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Ronnie Whelan: Joey raises a home truth

JOEY Barton must live in a completely different universe to the rest of us if he thinks he can lay claim to the title of best English midfielder.

Let's be honest, it wouldn't be much of a claim even if it were true. His only rivals are Steven Gerrard, now in his 30s and nursing another injury which will see him kicking his heels until next season, Frank Lampard, Scott Parker and Jack Wilshere.

Lampard is edging towards veteran status along with Parker, who was ignored for many years by England managers, and Wilshere is only a kid.


Kenny Dalglish can eke another two or three seasons out of Gerrard, and Lampard is probably good for a similar span, but apart from Wilshere and maybe Scotland's Charlie Adam, there's nobody else out there likely to encourage Liverpool and Chelsea to shop local.

The truth is that England stopped producing central midfielders ten years ago and I've seen nothing to suggest that anyone is seriously addressing the issue.

Bryan Robson was the last great English midfielder and even if Barton would be well down Robson's list if he was judging the current generation, he would probably acknowledge that the blunt talking Scouser had a few valid points to make.

Gareth Barry is indeed a workmanlike player who does what he's told and rarely shows any spark of enterprise.

It never fails to make my blood boil when I think of how Xabi Alonso was sacrificed by Liverpool because Rafa Benitez was hell bent on bringing Barry to Anfield.

Alonso is the very player the Premier League so desperately needs and, more specifically, both England and Ireland have failed to produce in the last decade or so.

I'm sure that in any given year, there are dozens of kids all over Ireland and England with the skills and talents you find in players like Alonso or Iniesta and Xavi at Barcelona.

I'm not saying that they could all be as good as that fantastic trio but somewhere along the line, growth in that direction is stifled. Coaching has almost replaced natural ability as the most important aspect of player development.

The debate about the decline in the quality of midfielders in these parts has been growing since South Africa when we saw Spain/Barcelona prove that freedom of expression is at least as important as discipline. But not just as far as players are concerned. Managers must be adaptable and creative too.

I remember when I was starting out in management looking at the various coaching badges available and thinking that it was all too black and white. It was done according to the manual or it was wrong -- no discussion. It went against everything I knew and had learned at Anfield over the years. There was no manual and we did all right.


Coaching, like the ability to score goals or to save them, must contain a big element of instinct or you end up with everyone playing the same way.

Is there a manual which explains what Alex Ferguson does on a daily basis? There is not. Mostly, he follows instincts which have been honed over decades in the game and there is no way to write that down.

The culture of the coach has removed self-expression -- or at the very least discouraged independent thinking in players and managers.

In the coming week, we will see many, many brilliant midfield players doing their stuff in the Champions League and Paul Scholes, if he actually plays, is the only Englishman who stands out.

The Premier League won't suffer because the clubs will simply look elsewhere for talent as they have been doing for years and unless the problem is addressed at a fundamental level, blunt words from Joey Barton will make everyone shift uncomfortably in their seats.