Eamonn Sweeney: Buying policy comes at a cost
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New FA chairman Greg Dyke caused something of a stir across the water last week with his dystopian projections about the future of English football if the number of foreign players in the Premier League isn't reduced. And it's worth taking note of Dyke because he's talking about our future too.
There has to be a slight caveat because Irish players are counted as foreign players in the Premier League. But, by and large, what Dyke says about the English national team also applies to the Irish national team.
It's been repeated ad nauseam over the past week that Giovanni Trapattoni did not have the same calibre of players available for selection that Jack Charlton did. This is true and it's not going to change. It has very little to do with the standard of coaching in this country or the attitude of the players themselves. It has happened because almost all Premier League managers prefer to bring in experienced foreign internationals rather than young players from the ranks.
The league's reliance on foreign players is startling. Only 30.5 per cent of first team players are English, almost half as many as the 59.6 per cent of Spanish-born players in La Liga. In France, 54.9 per cent of Ligue 1 players are French and 54.2 per cent of Bundesliga players are German. Even Serie A, long notorious for its dependence on outsiders, is 45.9 per cent Italian.
This problem shows every sign of getting worse. In the past two seasons the number of English players signed in the transfer window has dropped from 37 per cent to 25 per cent. Of the 61 transfers for money carried out by Premier League clubs before the season started, just 12 involved English players. The English under 21 team, which recently beat Scotland 6-0, had just three Premier League starters in its squad of 23. The trend is even creeping worryingly downwards. The Championship, the Championship for God's sake, has more foreign players than the Bundesliga. It's not just the elite but the lumpen European who's depriving local lads of a start.
Why are Premier League managers so reluctant to trust home-grown footballers? Well, it's largely due to the fact that the league is almost uniquely fixated on buying players who've already proven themselves elsewhere. There is a much higher percentage of full internationals in the Premier League than anywhere else, 42.5 per cent compared to, for example, the 20.7 per cent in La Liga. And you'd need to be a blinkered Premier League partisan of quite spectacular stripe to argue that the former is a better league than the latter.
Now you might be tempted to adopt the Eamon de Valera 1939 attitude and say, "What does it matter to us? If the English get beaten by the Germans, pity about them." But the problem is that as every Irish player of international standard plies his trade in the Premier League, the tendency for clubs to buy experienced Europeans rather than bringing through promising youngsters is seriously damaging to the strength of our national team.
It's a vicious circle. The only way promising English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh players can gain top-class experience is by getting into Premier League first teams. Yet the managers prefer to plump for players who've already gained first-team experience. And where have they gained it? In their own domestic leagues which, unlike the Premier League, are willing to give home-grown players a chance.
Take, for example, a small football nation similar to ourselves, Belgium. Everyone's been struck by the fantastic collection of players the Belgians currently possess. Vertonghen, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Dembele, Hazard, Kompany, Witsel, and Vermaelen are all outstanding performers at top European clubs.
A look at the background of these players discloses similar stories. Axel Witsel made his debut at 17 and played five seasons for Standard Liege before joining Benfica. Vincent Kompany was also 17 when he made his bow for Anderlecht where he played three seasons before moving to SV Hamburg in the Bundesliga. Moussa Dembele was just 16 when he made his debut for Germinal Beerschot and had five seasons under his belt before moving to the Premier League. Marouane Fellaini cut his teeth with three seasons at Standard Liege where he'd made his debut at 18. Kevin de Bruyne made his debut at 17 with Racing Genk where he played two further seasons before Chelsea swooped. Jan Vertonghen made his debut at 19 and played six first-team seasons for Ajax before joining Tottenham.
These players had the advantage of arriving in the Premier League as the finished article, having gained valuable experience in their home league, or in the case of Vertonghen and Lille product Eden Hazard, the league next door. The problem for young English and Irish players is that to all intents and purposes the Premier League is their home league and it is the league in Europe most resistant to giving young players a chance. It's doubtful if a 17-year-old Kompany or De Bruyne would have got a break in a league flooded with foreign imports.
The old argument that English, and Irish, players would benefit from the foreign influx because they'd learn from playing alongside better players doesn't hold water anymore. You won't improve by sitting on the bench watching them.
It is impossible to imagine a leading Premier League team today giving young Irish players the kind of chance afforded to David O'Leary, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton, all of whom were playing with Arsenal while still in their teens. That world has gone forever. And so is the world where Alex Ferguson backed tyros like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville to steer Manchester United to a Premier League title.
Roy Hodgson lamented last week that promising young English players "are finding it hard to get games. As a nation we must hope that a lack of games will not destroy their careers because it could happen. If you spend a couple of years being too good to let go but not good enough to play every week, you might not be a good player at the end of it. That's the danger."
The downgrading of players from these islands at club level is having disastrous consequences at international level. The Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have just put in
their worst combined performance in a World Cup qualifying campaign, having taken so far a combined 31 points from 33 games. Scotland, ourselves and Northern Ireland, just about, sit fourth in their groups, Wales are bottom of theirs.
If we go back a decade or so to the 2002 qualifying campaign when we topped our group and Scotland missed out on a play-off spot by a couple of points, the four countries took 59 points from 38 games. They were all more competitive, losing just nine games between them. This time around it's 18 and counting.
Even England look weaker these days. The rise of Rickie Lambert is a wonderful rags-to-riches story but he wouldn't have got within an ass's roar of a cap ten years ago. That a country which once had such an abundance of striking talent that Clive Allen, Cyrille Regis, Phil Boyer, Frank Worthington and Charlie George left the game with 13 caps between them had to field a player who has spent 13 out of his 14 seasons outside the Premier League in a vital qualifying match tells a sorry tale about the paucity of talent available to Roy Hodgson.
The irony is that the buying rather than nurturing policy generally doesn't work. The manager pressured to instantly get things right by impatient owners and fans usually bites the dust and his successor embarks on a new round of signings when they'd probably be better off to take a long-term view. Given that you're likely to be sacked anyway, it might be as well to lay down some foundations for the future.
Those bosses might be better off trying to emulate the club who, in a survey of the 478 clubs in Europe's 31 top leagues, have the longest-serving squad, with players who've been there for an average of five years, many coming through the youth system. The name of the club?