The Stuart Pearce years at Manchester City are not cherished by many fans. With his hands tied, Pearce had a difficult job keeping City in the Premier League, a job he succeeded in. But boy was it dull. I remember sitting in the North Stand one blustery afternoon, trying to remember the last time I had witnessed a goal down that end of the stadium – it had been a couple of months.
But amongst the dour football, Pearce did do one thing for which City fans should always be grateful. In May 2006, he signed Shrewsbury Town’s goalkeeper Joe Hart, for a modest £600,000. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hart is proof that the talent is there in the lower leagues, talent that can be developed to the highest level, and the price doesn’t always have to be exorbitant because of the premium put on English players.
I would speculate that any manager of an English football team would prefer to have a team full of Englishmen. That’s not xenophobia at work, just an acceptance that English players are more likely to adapt, understand the mentality, and not flit off abroad. There are also no limits on Englishmen in the squad either of course. And they are more valuable assets if they move on simply because of their nationality. So there is a logic in buying English.
But it is understandable why managers look elsewhere, when value is so hard to find.
Take Spain for example, where players are not permitted to sign professional contracts until their 18th birthday – a rule Arsenal first took advantage of in 2003 by signing Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona when he was 16.
Barcelona president Sandro Rosell branded Arsenal’s acquisition of Toral Harper as “legal but immoral”. It’s little wonder managers often look abroad – it’s cheaper, but also it is where their expertise lies for many – Arsene Wenger knows France, and has his contacts there. Mancini probably has strong knowledge and contacts in Italy. Villas-Boas likewise in Portugal. When so few successful managers in England are actually English, it’s little surprise that contacts are used to plunder foreign players.
However, recent rule changes back here in England may change the outlook of many big clubs. After England’s poor showing at the 2010 World Cup Alex Horne, the FA’s general secretary, was tasked with looking into why the nation has failed, despite the unrivalled success of the Premier League, to reliably produce players of international quality. In January he announced 25 proposals to improve the prospects of the national side, a list designed to tally with the Premier League’s own plan, which was unveiled the following month.
The Elite Player Performance Plan, which was voted on by the 72 League clubs, included a rule-change whereby players living more than 90 minutes’ travelling time away would be lifted. So clubs would be free to set up boarding schools for the best young talent they could find, regardless of where they came from.
Not surprisingly, this favours the big clubs, who now may look more to young football league talent, not because it always made sense and they have suddenly seen the light, but because the rule shave changed to make this easier and cheaper for them to do so. Though the EPPP will affect every league club, it was drawn up by members and employees of the Premier League. Add to this the proposed scrapping of the football tribunal, which would see initial fees significantly reduced, compared with those agreed under the existing system. Add-ons for future career success could help negate this though. The plan was voted through, not surprising as the Premier League withheld money until they accepted.
Predictably, the plans created much fury in the football league, with some teams claiming they would give up on developing youth as there was no point as any talented players would be poached at a young age, so they would be wasting money they didn‘t have. This threat could lead to Premier League teams returning abroad again to find young talent.
But whilst you could argue it is unfair for Premier League teams to poach lower league players, it is not all bad – teams with a good youth set-up rely on such a process, like Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace for example. Selling on the products of a fruitful academy is a means of surviving. Joe Hart may have been a steal at £600,000, but that’s still a lot of money for the likes of Shrewsbury. With add-ons linked to career success, there are further rewards for them as he progresses, which will more than double that original fee. The rules also allow more time to train youngsters each day, meaning teams will still invest in academies and youth, as a means of success and of survival.
The talent is there for Premier League teams to find talent in the lower leagues, mostly amongst youngsters, and throughout the years the smaller teams have always had players taken off them at a young age, having done the ground-work and the initial talent-spotting. New rules will only exacerbate this, but the reason many look abroad instead is not only cost, but the technical skills that many think to be lacking in English youngsters. For the big teams to look closer to home, the arguments put forward by so many in recent years have to be fully implemented to make English players more appealing – no more children playing on full pitches, no more emphasis on power and size over natural skill, and a proper compensation scheme to make it worthwhile for the smaller teams to continue to develop youngsters. Only then can we have a system in England where young English talent flourishes, and a system that benefits all sides. But as Joe Hart shows, time is needed for these players to develop – the culture of modern football for instant results and quick success only hinders further the development of our young players.
Howard has written a fictional book, available for very little on Kindle. Give it a go here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/High-Stakes-ebook/dp/B004LDM51O