Sunday 27th June 2010. Bloemfontein, South Africa. England 1 Germany 4. The day the illusion died and the post-mortem began. England’s Golden Generation had been shown to be nothing more than average on the world stage. They had been stung by Schweinsteiger. Overwhelmed by Özil. Murdered by Müller. For the first time since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, there was a universal opinion that something had to change. If it didn’t, the national team would be arbitrarily condemned to a spectacular, humiliating and terminal decline. The new squad rules for this season may, therefore, come as a welcome change to many a patriotic Englishman desperate to see top managers ‘give the kids a chance’. After all, not since the footballing baptisms of Beckham, Butt, Scholes and the Neville brothers has a team made up mainly of young Englishmen had resounding domestic success. Aston Villa and Tottenham have come close in recent years but as England discovered in South Africa, being good and being brilliant are incomparably different.
The new rule change is designed to represent a change from the norm, with eight ‘home grown’ players required in each squad of 25. The theory, its supporters will tell you, is that the top teams can no longer gain success by filling their squad with expensive foreigners. Young, talented Englishmen, they will claim, will have to be given a chance by top teams. The pinnacle of their careers no longer needs to be a passionate relegation clash between Hull and West Ham or a flukey if heart-warming cup run. They can look forward to Champions League experience and challenging for the Premier League title, and in turn they will develop into world class players, capable of following in the footsteps of Bobby and the lads and bringing glory back to our tiny island. That’’’ be the result of the new rules, the supporters will say. In reality, the consequences may not be so beneficial…
Under the new rules, each squad can only use a squad over 25 players who are over the age of 21. Essentially, a maximum of 17 of these players can be ‘foreign’. The other eight players must be ‘home grown’. If a team only has six ‘home grown’ players, they can only name a squad of 23. Players under the age of 21 can be selected but do not need to be included in the squad. Clearly this adds great value to ‘home grown’ players, but could have a hugely negative impact on their careers. Take Michael Mancienne, seen by many as a future England regular. Chelsea currently have just five home grown players, so their squad size would be limited to 22, hardly enough to compete on two fronts in England and Europe. Therefore, the Blues will undoubtedly be desperate to add ‘home grown’ players to their squad – and prevent those already there leaving. Mancienne had a fine season at Wolves last year, and would undoubtedly have benefited from another season on loan with a mid-table Premiership club. While he is not yet good enough for the Chelsea first team, at 22 he has the potential to become a star for club and country. However, the new squad rules leave Mancienne’s career in danger of stagnating. Carlo Ancelotti will undoubtedly want to keep him to make up the numbers next year but he is unlikely to get a great deal of top-level game time unless a severe injury crisis hits Stamford Bridge. After all, there is no quota on the number of ‘home grown’ players in a team’s starting eleven or even their matchday squad of eighteen. In the past, Chelsea could have sent Mancienne out on loan again to aid his development, replacing him in the squad with an ageing foreigner in the mould of Sotirios Kyrgiakos at Liverpool. Mancienne could have come back when he was ready to challenge for a first team place. Under the new rules, however, he is likely to be a bench warmer at best.
Many feel that the new rule will give chances to younger players in particular. After all, in a squad of 25, it only takes a few injuries before some of the under-21s are required in the match day squad. However, the concept of under-21s are in the squad is not in itself necessarily beneficial to the England team. After all, apart from a few notable exceptions such as Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott at Arsenal among others, many of the under-21s who play a role, particularly in the tops sides, will be foreign. Kiko Macheda looks set to get a chance at Manchester United this season, while the equally talented Danny Welbeck will be shipped out on loan, playing a lower standard of football. At Manchester City, meanwhile, it is hard to see any under-21s making an impact at all unless Mario Balotelli completes his protracted switch from Internazionale. Even at Liverpool, with Englishman Roy Hodgson at the helm, only Jonjo Shelvey is likely to play a role in the first team this season, and even he may be surpassed by Daniel Pacheco. Yes, young players probably will get a chance, but how does it benefit the future of the England team if they aren’t even English?
But the problem isn’t merely restricted to under-21s. To be counted as home-grown, players must have been trained in England in three years before the age of 21. It seems a laughable criteria. Owen Hargreaves, if he overcomes his injury problems, will be a ‘foreign’ player in the Manchester United squad, despite the fact that his inclusion is quite clearly of benefit to Fabio Capello’s England team. Arsenal currently have seven ‘home grown’ players, but it is hard to see how encouraging their selection will benefit the Three Lions in Brazil in 2014. Their names? Fabregas, Bendtner, Clichy, Denilson, Djourou, Mannone, Song. ‘Home grown’ implies English, In fact, on paper it means something altogether different, and it seems that the FA may have spectacularly missed a trick when selecting the definition.
The rule change, it seems, were envisioned as a step that would benefit the English national team. Tragically, it appears to have been a misguided step. The intention was to encourage opportunities and development for young English players. In reality, it simply encourages clubs to ‘buy foreign’ earlier. More and more clubs will seek to find Fabregases and Machedas who they can sign at 16, exploiting the restrictions put in place due to their being classed as ‘home grown’ by the age of 19, whatever their nationality. The results could be disastrous. Many English players will be released earlier and replaced by top players from abroad. They will receive worse coaching for a greater proportion of their career and as a result could end up playing at an even lower level than before. Only the extremely gifted English youngsters (think Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole) will survive to be professional at Premiership clubs. The FA has made a grave mistake in the rules it has created for the 2010-11 season. Reforms have been required in England for years, but the reforms should have started at the bottom. In an ideal world, if we really want to produce a great England team in the future, we must concentrate on youth. Our clubs should be banned from signing foreign players under the age of 18. There should also be some kind of quota on English players in starting lineups. This may seem extreme, but at the very least the definition of ‘home grown’ must be altered so that it includes only players eligible for the England team. If necessary, the FA could gives clubs a few years to restructure their squads. The benefits in the long run would still be huge.
The dream is an England team where every player plays in the Champions League. Without changes, it may not be long before we have and England team where every player plays in the Championship. That really would represent the sounding of a death knell for English football.
Written By Gareth Roberts