With the opening of the new centre of Excellence in St George’s Park, British football is looking on the up. The FA has taken the necessary steps to attempt to return England to Football’s elite, and looked to equip the upcoming generations with the coaching to start challenging in International competitions in the future. But as this new centre opens, the debate wages on as to whether the English Premier League is helping or hindering the growth of players from the United Kingdom. With so much foreign talent plying their trade in England, is it beneficial for the youngsters to play against the world’s best players, or are they simply stopping the future stars emerging, with a detrimental effect to the nation’s national team.

The quality and quantity of UK coaches has been a major concern of the FA since the humiliating performance of the England team in the 2010 World Cup, with some reports suggesting that other European nations, such as Spain and Germany, have as many as ten times the amount of coaches that the UK has to offer. The conclusion drawn from this was the priority to allow the English national squad to improve was to focus finance and efforts on ‘grass roots’ level football; in short, to equip future generations with the skills required, and to implement these at a young age.

But will all this effort and investment come to a dead end if the players are unable to break into their first teams due to their clubs investing in foreign players instead? The argument is one that is regularly made from various sources in and around football, and the point being put across is a simple enough concept to understand, but is the solution that simple?

Firstly, the implications of buying foreign players rather than home grown players, or promoting a youth squad player, must be considered. English clubs are guilty of demanding vast amounts of money for English players, with no other credentials rather than their nationality being the justification for their inflated price. For an example of this, compare the signing of Santi Carzorla in this summer’s transfer window, with that of Liverpool’s purchase of Stewart Downing in July 2011.

Since his arrival at Anfield, Downing’s contribution (or lack of) to his team’s attacking threat has been vocally chorused. Amassing no goals and no assists in the Premier League since arriving, his £20 million transfer fee is hardly fitting. In a stark contrast to Carzorla, whose fee was officially undisclosed, but reported to be around the £16 million mark, who had become one of the League’s top performers this season, with two assists and two goals to his name so far. Aside from the statistics, it is clear to see that Carzorla is a better player than Downing. Technically speaking, Carzorla is one of the most gifted players in the Premier League; his distribution, vision and creativity stand apart from the rest of his competition, and with a mere £16M his valuation, Arsenal may have the signing of the season.

Downing isn’t the only English player whose price tag has been inflated by his nationality. Over the last few years, teams have paid over the odds to bring in British players, instead of looking abroad. An explanation for this is the Home-Grown ruling that the FA implemented at the start of the 2010/11 season. The ruling states that at least eight players named in the 25 man squad must fall into the Home-Grown category, which is defined, by the FA, as follows: “To qualify as home grown, a player will have had to be registered for at least three seasons at an English or Welsh club between the ages of 16 and 21.” So technically, a player need not be from the UK to fall into this category, but it is an unlikely case when this does apply. As a result of this ruling, clubs must ensure they boost the number of UK players in their squad, who they feel are ready to play for the club. Including youth team players simply to make up the numbers is no longer a valid option, as the squad is capped at 25, and as a result, managers must ensure that all players chosen are of sufficient quality to perform at the highest level. This of course means that clubs can increase the prices of their home grown talent as they know teams will have to pay over the odds to reach the requirements laid down by the FA in an attempt to maintain a percentage of UK players playing in the Premier League.

But how does the number of home grown players featuring in England’s top teams compare with that of the top teams from other nations in Europe? Below is a table depicting the number of home players (in the case of the four English teams, players from the UK) that played for the top clubs in Europe on the 6th and 7th of October 2012, and how that compares to the ‘top four’ English clubs.

 

   

No. of Home Grown Players in* :

   

Team

 

Starting 11

Squad**

 

% of Starting 11

% of Squad

             

Chelsea

 

3

6

 

27.27%

33.33%

Arsenal

 

3

5

 

27.27%

26.32%

Man Utd

 

6

9

 

54.55%

50%

Man City

 

5

6

 

45.45%

33.33%

Barcelona

 

7

12

 

63.63%

66.67%

Real Madrid

 

4

6

 

36.36%

33.33%

Bayern Munich

7

8

 

63.63%

44.44%

Borussia Dortmund

7

11

 

63.63%

61.11%

PSG

 

4

8

 

36.36%

44.44%

Montpellier

 

5

11

 

45.45%

61.11%

Inter Milan

 

2

5

 

18.18%

26.32%

Juventus

 

8

14

 

72.73%

56%

 

*Home grown meaning either from UK or resident country.

** Starting 11 plus substitutes

It is important to note that Serie A teams (Juventus and Inter Milan), are allowed to field 12 substitutes, compared to the seven that the remaining teams are granted.

From this, we can gather that, with the exception of Inter Milan and Real Madrid, European teams field more players from their own nations. In fact, despite the English teams having the luxury of four nations falling under the ‘home grown’ category, only one team fields over 50% of UK players; Manchester United. Compare that to European giants Barcelona (66.67%), and you can see that indeed England fall below the average that the European clubs reach.

In the recent seasons, the Spanish and German leagues have looked to maintain a domestic bias when it comes to club selecting their players, the intention of which would be to benefit the national team. With Germany and Spain being two of the most successful nations in Europe in recent times, could their success be put down to players being allowed to flourish in their own leagues, or is it simply that there are a greater number of world class players that come from these countries than England or France.

The anomalies in this data are Inter Milan and Real Madrid; both of these clubs with less than 40% of their players from Italy and Spain respectively.  But indeed, these two cases may simply be different to the general consensus of these nations; that players from their own country should be given the opportunity to play. The high percentages from Barcelona, Juventus, Montpellier, and Borussia Dortmund give evidence to this claim, so is it time that a similar idea was implemented in the English league?

After England crashed out of the World Cup in 2010, La Liga president, José Luis Astiazarán, felt that the reason for England’s failure, and Spain’s success, was down to giving young, home-grown players a chance to play in their club’s first teams.

In an article written by Jamie Jackson of The Guardian, Astiazarán said "In La Liga there are 77.1% Spanish players, 16.7% European and 6.7% non-European, and our strategy is to work very hard with young home-grown players and to try to have a mix between them and experienced players.” Jackson also noted that whilst Spain boasted a 77.1% figure for Spanish players in La Liga, the figure for English players in the Premier League was 40%, which Astiazarán felt was part of the reason England’s national team was failing to perform.

Astiazarán was happy to note the importance of foreign players coming into the league and improving the standard of the game, but his point was that the imported players should not stop English players playing in their home league. This point has continually raised and debated, particularly when England are unsuccessful in an International tournament. Ways of combatting this have been discussed too, with the idea of limiting the number of non-UK players in a squad, to promote young players’ growth and to improve the standard of performance within the national team.

Indeed, the limiting of the number of foreign players in a side is a regulation enforced in the Russian Football Championship; Russia’s top league. In their rules a side is restricted to seven foreign players at any one time on the field for a club. This rule was previously a six player limit of foreign players, but since July 4th 2012, the rule was altered, perhaps coinciding with the investment into the clubs in the top league of Russian football. In fact, the change in rules in the Russian league has had an instant effect; Russian captain Igor Denishov has been at the centre of controversy, arguing with the staff of his club, Zenit St Petersburg, regarding the wages paid to foreign players such as Brazillian Hulk, and Belgian Axel Witsel, and how Russian players are now being looked past in favour of foreign talent. He cited that the respect towards the Russian players was sliding, and that respect had always been a part of Zenit’s ethos.

Although EU regulation would make it illegal to have such a ruling on discriminatory employment, a scheme to encourage opportunities for English players is something that could be realistically be adopted, if the FA feel that it is necessary to boost the nation’s international presence. If this was the case, what would be the knock on effect of the clubs in the Premier League, both domestically and in Europe? Although the ruling wouldn’t apply in Europe, it would be foreseeable that teams would sell some foreign players to pave the way for home-grown players, and as a result would the presence of English teams decline? In the short term, it is likely that this would be the case, but could English players be expected to fill the void left by the departure of the top foreign players? Also, would this ruling have a negative effect on mid table and lower clubs, who will have their top talent taken from them by the big clubs? Even with inflated price tags, the value is relative to the market they will have to trade in, and as a result, they will still have to pay over the odds to meet the quota set up to boost the number of English players. 

A counter argument to the idea that more English players in the top league will boost the fortunes of the national team, is that if you remove the top foreign players from the league, then the quality of the league diminishes, and as a result, English players will not improve as much, because they are playing at a lower level. The idea of promoting English talent to be effective against world class opposition is stunted if they no longer have quality players to learn from, or indeed to test themselves against each week. The great thing about having such a cosmopolitan league is the influx and variety of style of play, and surely that can only be an improvement?

Another important point is raised if you consider if youngsters from the UK have the quality to break into their first teams, and if they do, why are they not already? Although managers look abroad for cheap deals, they are not blind to their own youth squad, and it would make more sense, both on a financial and practical level, to promote someone from their own youth squad, than to invest in a foreign player.

So, if there is a lack of young players from the United Kingdom playing in the Premier League, is that a reflection of the quality of the youngsters compared to the rest of the world. If such laws were implemented (in a theoretical sense, due to EU regulation changing), then the worst case scenario would be the English league regressing, with a lack of quality players, and as a result ceasing to be an imposing influence on European competition.

With the call still being made for new regulation to help promoted home-grown talent, you can’t expect this issue to be resolved any time soon. The opening of the centre of excellence is an encouraging sight for the future of English football, and one that suggests that the FA has a long term plan when it comes to the International squad. There is a fair chance that regulations or initiatives may be created to promote the future generations, that will feel the benefit of St George’s Park, but the shape they take will be an interesting circumstance. The argument to limit the number of foreign players in the Premier League must be made from a view to benefit rather than discriminate, and even then, the shades of grey between the two can be blurred and misinterpreted, but the idea of limiting the number of foreign players within the English leagues would certainly have a negative effect on the domestic league itself, if you focus solely on the league, and do not consider the implications of the national team. With the Premier League being such a money generating event, any regulations that may jeopardise the finance made from it would be opposed by the club owners, and fans alike.

As for the idea that foreign players are stunting the progression of English players, the cynic in me argues that in order to prove yourself in any team, you have to be better than whoever is currently playing your position, and should we promote second rate players simply due to their nationality? The damage that would do to both club and country is obvious, and as a result, you can’t expect any ruling to be drawn up in which players are promoted due to their nationality rather than their skill. Instead, the importance of the investment in grass roots football becomes ever more apparent, as England look to re-establish themselves on the international scene. I’m sure the ideal scenario for everyone involved is young players like Raheem Stirling or Jack Wilshere push themselves into their club’s first team due to their skill, and that in ten years’ time, there will be many more examples like these, in which English players are good enough to play in the top clubs in the league, without the need to limit the competition for their places.