Newcastle has been a prominent topic of debate over the past week or so. Not only because they have done well to add significantly to their squad and force their way out of harm’s way, but they’ve also been the prime example used when discussing the loss of identity within English football.
It doesn’t really get much more nonsensical than this: a discussion about Premier League clubs losing their identity and foreign names damaging the tradition of a team. What exactly has been so different in Newcastle’s recruitment policy during the January transfer window than any other club’s approach over the past two decades?
It also ties in with that ruling of clubs needing a certain quota of English players in their squad, which is another stupid idea. The fact of the matter is that there are not enough good English footballers to fill up the Premier League as a greater percentage than foreign names. England is not the footballing factory that Spain, Germany and Brazil are. England has good academies, but nothing of the reputation of those abroad, where you’re guaranteed to have “homegrown” players sweep the nation. Southampton has been praised for their youth system, as have Manchester City, among others. However, none of them are on par with Real Madrid’s cantera, where a huge number of players currently in Spain were brought up.
Some may view Newcastle’s January activity as a desperate dash around the French league, but that’s hardly the way it seemed. Would this discussion have been raised if all five of the players were of different nationality? What difference does it make if it’s a Frenchman leading the line at Newcastle or someone who grew up in London?
The thing about the Premier League is that so much of its popularity has been built on the work of both foreign players and managers. Everyone wants to play like Barcelona, everyone wants the big names on the continent, where Jose Mourinho and, up until recently, Pep Guardiola were the most desired managers available. If a boat load of foreign players are a threat to the identity of club, surely a foreign manager is even more dangerous. He’s the one who dictates the style of football, he’s often very vocal in player recruitment, he, if offered the time, could be entrusted with reshaping the club from top to bottom. There was very little protest when Arsene Wenger came into Arsenal and had such a profound effect on the makeup of the team and club.
But so many English clubs and fans look abroad ahead of each transfer window and reel off a list of names they’d love to see in their team next season: Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, Mario Gotze.
Tottenham have been trying to draw Leandro Damiao away from Internacional for the past two transfer windows without any luck. The striker has never played in English football let alone on a European pitch. There are no guarantees to success with him in the Tottenham side, and yet he remains at the head of most fans’ wanted list. Why not go for someone like, say, Steven Fletcher? It was said that Tottenham failed with a £13 million bid for Damiao, and yet that is near the fee Sunderland paid for the Scottish striker’s signature last summer. He’s proven in England, but everyone knows Damiao is on another level in terms of quality. Jermaine Defoe could have been shipped off and Tottenham potentially could have had the Brazilian and Emmanuel Adebayor as their two options in attack, with an American as the security option. Any loss of identity there? Absolutely not, because modern football fans don’t think like that anymore. I really doubt Barcelona fans are worried that their icon Lionel Messi is from Argentina, rather than Catalonia.
Audiences of the English game can’t speak highly enough of Juan Mata. Everyone absolutely loves watching the Spaniard at Chelsea; it used to be David Silva at Manchester City. Luis Suarez may be the player of the year, or it could be Robin van Persie. Where are the English names? Well they’re either not good enough or haven’t performed to that level. No one who is preparing to put their votes in will have the thought of the English game losing its identity at the fore of their mind.
The point is Newcastle isn’t the first team to look to foreign talents as a means of enhancing their squad. Mathieu Debuchy could end up being one of the leading right-backs in England over the next few seasons, and yet who would pay £18 million for Glen Johnson when they could have opted for the French international for a fraction of that price?
The younger generation particularly of Manchester United fans love Cristiano Ronaldo and would have him back tomorrow. Thierry Henry is adored at Arsenal and both he and Dennis Bergkamp have been mentioned as future coaches at the club. No fear of a loss of identity there. Players like Henry and Bergkamp and many other foreign stars who have come to England have learned to embrace the culture and tradition of their clubs.
If Newcastle are such a big name in England – and they are – then the new French players will have no trouble picking that up quickly. Yohan Cabaye and club captain Fabricio Coloccini understand all that already, I’m sure. You don’t need to always look to the player who grew up a stone’s throw away from the stadium to help maintain the values. It’s a romantic story and one most clubs would like, but it’s not always possible.