Wednesday 17 January 2018

Local bias amounts to another meaningless soundbite

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Club directors are not renowned for their knowledge of football. I met many in England who were testament to that, but one in particular sticks out in my mind.

He often lectured me on the importance of local talent coming through the ranks at Millwall. I could understand the financial arguments, but we disagreed on everything else. He said nothing excited him more than seeing a local youth player make his debut for the first team. I said nothing pleased me more than seeing the manager sign a player who would improve us. To me, it didn't matter where they were born.

The preference for signing and nurturing local talent is easy to understand. Not only do they cost less, it's assumed they will care more and won't leave. They will have greater levels of passion in their play and they will be hurt by defeats just like supporters. Where others may be motivated by money, the honour of playing for the club they love will always matter more. And if the dressing room is ever infiltrated by diving, lazy, mercenary outsiders, the local lads will kick them into line. That director believed every bit of that.

It makes sense at a club with no money, but for those with ambitions to win trophies, it's a limiting policy that is ultimately flawed.

Brendan Rodgers may not be at a club with realistic ambitions of winning anything this season, but he spoke last week on the importance and advantages of breeding the best local talent in the city. Citing Steven Gerrard, 33, and Wayne Rooney, 27, as examples of the "top young talents" to be found in Merseyside, he said scouring the area for the best players available is now "a massive part of his job".

While the top Premier League clubs are signing the best young Africans and Europeans, Rodgers wants to get the best out of what is on his doorstep.

The assumption that local players have superior levels of passion is disproved almost everywhere on a weekly basis. Luis Suarez is the best example of this at Liverpool. I always dismissed the idea that coming from Ireland made me less affected by poor results at Millwall than team-mates who were from South London, but it's a myth that is still peddled today.

And the usual names are always mentioned in discussions about the loyalty of locals, but the likes of Gerrard, Carragher, Neville, Scholes and Giggs were winning trophies for the majority of their careers. Despite numerous options to go elsewhere, local pride wasn't the reason they stayed where they were.

I can see how supporters would have a greater affinity with players who grew up in the area, but I assume the Liverpool fans have a special place in their hearts for the 14 players who performed miracles in Istanbul.

While there were two Scousers on the field that night, the other 12 who played weren't even English. There was no shortage of passion on that occasion.

But, as is the case so often with Rodgers, this could well be another meaningless soundbite that it's best to ignore. His supporters will say he needs time, but realists know he needs better players and money to spend. For Liverpool to challenge for major honours any time soon, they need to find vastly superior players than those currently at the club. Focusing the search in the immediate locality is not going to address that, particularly when their competitors are scouring the world.

It's a quaint ideal to have a nucleus of local talent in your squad but success requires players of international quality. Whether they have Scouse accents or not is irrelevant.

In fact, it could be argued that remaining at Liverpool for the foreseeable future would not be the actions of a top young player with ambitions of success. The very best are no longer attracted to the club, not that the funds are there to afford them if they were, and Champions League football is unlikely to return any time soon. None of this is entirely Rodgers' doing, obviously, but it's a long way back from where they are now.

He's not the first manager to emphasise the unique qualities of the locals, but it always sounds patronising and hollow when I hear them do it. The line that British players are better suited to the Premier League is discredited every year in the PFA Awards, and the notion that local players give more to the cause is rubbished by the make-up of squads that win the major trophies.

And when the inadequacies of the English game are highlighted in every international tournament, you'd wonder why top clubs bother with a local policy at all.

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