogba, Henry, Van Nistelrooy, Viera, Cantona, Suarez etc. all became global superstars on the basis of their domestic form in England. It is almost as though the Premiership has become a finishing school for foreign players rather than the school for English talent.
Consider the curious case of Daniel Sturridge. Almost forgotten by Chelsea and England despite obvious talent, he was never given an opportunity in his favoured position of centre forward despite Fernando Torres’s struggles. Sturridge was bought by Liverpool in January for £12m, a fee not seen as excessive for a young English talent but enough to make Sturridge a risk. He has since scored 16 goals in his first 20 games for Liverpool and is now seen as the form striker in England.
The numbers of top British coaches and managers at the top clubs is also troublesome and something that the FA is actively trying to remedy but it is at the playing level that they need to make a stand. Their hands are tied undoubtedly by the power of the Premier League but if they genuinely want to see England the nation remain a footballing power they need to seriously consider action; whether it is imposing limits on numbers of foreign players within a match day squad or improving youth or reserve leagues. The other option is that when it comes to football we should be happy in remaining tribal and loyal to our clubs over our country, as long as England make the major tournaments and “have a go” before failing heroically in the quarterfinals, ideally losing on penalties to Germany/Argentina/Italy/Portugal…it was good enough, after all, for the Golden Generation.
– Domestic v International – Sam Tripuraneni