“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.
“Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow”
With untold riches, Manchester City’s relentless pursuit of instant gratification is understandable. But even with their wealth, it has not been easy. Unlike Chelsea, who provided the blueprint for quick success, City started from a lower rung on the ladder. Chelsea finished fourth the season before Roman Abramovich weighed in; City only achieved ninth place before the Abu Dhabi United Group arrived. The squad needed reinforcements and the new recruits could not be guaranteed Champions League football. Two years on and the same problems exist. To cure this ill, City have again delved into the transfer market.
The worry is that assembling a team of global superstars will come at the expense of their own fledglings. The academy has been praised in recent years and rightly so. Few English clubs have produced players of the calibre of Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha, Stephen Ireland and Daniel Sturridge. The academy won the F.A. Youth Cup two years ago and two of that victorious team, Dedryck Boyata and Vladimír Weiss, have been on the fringes of the first team. While Sturridge willingly opted for pastures new, Richards, Onuoha and Ireland have struggled to establish themselves as mainstays in City’s revolution. Jérôme Boateng’s arrival this summer could result in departures for his psychical prototypes, Richards and Onuoha. Meanwhile Ireland continues to be linked to a host of other Premier League clubs. Shaun Wright-Phillips, back for a second spell at Eastlands, has Adam Johnson ahead of him in the pecking order. Even Joe Hart, England’s brightest young goalkeeper, faces a spell as Shay Given’s understudy.
It is a problem which has caused concern over at Stamford Bridge after Chelsea’s initial triumphs. They pumped money into their academy and Frank Arnesen was installed to bring through the next generation. No longer would Chelsea rely solely on Abramovich’s millions, rather they would look to their own to step up. Up until now, the exercise has been a colossal failure but with the forthcoming homegrown rule about to come into effect, its importance cannot be overstated.
The blame shouldn’t lie squarely on manager Roberto Mancini’s shoulders. He needs to build a successful team and quickly or he will face the axe just like his predecessor Mark Hughes. Those who have worked their way through City’s ranks may not be Champions League standard just yet and Mancini needs established talent if he is to go one better than last time around. His first priority is not to develop future stars; it is to bring in trophies. By jettisoning too many of their own, City may struggle to find leaders and long-term servants. These types of players not only help create a club’s identity but they also spearhead long term success.
Across Europe the top sides all have these players, men who have become synonymous with their clubs. Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol at Barcelona, Del Piero at Juventus, Totti at Roma and before his retirement, Maldini at Milan. At the revolving door that is Real Madrid, Iker Casillas has out-lasted two waves of Galácticos and until his recent departure; Raúl was an ever-present figure since he broke through 16 years ago. Inter Milan’s Champions League winning squad included few Italians but the man who lifted the trophy in Madrid, Javier Zanetti, has been captain for over a decade. In England it is no different. Giggs, Scholes and Neville are a part of the furniture at Manchester United, scousers Gerrard and Carragher make up the fabric of Liverpool. Chelsea’s turnover of players has been greater than most in recent times but John Terry is still a figurehead for the West Londoners. Even Arsenal, with their foreign legion, possess Cesc Fàbregas who epitomises the exciting, young attacking side Arsène Wenger is honing.
It is a key ingredient that City lack and it is not something which should be underestimated. He need not be a local boy and as Fàbregas and Zanetti have shown, he does not need to come from these shores. What he does need to be is a player who embodies their club’s style, a leader who works harder than most and can be called upon in the toughest situations. Even in pursuit of short-term success, City need to find their own Terry, Giggs or Zanetti, their own heartbeat. It is something which should be taken under consideration when in their quest for glory; they contemplate offloading their bright, young hopes to free up room for the more household names.