by Richard Brook
Thirty years of hurt? A further 18 years have passed since The Lightning Seeds, accompanied by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, provided the quite brilliant soundtrack to the last major tournament performance that England fans were universally and unreservedly proud of. Euro ’96 may not have been hot on the heels of Italia ’90, and of course there were a couple of disappointments in between, but in spite of that it still feels like a golden age in the memory of supporters of thirty-something years of age such as myself. It also feels a million miles away. Football in the early 1990’s was a million miles away from today, after all the elite of the English club game were in transition from League Division One to the Premier League.
It was a time when an England team more or less picked itself. The Three Lions had coherence about how they intended to roar and they picked the players equipped to facilitate how they were to play. The current method of picking the players almost at the insistence of popular opinion and trying to shoe-horn a playing style around them is failing time and again, as former England winger Chris Waddle noted recently.
Looking back at the tournaments leading up to those two semi-final penalty shootout exits, is something that English football fans can do with pride. The respective sides thrilled the nation en route their destined fall, one step away from a first major international final since Moore, Hurst, Peters et al. While it might have been England’s nemesis, the spot kick that put paid to these dreams; at least it wasn’t a refereeing decision such as that Sol Campbell header against Argentina. Nor was it the actions of a petulant prima donna like David Beckham seeing red before seeing a red card, thanks to his winking accomplice, against Portugal. England circa 1990 and 1996 certainly were not knocked out as a result of the woeful underperformance that was endured during 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
England’s exit from Brazil 2014 does not fit those moulds either. A young team faced a difficult group that many felt they might not qualify from. When the team proved people correct in thinking they might not make the second round there was a huge overreaction.
There are of course residual questions left behind from this: Why do England’s young players fail to take being blooded in such tournaments in their stride? Why is the England team plainly weak in certain areas, notably across the defence and in terms of a holding midfielder? Why is there always an English-based foreign player conveniently on hand to be the thorn in our side? Why, as Waddle says, do we force players uncomfortably into the starting eleven with so little regard for our tactics?
There is one answer to all of the above: The Premier League.
The Premier League as an institution generates great wealth for its constituent club’s which allows clubs to compete with each other to attract the very cream of football’s talent pool to ply their trade for the respective teams. The more money that enters the chain, the more pressure there is for instantaneous results, lessening the incentive for managers to invest time and effort developing a young player. Splashing out on a quick fix signing is more likely to yield faster results, to keep the manager in a job.
We all know that given the seemingly bottomless money pits and the choice of any footballer, these quick fixes are often from foreign countries. In practice this means that a ready developed foreign player is taking a place that might otherwise allow an English player to develop as a first team professional. This leads to many fans and some pundits calling for a cap on the number of foreigners each team can either bring in or field.
Although on the face of it this is a logical solution which would aid the development of players that might go on to represent England, it is unclear how this could be done in a manner consistent with European Law. The protection of the free movement of workers within the European Union is a fundamental pillar of European Law and was applied in the realm of football transfers in the famous Bosman case. Essentially any rule that would prevent a person from one member state travelling to another member state to either work or seek work would contravene the principle.
In 2010 FIFA scrapped the ‘6+5 rule’ that they had been trying to introduce for a number of years. The premise of the rule was that each club would be obliged to start with six players eligible to play for the national team of the league in which they played. An Institute for European Affairs report commissioned by FIFA, had considered that the fact that clubs could employ and even name as substitutes, as many foreign nationals as they wished would make the rule compliant with European Law. Various arms of the European Union have however expressed the contrary opinion that rule would be illegal as it violates Article 48 of the EC Treaty and the Bosman ruling as the rule is rooted in direct discrimination based on nationality. Since 2011/12 the Premier League has insisted that eight of each club’s 25 man squad must be home grown – whether this would withstand legal challenge is untested.
Meanwhile such young English players as show promise begin with a League Cup game here and there, or if they are fortunate enough to break into the first team of a top side need only develop to a point where they are able to be carried by the plethora of international stars that surround them, rather than push on and becomes are star in their own right. The England team is currently weak across the back four, certainly defensively and also in terms of a defensively minded midfielder. Spaces in Premier League starting line-ups to allow these kinds of player to develop would undoubtedly assist matters. We have picked tactics around the players we want instead of picking the players that fit our system for years and we have reaped what we have sown.
For how long was it discussed to death that Frank Lampard and Stephen Gerrard did not fit together? This is the result of a slightly different Premier League phenomenon: The undroppable player. Player power and status has increased in line with the game’s wealth, and is reinforced by the demands of media and sponsors.
The fact of being effectively knocked out of the World Cup by Luis Suarez evidences another issue. The Premier League’s vast wealth attracts the top global stars. This means that when we play their countries at a major competition, there are players we have actively assisted in the development of, that are extra-motivated to perform against England. Additionally while we have half of some national teams’ first eleven playing in the English top flight, it is not only preventing our own young stars coming through but also making squad places available in their own top division for their own next generation to come through.
So if limits on foreign players cannot be the answer then we must bring the top flight and the Football League divisions back under the same banner. The current set up allows the Premier League to all but ignore the Football Association, who are responsible for the England team, and certainly to disregard almost entirely the Football League and below.
The Premier League’s spending power is growing exponentially because of its self-serving attitude towards television rights and other commercial revenue streams. Such monies are not appropriately filtered down throughout the football pyramid. Instead disproportionate sums are retained by the Premier League and divided amongst the clubs as prize money. The extra money provides the bait to land the next catch of foreign stars, either as transfer fees or wages. When the commercial deals are renegotiated the league has more stars than at the last contract so a bigger contract is signed and the whole cycle starts again.
Of course this is only half the problem. League clubs do not have access to a fair share of the wealth that is generated in the game. This means that they are not able to reinvest in improving academy facilities, scouting, and acquiring English talent themselves. Non-League clubs and grass roots football, which is grossly underfunded, are hamstrung in the development of their talented players who might succeed at a higher level. We have seen Rickie Lambert come through from the Non-League to the England team, who knows what other untapped talent lies below the bludgeoning sprawl of the Premier League.
In 2011/2012 the Premier League retained £968 million of a £1.2billion TV rights package. If instead of reinvesting that in attracting yet more foreign players and making sure the deal will be worth even more next time around, we had one body in control of our top four domestic divisions the English game could be much better developed.
A single body with the mandate that the Football League had before the Premier League came into being would have the wider interests of the sport at heart. They would distribute the wealth in a fairer manner. In so doing football from grass roots to England international level would be singing from the same song sheet. Lower placed clubs would have greater opportunity to develop their players. Talented players who did rise through the divisions would have more opportunity to play top flight English football.
Most importantly of all by the time a player played for England he would have been used to playing in big Premier League matches and Champions League matches. He would also have been used to the responsibility of being expected to star in such matches, instead of hiding behind foreign colleagues. That is how England can become truly competitive again on the world stage: by cutting the financial incentives to players and owners that currently surround the top division.
By the time of the next major international tournament it is going to be 50 years of hurt and by continuing to indulge the money machine that is the Premier League we are only making it worse for ourselves. It is time to reunite the top four divisions under a single organisation for England’s sake.