Thursday 19 July 2018

James Lawton: England pay the price of wealth

Premier League's purchasing power leaves a once-great nation devoid of star quality

Danny Welbeck battles it out with Virgil van Dijk during last night’s match between England and Holland at the Amsterdam Arena. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Danny Welbeck battles it out with Virgil van Dijk during last night’s match between England and Holland at the Amsterdam Arena. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

It is surely a worry that the World Cup in Russia might be attended by a small legion of refugees from a John Le Carré spy novel. But there is another concern to do entirely with what happens in the playpen of a once-great tournament.

Whatever sabotage - political or otherwise - is afoot in Moscow, the damage on the field will be mostly self-inflicted.

To be sure of this you have to look only at the squads of three allegedly front-rank football nations - England, and the once-mighty teams of Holland and Italy they face over the next few days.

We're talking about pallid versions of the old brand. Why? It is because of the neglect in putting pride and a little passion into developing home-grown talent that is now in danger of becoming terminal.

Nurturing potential stars of the future has slipped so far down the agenda of some of the richest football nations that it has passed the point of some well-meaning, if futile, after-thought.

The fact that four-time winners Italy, who shared a swift exit with England at the last World Cup in Brazil, are not competing in Russia is just one piece of the dismal evidence.

Holland, who will also be absent, may be lower down the financial totem pole but it is also true that they are arguably the most gifted football nation never to win the World Cup and that Ajax, the most historically glittering of their clubs, have a first-team squad split almost precisely between natives and foreign imports.

So much for the nurturing of a tradition which gave us the game-changing brilliance of Total Football and its sublime exemplar, Johan Cruyff.

Currently, the three top scorers in the Dutch top division are Hirving Lozano, Fran Sol and Alireza Jahanbakhsh. They are from, respectively, Mexico, Spain and Iran.

But then why look any further than the El Dorado of football riches, the Premier League, for the direst example of foreign domination of the dressing-room?

While Liverpool light up the sky with goals from their Egyptian, Brazilian and Senegalese strike force, and champions-elect Manchester City stockpile the pick of Europe and South America, England coach Gareth Southgate (pictured below) is required to pick a squad denuded by the injury of Harry Kane - one of the few, if not the only, native players who has the rating of true world class.

The uncomfortable fact is that Southgate's squad is littered with long shots and those who have fallen short.

Arsenal's Jack Wilshere couldn't conceal the extent of his relief at being part of Southgate's plans, understandably so after the bleak assessment of his erstwhile fervent admirer, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

Frustrated

Farmed out to Bournemouth, injured and then frustrated by his shortage of game time, the 26-year-old was once a teenager of apparently unlimited promise. He had football nous astonishing in a player so young, he had drive and an apparently brimming belief in the certainties of his future.

Now, with those of club-mate Danny Welbeck - another who seemed sure-fire international material - his ambitions are in the margins.

You could say that of so much of Southgate's squad. Who are the players announcing themselves as unshakeable fixtures in a team capable of launching a significant World Cup campaign?

Southgate says that he will take a look at such fledglings as Alfie Mawson of Swansea and Nick Pope and James Tarkowski of Burnley, another peek at such familiar but non-established figures such as Jake Livermore and Ashley Young. He says also that he sees the pivotal role of leadership as, for the moment at least, a communal responsibility.

This is as unsurprising as it is discouraging when you consider that apparently the main contenders for the armband are Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier.

Liverpool's captain Henderson is no doubt a man of great commitment, but a visionary, a natural-born successor to Bobby Moore or Bryan Robson?

Good-hearted, no doubt, but his captaincy, like much of his play, too often suggests that a hundred of his robotic signals will never share the impact of one droll aside from the World Cup-winning Moore.

No, it is not an uplifting picture and provides little reason to believe England will benefit too long from the fact that they will enjoy in Russia a group which is less menacing than the one faced in Brazil four years ago.

Then, the Uruguay of Luis Suarez and Italy of Andrea Pirlo were too strong and, bizarrely, some comfort was finally taken from a draw with the unlikely group winners Costa Rica.

In Russia, the one intimidating group presence is supplied by Belgium, which will bring its own censure in the form of Eden Hazard, potentially revived, and the imperious Kevin De Bruyne, but it should not prevent progress to the knock-out phase, with Tunisia and Panama providing the other opposition.

By that point of deliverance though, it is extremely likely that England will have received a salutary lesson from the Belgians.

It will say that it is still possible for a modestly-sized football nation (population 12m) to produce some of the world's finest footballers; players of passion, skill and a high competitive instinct.

The Belgians can point to Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, De Bruyne, Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku and could also ask, if it was in their nature, what English football has been doing in the meantime?

No prizes for saying that mostly it has been counting the TV income and spending it on foreign players.

A small mercy is that one Italian football fan is unlikely to be at Wembley next week.

He was elderly back in 1978 when England failed to qualify for the World Cup after being outplayed by Italy at the Stadio Olimpico.

On the bus back into Rome, he asked: "Will someone tell me what has happened to the gods of English football?"

He had good reason to ask. He was in Turin in 1948 and saw England beat Italy, managed by the legendary coach Vittorio Pozzo, 4-0.

England had Frank Swift, Tommy Lawton, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion and Stanley Matthews, just to mention the gods, that day.

Irish Independent

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