Greg Dyke’s keynote speech concerned with the condition of the “English” Premier League and the national team could not go unnoticed. From drawing our attention to the ignored but obvious, to making attractive points and arguments, to drawing sensationalist targets – he has reopened a debate on the foreign nature of the Premier League and its consequences for the national team’s future achievements.
Central to the statement was what Dyke referred to as a “frightening trend” in which the Premier League is not so slowly being overrun by foreign players. The figure that caught everyone’s attention, as it has many times before now without any meaningful result, was that last season only 32% of Premier League players were English.
The main implication of this is that the amount and quality of English footballers is falling which is responsible for the national team’s underwhelming achievements in recent history. Moreover there is also a degree of pride involved in that this is the English Premier League and as such should have a significant involvement from English players to keep this competition our own. The conundrum is that it is foreign players that make the Premier League so exciting, and which have, until recently perhaps, led the world to more or less universally declare it the strongest league in Europe.
“Do we let the trend continue or do we do something about it? What happens when the number goes from 32 to 25 to 20 to 15? English football is a tanker that needs turning.”
“Why has it happened? What can be done? How can you make changes? The FA has to up its game, but all of English football has a problem. All of English football has to find a solution… without undermining the undoubted success of the Premier League. We don’t want to kill the golden goose in the search of the golden egg but we do have to do something if the English team is to prosper in the future.”
“The two targets I have for the England team are – one, to at least reach the semi-finals of Euro 2020. Two, win the World Cup in 2022.”
Currently there are 528 players in the Premier League of which 161 are English, meaning that going into this season only 30% of players are from the league’s home nation. The ONLY league in the world to have a lover percentage of native talent is the Canadian Championship with 25%. That means there are 212 official leagues in the world with higher percentages of native players than the Premier League (including second and third divisions).
The next major leagues with the lowest proportions of native players are the Primeira Liga with 45% and Serie A also with 45%. The Championship even has less home-grown players (54%) than the Bundesliga (55%). Most impressively of all, 60% of footballers in La Liga are Spanish.
When played in this context, 30% of Premier League footballers being English is embarrassing. This figure has fallen 2% in just one summer as well from the 32% that Dyke referred to in his keynote speech. In fact, if we go back to the 1998-99 season that number was 48% meaning that in just 14 years there has been an 18% drop in the percentage of English players.
“Do we still ignore the problem or do we act now?”
When it comes to the Premier League most of us have been in denial. This isn’t denial in the sense that we are lying to ourselves and genuinely believe that English footballers are still rich in quantity and quality. This is denial in the even more physiological sense that we know about the problem but focus on other matters, be them connected or completely unrelated to the actual issue, as a way of forgetting and distracting ourselves from dealing with what really needs to be dealt with. It’s the same kind of thing that sees the polar ice caps melt, oil production plummet and overpopulation get out of hand without significant action being taken. You could almost describe it as turning the conversation in another direction.
We seem to like focusing on anything else. They’ll talk about it from time to time when Sep Blatter brings it up in January or when Dyke next has a big speech to make. But as the latter says, are we going to continue to ignore the problem or act now? Stop beating around the bush whilst focusing on other matters (which, again, we often do very little about) and actually do something. Because at the moment it’s everywhere we look. It’s going on right in front of our noses but nobody is doing anything about it. Of course it’s a little better from when nobody was even talking about it in the first place, but the next step now needs to be taken.
How has it happened?
There are multiple factors in something as complex as this, but the biggest is the influence of money, and most of all foreign money. Owners and managers can afford, or at least believe they can afford, to bring instant success by importing foreign players. It began with the bigger clubs but is has spread to the whole of the Premier League, and now a club will seek to instantly strengthen its team with a foreign purchase rather than looking within. It has become embedded in the mentality of English football clubs, and then once a team like Chelsea or Manchester City is so full of exciting talent, what little chance do the British players coming through their youth systems have? The youth of today are edged out, and often loaned before making a move to a lower league or club permanent.
In this situation these players did not get the opportunity to attain the experience needed to make it at the top level, unlike these foreign players who received this in their own countries before moving to England. It is the nurture side of things, and it is not helped by the quality of coaching in England either.
Dyke addressed the issue of coaching in a broadcasted conversation with Sky Sports. In England we severely lack professionally qualified coaches when compared to other nations. The number of coaches in England with a UEFA licence is 1,161, whilst in Germany it is 5,500 and in Spain that number is 12,720. Obviously having plenty of qualified coaches is paramount to the development of young English players and it seems that Dyke plans to invest in increasing this number. This is more easily solved though compared to the other issues surrounding nurture of our youth.
Now there is something else that is significant in the problem but that we may not like to face, and right now perhaps a certain amount of humility is needed. English players are just not as naturally talented as foreign players at the moment. It’s a hard one to face but part of what has led to the downfall of English footballers is natural selection. In nature it is often referred to as survival of the fittest, and in many ways that is simply what is going on here. When the players coming through just aren’t naturally talented enough to maintain the power of top English clubs then it will be the natural order of things that these clubs look elsewhere.
It’s not the end of the world by any means though and all countries go through times like this and all countries have so called golden generations. France are in a similar situation to us right now showing that the problem is not just isolated England, and we can take the example of Belgium to prove that sometimes nations, even the smaller ones, produce and unusually large crop of talent. Nature plays a large role and at the moment we just don’t have a lot of natural talent to choose from. This problem is then made even worse by the poor coaching and importing of foreign players.
So the problem is a combination of poor youth coaching, a foreign-purchasing mentality and an usually small yield of natural talent in this current generation.
How can you make Changes?
The biggest problem remains importing foreign players and unfortunately the answer to this is radical action since importing talent is now part of the culture of the Premier League. Meek attempts have been made in the past to solve the problem, but they were never carried out with real gusto. They had loopholes left in them as an appeasement to the Premier League and its managers who could take advantage of them in order to maintain the status quo.
Take the “home-grown” rule implemented in 2010-11:
– Clubs register a squad of up to 25 players, which must include at least eight ‘home-grown’ players, at the end of each transfer window.
– Home-grown players do not have to be English; home-grown players are defined as those who “irrespective of nationality or age, have been affiliated to the FA or Welsh FA for a period of three seasons or 36 months prior to 21st birthday”
– Clubs can supplement squad with unlimited number of players under the age of 21.
Now honestly, if the point of this is to increase the amount of English players in the Premier League, why does “home-grown players do not have to be English” have to be in there? All that means is that people like Wojciech Szczesny (Poland), Victor Moses (Nigeria) and Nicklas Bendtner (Dennmark) are classified as home-grown despite the fact that they are foreign. Furthermore what it leads clubs to do is bring in talent from abroad whilst in their mid-teens. There is the famous example of Gael Kakuta coming to Chelsea and the same club have a promising Brazilian call Lucas Piazon coming through who will be classified as home grown.
So when I say a radical solution is needed, my biggest implication is that half-measures have to stop. We now have a collection of FA appointed officials including individuals from the Premier League and the media who will hopefully recognize this in their investigation. As Dyke said, they are there to discover what is responsible for the trend since the problem is far more complex than the summary I have given, and if they can do that they should hopefully understand the problem and thus be able to do something about it. Ultimately it will be the action that they take that defines the future of English involvement in the Premier League and the success of the national team.