Among the multitude of problems the English national football team face is the price tag an agent puts upon the head of any home-grown player who shows promise. So-called ‘smaller’ Premier League clubs are priced out of the talent market and forced to look abroad, while prospective England players either rot on plush benches, or find themselves kicked to pieces on loan in the Football League. At the same time, agents are rubbing their hands together. Collectively, they were paid more than £100m in fees in 2014.
It is well documented that there are far too few English players in the Premier League, and the statistics back that up. Approximately 32 per cent of starting players are English this season, in contrast with the season of 1992/93 (the Premier League’s first) when only 11 foreign players made the starting line-ups.
Economically reckless expenditure entitles the ‘Big Five’ (Manchester United is included for these purposes) to cherry-pick any fresh-faced Englishman who happens to have made it through the youth ranks at one of the 87 ‘selling clubs’ in English professional football. Nobody else rivals them financially, and why would they bother? Players on the continent are equally as good – if not better – and invariably far cheaper.
Sir Alex Ferguson bought Rio Ferdinand from Leeds for £29.1 million in 2002. He signed Nemanja Vidic for £7 million in 2005. Similarly, Manchester City paid £22 million for Joleon Lescott in 2009, having parted with just £6 million for Vincent Kompany a year earlier.
Player and agent want the move to the top. It means big wages, astronomical transfer fees, greater profile and more sponsorship. Somewhere along the line, it ceased to be about the player improving their chances of playing for England – the agent doesn’t make much money out of that.
Invariably, the player finds a move to the top five far from guarantees first-team football, and they end up amidst multi-million pound benches, or loaned to clubs in lower leagues where once again they are exposed to the real world.
These ‘smaller’ English clubs have to keep developing their own youth systems, or they will continue to find themselves buying international journeymen who want to make a buck out of the Premier League – and who can blame either party? To do so, clubs have to inject money into facilities and coaching, but the eternal fear of relegation hangs over them, and all the consequences that come with it.
None of the top five clubs are owned by Englishmen. These owners are so far removed from their average fan that they have no idea what British footballing culture means. The Premier League is just an all-star international league that happens to be solely hosted in Britain – for now. Owners don’t listen to pundits and press, who take up hours of airtime and reams of copy bemoaning the lack of English players on the pitch. Some of the British players just happen to be the best in the world.
So what must be done?
A draft system would never work. It is a success in AFL and the majority of American sports because those are national-centric sports, sports where the collegiate – and not the club – system rules at grassroots. The Premier League is far too entrenched in the entertainment, and the revenue, of the transfer system to consider a change.
There has been much speculation over a ‘Premier League Two’, where Premier League B sides play each other, or a ‘League Three’ where Premier League B sides are mixed with non-league outfits. This is mostly paper-talk and ex-players lobbying to implement the Spanish system, but shareholders of the Premiership show no interest. Their eyes are attracted to greater top-line earners, such as a 39th game abroad.
Transfer limits would lead to further corruption, and clubs will always find a way around salary caps. A cap on non-British players – or non EU players – carries political complications and Premier League shareholders demand the best players in the world. Owners will simply walk away from their clubs if they are not in full command of what happens.
Amidst all the doom and gloom, Southampton is a great success story. They currently sit second in the Premier League, above Liverpool to whom they sold Adam Lallana (£25m), above Man Utd to whom they sold Luke Shaw (£32m), and above Arsenal to whom they sold Calum Chambers (£16m). Long may it last.
But in truth, the only way the England national team can start to win back its best talent, and have a genuine chance of winning a major tournament, is to remove the influence of player intermediaries, their agents.
English players do want to wear the three lions on their shirt. But by the time these emotionally vulnerable young men are called up by their country, they are so dazed and disillusioned from what their agent has been telling them they want, that they have forgotten the desire that drove them there in the first place. While other international players are playing for the love of their country – and to get themselves in the shop window – English players believe they have already reached the pinnacle.