England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 will lead to the inevitable debate on the state of the English game. Steven Gerrard, England captain in the absence of the injured John Terry, is the latest to join the call for limits on the number of foreign players in the English Premier League.
The whole debate on limiting foreigners in the Premier League is a red herring.The fundemental problems with English football go much deeper and cannot be solved by something as superficial as a quota system.
Firstly, such a scheme is highly unlikely to be approved by Brussels, despite the best diplomatic efforts of UEFA. The best they can hope for is some sort of guarantee of places for “homegrown” players. But as Arsene Wenger has shown at Arsenal, “homegrown” can be any teenager that comes through the club’s youth system – be they English (Ashley Cole), Spanish (Cesc Fabregas, Fran Merida) or French (Gael Clichy et al).
Secondly, there’s no evidence that the best English players are being prevented from developing. Cream rises to the top – be it Gerrard at Liverpool, Joe Cole at Chelsea or Wayne Rooney at Man United. And when they make it at those clubs, they are learning far more from the technique and mentality of the imported foreign stars than from their local team-mates.
There was an interesting piece in the financial pages of The Independent a few days ago by Stephen King of HSBC bank. He looked at the current debate on football and foreign quotas from the perspective of an economist – and was pretty dismissive of the whole business.
“The demand for quotas to limit the number of foreign players in the Premier League is nonsense,” King wrote. “It’s really no more than an infant industry argument – protecting your domestic business in the light of tough foreign competition – in an industry that can hardly be described as being in its infancy.”
And there’s the rub. Quotas would reduce the quality of the Premier League by reducing the number of quality foreign players allowed in. That reduction in quality would impact on the English players in the League, who might increase in number, but who would not benefit from playing with better quality foreign players.
Perhaps those who advocate limits on the number of foreigners in the Premier League would be better off arguing that young English players move abroad to gain experience. It didn’t do Owen Hargreaves any harm.
In the light of Steve McClaren’s sacking, a more significant debate would be to consider why there are so few English managers in the Premier League. If the FA is intent on appointing an Englishman, it will have a struggle on its hands finding an English coach who is up to the job and, more importantly, wants it.
The FA could do a lot worse than to speak to Roy Hodgson, who following Bobby Robson’s retirement, is the most successful English coach currently working in continental Europe. Hodgson has done a fine job with Finland, who earned more points from a tough Euro qualifying group – teams included Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Belgium – than England.
I fear, however, that Martin O’Neill, though not English, will be the safe, easy option for the FA. Aston Villa won’t stand in his way and he won’t make the same mistakes that he made in his interview last time, when he failed to grasp the importance that the FA attached to the wider issues of youth development and grass roots coaching.
The problem with O’Neill is that his teams tend to play a long-ball game. He might be a short-term winner, but the long-term problems of English football, so cruelly exposed by Croatia at Wembley, will remain.