As he always is, Richard Scudamore was quick to defend the Premier League from the suggestion made by the FA chairman Greg Dyke this week that it is largely to blame for the England team’s failure to win anything.
The League’s chief executive pointed out, not unreasonably, that England had hardly torn up trees in the seventies and eighties when the Premier League did not exist and the England manager had a huge pool of home qualified players at every club from which to draw.
And yet, Dyke’s point that the Premier League preference for recruiting foreign players has had a detrimental effect on the national side is hard to dispute when you see the figures. Roy Hodgson can select from only 32 per cent of top flight players, the lowest total in football history. That, surely, reduces his room for manoeuvre.
If you really want to see how much the League is reducing the available local talent pool, then the best place to look is not England, but Scotland.
Of the many eye-boggling statistics of the recent record-breaking transfer window, the one that really hit home about the changing nature of top-flight representation was the fact that of the couple of hundred players who moved with a fee during the window, only one was a Scot. And Barry Bannan’s switch from Aston Villa to Crystal Palace does not suggest a career in an upward trajectory.
Once Scots provided the core of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. Now not one of those clubs – nor any of their serious rivals – will field a Scot in the coming season, unless Darren Fletcher overcomes his condition to return to action.
When Scotland played at Wembley the other week, only one of their starting line-up – James Morrison of West Bromwich Albion – was a regular Premier League player. There may well be valid reasons for this. Maybe Scotland no longer produces footballers good enough to be employed in the top division (though it is pretty good at developing managers).
But the claim that the Premier League, with its ability to recruit talent from every market across the globe, has not had a debilitating effect on the national team is laughable. If its players are not playing at the top, then the national team is surely diminished.
So what to do? That was Dyke’s question. Maybe the best insight into the way in which England’s fortunes are undermined by the way the Premier league organises itself, came from one of the country’s few rising stars this week. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was talking about his old Southampton colleague Gareth Bale’s elevation into the world’s most expensive player. How is it, he was asked, that the south coast club has produced such a conveyor belt of excellence? Bale, Theo Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, now Luke Shaw: it is some youth system they must have down there.
Interestingly the Arsenal and England man didn’t quite see it like that. He suggested that, while it was undoubtedly good, Southampton’s youth system was not noticeably different from any other. It was certainly no better than Arsenal’s. What had made the difference was that the club gave young locally produced players a chance in the first team. And it was that elevation that made the difference.
Youth development is an inexact science. You never really know whether a player has all the required attributes until he plays in the first team. And the reason why Southampton gave Bale, Walcott and the others a run was because they weren’t in the Premier League.
Oxlade-Chamberlain himself was thrust into the shirt when the club was in League One, shorn of cash and financially unable to bring in fully formed players from outside. It wasn’t until he played in the first team that he completed his footballing education. That was when it was discovered he had the right stuff. That was what made him who he is now: an England regular.
The interesting thing is, Oxlade-Chamberlain suggested that now they are back in the top flight it is unlikely the club will be blooding youngsters in the same manner. The financial pressure to stay in the division precludes experiment. So young homegrown talent – whatever its potential – will be restricted in its final development. The manager – in the unstinting need to remain at the top table – will be obliged to bring in experienced players from elsewhere. There is no room for risk in the Premier League.
And this is ultimately Greg Dyke’s problem at the FA. He cannot demand Premier League clubs favour young Englishmen. EU law stops him issuing employment quotas. He is unlikely to get any voluntary agreement from self-interested businesses owned by foreign interests.
The only thing that will change recruitment behaviour is economic circumstance. That is partly what drove Germany’s dash for youth in 2000 – the reduction in value in a television contract meant the Bundesliga clubs could not compete in the international market, so had to look internally. Which ultimately hugely assisted the national side.
The truth is, the only thing that will lead to a sizeable increase in the number of players available for Roy Hodgson to select from is a sudden squeeze on their budgets. And right now such a solution looks a long way away.