English footballers, get on yer bikes

Too many homegrown Premier League players are stuck in a bench-warming comfort zone.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

How was transfer-deadline day for you? The twice-yearly scramble to get transfer deals ‘over the line’ has become a new fixture in the modern football calendar. In future we’ll be reminiscing Ron Manager-style about the lost golden age of Jim White, Harry Redknapp’s car window, fax machines and last-minute medicals.

When this summer’s transfer window slammed shut on Monday night, the big talking point was the exodus of young English players from elite clubs. Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Wilfried Zaha all left Old Trafford, while Micah Richards and Jack Rodwell left Manchester City. All these players departed in search of regular first-team football. Invariably, the influx of overseas players will be blamed for stifling the development of homegrown talent. Undoubtedly, the ability of clubs to buy in experienced high-quality players from abroad does make it harder for young English players to break through into the first team. The departures of Cleverley and Welbeck in particular have provided plenty of pundit fodder to chew over. These were local lads; boyhood fans who’d graduated through the ranks at United. It appears to symbolise a break with the club’s proud tradition of nurturing homegrown talent.

Invariably, the declining numbers of English players at elite Premier League clubs will rekindle the perpetual inquest into the rotten state of English football. There’ll be talk of quotas, coaching methods, academies, feeder teams and the much-heralded ‘Way They Do Things In Germany’. Roy Hodgson has spoken, with a note of resignation, of having to pick his England squad from a pool of bit-part players. ‘I think we just need to accept as a nation that some of our players will be selected from benches – not necessarily because they’re the first name at their club side’, Hodgson said. We could blame the big clubs for this sorry state of affairs. But I think the players themselves must bear some responsibility. Yes, the elite clubs stockpile young English talent. But the days of the retain-and-transfer system are long gone. Players are no longer tied to their clubs like bonded serfs. Nobody’s forcing them to sit on the bench.

Stan Collymore, writing in the Mirror, believes that English players who are struggling to break into the first team at the big clubs should lower their horizons. ‘More players have to seriously think about staying at mid-table Premier League sides rather than pushing on too far, too soon’, said Collymore. The obvious explanation for why players don’t want to move is the prospect of a cut in wages. Tom Cleverley’s move to Villa reportedly nearly broke down over the player’s wage demands. But trading down isn’t the only option open to young English players. They could follow Micah Richards’ example and go abroad. The City defender has joined Serie A side Fiorentina on loan. Instead of bleating about the lack of first-team opportunities in the Premier League, why don’t more English players do the same?

Wages, it’s true, might be a stumbling block. Ashley Cole reportedly took a £160,000 a week wage cut when he left Chelsea to join Roma. But it’s not so much the wage demands of young English players that bothers me; rather it’s their insularity and lack of adventure. Ashley Cole, now at Roma, hit the nail on the head in a recent press conference. ‘I think probably English players are scared to come abroad, they’re in a comfort zone in England’, said Cole. This narrow-mindedness was epitomised by Ian Rush, who said of his unhappy spell at Juventus. ‘I couldn’t settle in Italy. It was like living in a foreign country.’ Similarly, Luther Blissett, who spent a season at AC Milan, famously complained: ‘No matter how much money you have here, you can’t seem to get Rice Krispies.’

These days you can count the number of English players plying their trade in Europe on the fingers of one hand. I’m reminded of Norman Tebbit’s infamous words. ‘I grew up in the Thirties with an unemployed father’, said Tebbit. ‘He didn’t riot; he got on his bike and looked for work and he kept looking ’til he found it.’ Tebbit was vilified by the left but, whisper it, I think he had a point. If your career prospects are limited where you live, get on your bike – or Lear jet in the case of modern-day footballers – and find a job elsewhere. A move to another country can be beneficial to young English players in a number of ways: it can give them regular first-team football, expose them to new coaching methods, enhance their tactical understanding of the game and make them more mature and resilient individuals. It can provide European-tournament experience, too. When Colin Kazim-Richards moved from Sheffield United to Turkish club Fenerbahce, he swapped the Football League for the Champions League. Micah Richards, likewise, has been named in Fiorentina’s Europa League squad for this season. By contrast, the best Tom Cleverley can hope for is helping Aston Villa stay clear of the drop zone.

The view that a move abroad might benefit young English players is gaining traction. ‘If you’re asking me would it be better for some of our players to be playing in good teams abroad rather than warming the bench, then of course, as a national team manager I would like to see that’, said Roy Hodgson. Similarly, Jose Mourinho recently said: ‘I think if there are no jobs in the country as a manager or as a player you have to go, because this is a short professional life. So go and enjoy… To go abroad is a fantastic experience and sometimes it looks like English players, English managers, they don’t like to go abroad.’ Hodgson and Mourinho won’t be demonised in the way that Norman Tebbit was. They didn’t use the provocative phrase ‘on your bike’. But their sentiments are exactly the same.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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