Martin O’Neill’s Penchant for British Talent Proved His Undoing
“I can’t even spell spaghetti never mind talk Italian. How could I tell an Italian to get the ball? He might grab mine!”
In the aftermath of another dismal showing in an international competition, everybody has a diagnosis for the terminally ill English national team.
Is it the manager? Is it the egos of the exceedingly rich Premier League players? Is it the absence of a winter break? Or is it the influx of foreign players in the country’s top division? All likely theories but it is the latter which I want to draw attention to here.
It is a theory I refuse to subscribe to. All of England’s squad played in the Premier League last year and the majority play for clubs who continually play in Europe’s premier club competition, the Champions League.
Nevertheless, The Premier League is certainly concerned about the development of young British players. It is concerned enough to offer a remedy, the home-grown rule. As a result, this season, clubs will need to include no more than 17 non home-grown players in their 25 man squad.
One club who this certainly doesn’t endanger is Aston Villa. Villa’s proposed squad contains 13 players who qualify as ‘home-grown’. Of these, 11 were signed by Martin O’Neill, the man who has just stormed out of Villa Park in a dispute over future transfers.
O’Neill’s gripe was obvious. He wanted more money and he wanted it to assemble a squad capable of toppling the established order. He has seen Gareth Barry depart and he fears James Milner and Ashley Young are on the verge of leaving too. But owner Randy Lerner’s counterargument was also fair. He had given O’Neill plenty of money every summer since he joined. He now faces the unenviable task of trimming a wage bill which is 85% of the club’s turnover. O’Neill may bemoan Lerner’s sudden frugality but the American has opened his wallet on multiple occasions for the Ulsterman before, it is time to close it shut.
O’Neill’s problem is that he loves to buy British. Like the old man who turns his nose up at the lasagne in Tesco, he never could take to that ‘foreign muck’. With the exception of some of those hotly tipped for relegation, Aston Villa are perhaps the least multi-national team in the Premier League. Stiliyan Petrov, Carlos Cuéllar, Habib Beye and Brad Friedel may not originate from these shores but they were already well versed in the British game when they came to Birmingham. Their current foreign legion includes John Carew and two back-up players in Moustapha Salifou and Brad Guzan. Moreover, for all the hype regarding their academy, only Gabriel Agbonlahor is a regular. Martin O’Neill assembled this squad rather than inheriting it and he has built a team with a distinctly British flavour. It is this which endears him to both the public and the media but it is also a serious flaw not to include talented foreigners in your ranks.
The main reason is economical because buying British in O’Neill’s line of business is a rather costly hobby. The 11 home-grown players in the current squad that O’Neill signed are: Luke Young £6 million, Richard Dunne £6 million, Steve Sidwell £5 million, Stewart Downing £12 million, Ashley Young £10 million, James Milner £12 million, Curtis Davies £8 million, Emile Heskey £3 million, James Collins £5 million, Nigel Reo-Coker £8.5 million and Stephen Warnock £8 million. James Collins and Richard Dunne both represent their countries but only James Milner and Emile Heskey made an impact at the World Cup with England. Acquiring established international players comes at a fraction of the cost and you can’t help but feel O’Neill missed a trick by sticking with the Brits. He has signed good players, but nobody who you would consider capable of performing on the Champions League stage. The 11 players listed earlier only represent the legacy O’Neill left behind; the BBC estimates that 30 of O’Neill’s 50 signings were British.
Many believe that O’Neill is a fantastic manager and they believe he did a great job at Villa. I would concur with the first statement but I believe he did an OK job and nothing more. He spent big and ultimately produced little. Had O’Neill invested some of Lerner’s millions in cheaper foreign talent, he may have won a trophy or finished in the top four. They certainly wouldn’t have spent so much on squad players and the finances would now be in a far better state.
If the influx of foreign players has done one thing in this country it is raise the price of British players. The new home-grown ruling is only going to exploit this more. Under O’Neill’s British-first approach, Villa had no chance of progressing further.