Tuesday, 24 June 2014

This Little England

When, exactly, did the rot set in?

Was it when Liverpool, in 1892, fielded a team of Scots? Was it Max Seeburg starting for Spurs in 1906? Was it Bert Trautmann winning player of the year in 1956? Was it Ipswich signing two Dutchmen in the late 1970s? Was it Jan Molby? Was it Jesper Olsen? Was it Pat van den Hauwe? Was it Erik Thorsvedt? Was it the Premier League kicking off?

Or is it impossible to point to a specific moment? After all, who amongst us can point to the precise moment that a gibson turns into a dry martini. We can't but we know that it has. So it might  be that there is not a precise moment where, those who view that there are ''too many foreigners'', can point to but they think foreigners at some stage went from being a charming addition to ruining the entire barrel.

The first thing to acknowledge is that English football has always had a large non-English element.

In the old days that was largely Scots, Irish and Welshmen (though not exclusively). There is little doubt that the numbers have grown but this is part and parcel of the game. We are all richer, and our game's heritage, is richer for having seen the likes of Trautmann, Best, Law, Souness, Cantona, Henry, van Persie and Suarez. The view of some in our game though is that the sheer numbers of foreign players have gone from beneficial to pernicious. It isn't Henry, Drogba, or van Persie that are the problems - few would argue that they have given us much enjoyment during their time in England - but rather the average plodders that clubs buy as squad players.

But why all the fuss? Because plenty of people have, in the aftermath of England's defeats to Italy and Uruguay, turned their ire on foreign players. Coming over here and ruining our national game just like Paddington Bear came over here and ate our marmalade sandwiches.

My own view is that this isn't a problem. It is merely a convenient excuse.

Listening to some of the views on this matter one would believe that there was some golden age of English football where we dominated the world, where we happily gathered World Cups and European Championships. Nations lay at our feet as we bestrode the world. We were the Brazil of the North. The All Blacks of football.

The problem is such a golden age hasn't been curtailed by foreign footballers because the golden age didn't really exist. The closest we got was a few happy years in the late 1960s which was largely down to happenstance which England exploited. As we shall see.

Before the Second World War, we were too aloof to enter the World Cup. There is a case for saying England would have done well at the three pre-War World Cups but it isn't a given that we would have won them. Anyway, who cares? We were too damned pig-headed and we didn't enter. The decisions are made by people who turn up. Unsurprisingly, tournaments are won by the chaps who decide to kick a ball rather than those who decide not to do so.

After the Second World War, at our first world cup - and with a clutch of legends of the English game in the squad (including arguably the finest ever England player, Sir Tom Finney) - we were beaten by the USA in Brazil.

A few years later we were humiliated home and away by Hungary. The Puskas dragback is still, arguably, the most important moment in English footballing history - it was the moment we realised, albeit briefly, that not only had the rest of the world caught up they were actually some way ahead. When people argue that English players are not as technically adept as those from elsewhere in the world the depressing thing is we've been saying this for over 60 years. Remember that the leading striker in the English game at the time was a Chilean.

Interestingly, though, England went from humiliation in the early 1950s to World Champions in 30 years. How and why? And why does it matter in this debate?

Between 1965 to 1970 we were one of the best teams in world football. A relatively short period of time but we were a genuinely world class team. It wasn't just the World Cup win. We did well at the 1968 European Championships and were one of the finest teams to grace a World Cup and go out early in 1970.
The late 1960s saw success in European Club Football too. In the years between 1965 and 1970, two British clubs won the European Cup (Celtic 1967 and then Manchester United 1968 whilst Celtic lost the final in 1970). West Ham won the Cup Winners Cup in 1965, Liverpool were runners up in 1966, City won it in 1970 (and, in fact, the next three years saw Chelsea win, Rangers win, and Leeds lose). 
Why was British football so comparatively good at that point? Because the stars aligned across Britain. This wasn't, and isn't, the natural state of things (as we have come to believe). We lucked out.

After the Second World War, there were a series of occurrences which caused a talent boom

Rationing during World War 2, and for several years afterwards, created the best-nourished generation of British children there'd ever been. Add to that the mindset which put a huge societal emphasis on sport for all: this mindset, and a general obsession with football, meant more boys played more football than ever before. Participation levels were vast. Speak to men of that era - stories of schools putting out five teams per year at school are not unheard of. They are routine.

This was all supported by Governmental activity - the Education Act 1944, the creation of the NHS, and the provision of fruit juice and milk at schools all added up to healthier young folk.

The result: Lots of healthy boys playing lots of football who then exploded into football teams across the UK in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. They were helped, no doubt, by the fact the managers at the top end of the game became better. Chapman was a colossus before the war but consider who was managing in English football in the 1960s - Busby, Shankly, Revie, Ramsey, Catterick and a young Clough. Add to that Stein and Ormond in Scotland. It was a unique time - likely, never to be repeated.

The important thing to note that is that this wasn't just a brief golden age for English football. 
 It was a brief golden age for British football. Wales had some fine players in that era (Cliff Jones, John Charles, Ivor Allchurch), Northern Ireland too (McParland, Blanchflower and Best) and Scotland (well, more names than you could shake a stick at. They produced the best side not to qualify for a World Cup. The Scottish team of the mid-1960s was frightening). 

(As an aside: One wonders what English football, in particular, might have done at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups with Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and David Pegg who all lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster. It is also interesting to think what a Team GB would have done in 1958, 1962 and 1966. If England won the World Cup that year, a combined team would have walked it)

So the golden age we hark back to was a boomtime for British footballers but it was never going to last forever. Other countries developed structures and caught up (or surpassed) the UK teams. England's genius was that she took advantage of circumstances. The signs of decline were there in the mid-1960s when Shankly's men were humbled by a young Cruyff and Ajax. The end was signalled before we'd begun to enjoy ourselves.

The problem is the British game - the English game in particular - has never got its head around why they were so successful in the 1960s and, having failed to understand the why they were successful, has assumed that was the natural state of the world which in some sunny future we will return to. If only we have an English manager for the England team. If only we play 4-4-2. If only, if only, if only. 

It may seem a digression but it is fundamental to our understanding of the game today. The golden age was fleeting and we took advantage of the situation. But the very existence of that fleeting golden age skews our view of today. It casts a shadow over everything. We think we can return to those happy days. We can't.

Ways in which this manifests itself include we think there are too many foreigners in the game, we have a superiority complex (which happily seems to be subsiding) and we think we need an England manager. The last is the most baffling. Henry Winter at the weekend claimed that 'the argument has been settled' on that issue. Really? Settled? Forever?

On foreigners coming into the game the view is: here is a trend that has happened and, it seems, at the same time England have got worse. QED. This trend is holding us back.

Of course, that isn't to say that English clubs, in this day and age, do not sign overseas players. They do - and they do so in great numbers (and, even, in greater numbers than ever before). But why?

In a global market, it is possible to find players elsewhere in the world that can do the job you want them to do more cheaply than a homegrown equivalent. It is usually cheaper to buy a seasoned international than it is to give a younger player a run of games. This is as true in Italy, France, Spain, Germany or Mexico as it is in England. Why does it seemingly hurt England so much more than other nations?

There are a number of reasons. Partly the Premier League's success. 
Partly the nature of English football. Partly the rules of the game.  Partly the nature of English life. They all interconnect.

The Premier League's success - in generating money particularly from television rights - has led to clubs of all sizes being able to spend significant amounts on players. This is hardly revelatory (we all know the team that finished bottom of the Premier League got more in TV monies that the winners of the Bundesliga). This means it is more efficient and effective for Cardiff, say, to buy Gary Medel than to buy an English or Welsh equivalent. It means that Liverpool buy a player like Iago Aspas, with a fine season under his belt in Spain, rather than promoting their own youngster or buying a talented player from the down the divisions.

The money that swishes around the Premier League also means it has a particular draw that few other leagues can match. It might not have the weather of Spain but the money available at a mid-tier English club is likely to be better than a Spanish equivalent.Given the Premier League's global success it means that even moderate success in England will put a player in the shop window more obviously. We are a magnet to talented players around the world.

This is a good thing. We get to see world-class players play football.

Whilst English clubs, and English fans, have benefited from this globalisation some would argue that our national team hasn't. (This might not be true, of course: this World Cup has been disappointing but we have qualified for five World Cups in a row for the first time in our history. We didn't qualify in 1974 or 1978. We didn't qualify in 1994. On one reading, we are producing enough talent to qualify relatively easily each time but not enough talent to win the tournament).

What is striking though is in an import/export market, England does a lot of importation but does not really export. That is the biggest issue in the game and one we don't ever talk about.

England, little, insular England.

Of the 23 men in the England squad, only Forster plies his trade outwith England (and even then he still hasn't left the UK). Only Russia is less globalised (with all of its squad playing in the domestic league). If one scans around the 'possibles' for England only Jermaine Defoe is playing outwith England and, even then, it is arguable that a player moving towards the end of his career to a league at the MLS' stage of development is what we are looking for. Not one of the current squad has played outside the UK. At Under 21s, only Eric Dier is playing outside England (in Portugal) whilst, again, other nations are more global in their U21 outlook.

Look at the squads: France, Germany, Chile, Netherlands, Spain, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico and Argentina. All have sizeable cohorts playing around the world in numerous leagues. Even Italy, traditionally a country that doesn't export huge numbers of players, has a clutch playing at PSG and has other players (Aquilani, Balotelli, Cassano) who have played in other major European leagues. Those around the squad include Criscito (Russia), Giaccherini, Borini, Osvaldo (England) and Diamanti (China).

As young players from around the world come to England (often to finish their footballing education), our young players do not go the other way. This is partly due to cultural aspects no doubt, partly down to the belief that it is only the Premier League that matters, partly down to money (you'll earn more here on the bench than playing in Belgium, son) and partly down to languages. (The same is true of managers - when managers complain they don't get the big jobs in England you rarely seeing them try and manage overseas... as Pochettino, Martinez et al have managed with aplomb). 
English footballers do not, therefore, give themselves the best chance but we do not help them. 

To be fair to English clubs this isn't necessarily their fault. The way the market has progressed we know that English players are massively overvalued in the market. This inevitably puts off foreign buyers whilst there are clear benefits to clubs to buy home-grown players (partly because they are necessary under UEFA rules) but partly also because clubs know that home-grown players are unlikely to leave overseas and they, for whatever reason, retain value.

As with all debates about immigration those who complain about player migration are worried legitimately and it is wrong to cast them as loons (as many do).

It would be far better, in my view, to accept that the lack of English footballers at the highest level is a worry but then also accept that the highest level is wider than the 20 clubs in the English Premier League. This could include - gasp - the Championship but it must include encouraging players to play football globally. This used to happen (look at how many of the England 1990 squad played abroad - Walker, Platt, Steven, Waddle, Gascoigne, Lineker etc) but it seems, at the peak of a young players career, to be all but extinct. Let us hope Sterling, Barkley and co are a little braver on and off the pitch than some of their forebears.

Gareth Bale is an admirable exception to British isolationism but surely more of our talented youngsters could make it in the top divisions (if not at the very top of those divisions) around Europe. Ultimately, if a young Italian international can play for Sunderland why can't a young English international play for Genoa? 

So what can we do? 

I'd suggest that young English footballers should, as part of their footballing development, learn one or potentially two languages. The worst that happens? They get released into the wider economy when they are 18... and can speak numerous languages. For those who make it in football but not at the highest level? They open up football leagues across Europe as a potential direction. For our youngsters trying to break through? Loans become more obviously viable. And, heaven forbid, some of our players might do what players from the rest of the world do all the time: make their career abroad.
We need to be more open to new ideas. Consider how Sir Clive Woodward was treated by Redknapp when he was trying to innovate in the game. Consider how the English media hate cleverness. Consider the smirking grins when the likes of AvB and co fail. It is better, isn't it, when Harry and the boys are in charge. Except it isn't?

We also need to think globally. We need to stop this isolationism, be open to the idea of a foreign manager and be open to our players and managers going around the world. Those that do so should be celebrated. Are we really saying - as Winter hinted - that we wouldn't hire Mourinho? Is that the culture we want to foster? We need to think about this. We need to be better.

What sort of footballing culture do we want? We can choose. Because so much of our debate is doesn't help. It only perpetuates this England. This little England.



Metatone said...

Agree that the lack of export is a real problem - and it certainly could be good for our academy footballers to be learning another language.

However, I'm not sure it explains everything. There's a lot of truth in your long historical overview, yet at the same time I think recent history also has something to tell us.

I can accept that England have never been as good as I hoped, but equally I think it's fair to say that in recent years they seem to have become persistently less than the sum of their parts. And arguably persistently we see individuals under-performing their club performances.

Now quoting results we have a fine consistency of QFs... but I think we can all pinpoint performances in there (Algeria 2010? not fond of Ecuador 2006 either) that say we've had some luck along the way, even if we'd rather remember the bad luck we had at other moments...

Metatone said...

To complete the thought, if we pinpoint 1985 say as when the selling off of playing fields and the neglect of other grassroots infrastructure began to bite, then you can guess that the young players of 2005 are coming from a different situation than before.

I'd argue it's a mix of all the factors.

Part of the problem with the "foreign manager" debate is we've made imperfect choices in the past. Eriksson and Capello. I think you have to wonder if we know how to get the right man for the job, foreign or local...

Anonymous said...

Largely agree on the isue of exports - though the situation is often exacerbated by teh fact that there is a perception that an English player playing abroad is largely "out of sight out of mind" when it comes to being considered for the National team. FOr example, Mancienne (thugh not top drawer) is playing reasonably well for (an admittedly poor) Hamburg side - has anyone from the England set up been to check on his form since he moved? Or, in the case of Forster, he slips behind Ben Foster (wrong side of 30, retired/made himself unavailable for selection) who gets a game at the World Cup instead of Forster. Are we really saying Foster needs the experience for future tournaments? So, unless you are an established name (Beckham, Owen)you won't go overseas as you wont get selected for England, can earn good money at home, and have a comfortable lifestyle.
A second issue is that there is a real gap between the remnants of the "Golden Generation" (Gerrard, Lampard) and the young players breaking through (Sterling, Barkley). WHere are all the players in thier mid-20s? Rooney is the last of the GG (at 28, so a decent age)but where are his contemporaries, or those just slightly younger than him? WHat happened during those fallow years - was it that there were good players who didn't get a chance due to the GG hanging around indefinately, or a lack of players?
Also,(and related to the first two points) there's the stockpiling of young players by the top sides - exacerbated by the tendency of ENgland managers to pick players from top sides. Jones and Smalling, for example, get picked for the squad, despite having played minimal games all season (and for a struggling side at that) whereas players from second tier teams (Dawson, Curtis Davies, Shawcross, Caulker) who have played well don't get a look in. Centre Back in particular is an area of weakness (so maybe Mancienne would have been worth a look), but it's not restricted to that position: Delph, Huddlestone, Noble, Brittan, Dyer, Routledge all had decent seasons. As did Adam Johnson, who has remarked that he was more likely to be selected for ENgland when warming the bench for City than when starring(?) for Sunderland.
Finally, there's too much of this wedging in players because of thier name/form and so on. SO you end up with Rooney wide left to accomodate Sterling and Sturridge and nothing on the bench. Have some balls and rop one of them to the bench, so the balance of the side is maintained (e.g. Lallana (who seemed to be an important player for the team) Wellbeck (for balance) and Sterling behind one of Sturridge or Rooney. THen you have better balance to the starting line up, but also a credible option from the bench should you need to change things mid game.

Rob Marrs said...

Two pieces on The Golden Generation that may be of interest:

On strikers: http://www.leftbackinthechangingroom.com/2013/05/the-golden-generation-part-2.html



Metatone said...

Good points on the GG striker issue.

Sturridge and Wellbeck are now promising (they were in the youngest bracket in the article), but neither has so far really shown that clinical aspect we associate with strikers who dominate international football.

Throw in that the defence has regressed... 1st round exit from a tough group (Italy are going home too!) looks quite predictable...

dearieme said...

"Consider how the English media hate cleverness." They write what their readers want to read. English football supporters evidently feel a great need to behave like the most ignorant, most stupid members of the old working class. God knows why.

dearieme said...

"if we pinpoint 1985 say as when the selling off of playing fields ...": but why did so many local authorities decide to sell off playing fields?

dearieme said...

You're going to have to grit your teeth and write about Suarez.

dearieme said...

C'mon, where's your piece on Fang?

Rob Marrs said...

Sorry - busy weekend. Maybe tonight!


David Timoney said...

England's imbalance of trade in footballers simply mirrors a wider imbalance in other areas of talent. There are many more Frenchmen (and women) working in corporate HQs and banks in London than there are Brits working in Paris. Britain tends to export talent to the Anglosphere (the US, Australia etc).

This reflects, as you suggest, a disparity in language skills, but the root cause is not insularity but the global role of English as the language of business. Most Brits don't see an economic advantage in learning a foreign language. In contrast, many foreign footballers are attracted to the UK by the prospect of learning English (and having their kids educated in it).

Ironically, the best boost to young British footballing talent might be for the game to take off in the US and start sucking in anglophone talent. Of course, there's always the possibility that the Aussies would nip in first.


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