Whenever the age-old debate over how the influx of foreign talent has affected the Premier League re-emerges, usually surrounding an underwhelming England performance during any given international break, we often only consider its impact at the division’s biggest clubs – teams like Manchester United, for example, who were once almost synonymous with the national team but haven’t signed a single English player during the last three summer transfer windows.
Yet, in terms of the successes and failings of the Three Lions, the foreign-philia recruitment of the Premier League’s rank and file sides has made a far bigger impact, suffocating the pool of English talent teams like United once cherry-picked from as the ambition to upset the balance of power in the Premier League has increasingly pushed mid-to-lower table clubs towards recruiting cheaper talent of equal ability from overseas.
Whereas Chelsea were the first club to field an all-foreign starting XI in the history of English football and Arsene Wenger was once widely criticised for the lack of English representatives at Arsenal, one of the first mid-table managers to truly capitalise on the Premier League’s financial power abroad was Sam Allardyce, transforming a club that had just finished sixth in the second tier when he assumed the hot seat in 1999 into the Premier League’s sixth-placers just six seasons later.
In fairness, Bolton were already an unusually foreign team by second tier standards when Allardyce arrived in October 1999. 15 of their 30-man first-team squad were non-English, including their top-scorer that season – Eidur Gudjohnsen.
But by the time Bolton were fighting for their lives in the Premier League during the 2002/03 season, the closest Allardyce ever came to relegation during his spell at the club, the bias was already skewed to nearly 60% of the squad being acquired from abroad.
Two years later, when the Trotters finished sixth and qualified for the UEFA Cup, just six members of the squad that finished the season were English – and only three made more than five Premier League starts.
An integral influence during both of those seasons was one of the Premier League’s cultiest of cult heroes, a certain Ivan Campo. During 2001/02, the Spaniard lifted the Champions League title with Real Madrid; the campaign after, he was fending off relegation under Allardyce’s notoriously attritional watch at the Reebok Stadium, accompanied by some equally exotic names in Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Stig Tofting and Bruno N’Gotty.
The two levels of football were poles apart but the defender-come-midfielder acclimatised well, to the extent that he unexpectedly decided not to pursue a return to the Spanish capital the following summer and signed a three-year contract with Bolton instead.
The successful survival bid, during which Campo made 31 appearances, scored twice and perhaps most famously picked up 13 yellow cards, gave the four-cap Spaniard a taste for English football that would never quite leave his system. Indeed, even when his Trotters career eventually came to an end in 2008, the now-43-year-old elected to stay in England with Ipswich Town rather than return to his homeland.
During the early stages of his Bolton spell, that impressive culmination of yellow cards became what Campo was most well-known for. But the following seasons saw his game transform almost unrecognisably. Rather than being simply a foul-happy centre-back, Campo’s technical prowess became increasingly evident to the point that he was eventually pushed into midfield where ranging cross-pitch passes, usually with the outside of his boot, became his new trademark. He was almost like a quarter-back, spraying passes to the forward line and his wide receivers.
At that time, that kind of passing quality was rare in the Premier League but for a club of Bolton’s modest stature it was practically unheard of – as was mid-table sides signing players formerly involved in the El Clasico. Combined with his own unique look of flowing curly hair, it made him a true cult hero not only in Lancashire but throughout the wider Premier League. An Indie band from nearby Preston even named themselves after him.
Fast forward to present day, however, and cult heroes of Campo’s breed don’t exist in quite the same way, because foreign imports aren’t as special as they once were. During Campo’s first season in the Premier League, there were just seven Spanish players – last term, nearly five times as many, 34, featured in the English top flight. Likewise, 313 players involved were English during 2002/03; last season that number had dropped to just 184.
Back in 1997, Labour politician John Prescott announced that ‘we’re all middle-class now’. Well, the problem with the Premier League is quite simply that everybody’s now Ivan Campo – an exotic signing from illustrious club offering classy feet and a foreign interpretation of the game. Practically every Premier League side has a technically talented Spaniard of Campo’s description in their midfield. We’ve become spoiled and saturated to the point that players like Campo, as idiosyncratic as he was, just don’t stand out anymore.
Nowadays, cult heroes have become English players, such is their increasing rarity – the likes of James Milner, Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry who are lauded for their industriousness, longevity, craft and knack for eternally creeping under the radar. Imports like Campo, unfortunately, are just a part of the scenery. The irony, of course, is that we have Sam Allardyce as much as any other manager to thank for that.