England: A Footballing Nation in Decline

It is an unequivocal fact that the English Premier League sits atop the throne as the most popular sports league in the world. Whether it be in terms of viewing figures, TV revenue or sponsorship deals, the likes of La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga immediately forfeit pole position to the Premier League.  A powerhouse in world football, many elite players make the move to England (and now Wales) citing it as “the best league in the world”.

There are even cases for this argument to be true. For instance, eight English teams have contested the last 10 Champions League finals (Manchester United three times, Chelsea twice, Liverpool two times, and Arsenal once). As such, the increasingly infuriating question is why does the England national team have so little to show for it?

Much has been made recently of the decline of English players plying their trade in the Premier League. New FA chairman Greg Dyke highlighted a “frightening trend” regarding the lack of home-grown talent representing England’s top league. In its inaugural season, 69% of players in the Premier League were qualified to play for England. Now, this figure has plummeted to just 32%. This equates to almost 70% of players in the Premier League being from overseas. If we compare this to other nations, the figures speak for themselves. Arguably the best two footballing nations in the world right now – Spain and Germany – have 40% and 46% of foreign players appearing in their top national leagues, respectively. Similarly, France’s Ligue 1 has 45% and Italy’s Serie A has 54%.

So why is this the case? One can speculate that because of the sheer volume of money in the English league, there is more pressure and expectation to succeed. Former England defender Rio Ferdinand has voiced the very credible notion that chairmen want “immediate success.” He explains that if vast sums of money have been spent on foreign players commanding hefty wages, the chairmen will simply not allow these players to sit in the stands and be a reserve to young English prospects. As a result, the talented youngsters are often made to play reserve football in front of a crowd of mere dozens. Some incredibly talented English prospects are left with no alternative but to seek a move from a Premier League club in order to pursue regular first team football; as was the case for Tom Ince. However, more often than not, their progress is halted and many stagnate in the reserves until their contract expires and they are snapped up by a team in a lower division.

Assuming the above to be true, why don’t managers take a risk and have some faith in their academies that nurture the future of English football? Simply put, they don’t have to. Again, the money made available to English clubs is far superior to that of many foreign counterparts. The average money made by Premier League clubs from TV revenue alone stands at £40m per year. Compare this to La Liga where only Barcelona and Real Madrid command more than this and the problem with English football becomes more evident. Even the ‘lesser’ Premier League teams are in a strong enough financial state to shell out millions on importing foreign talent. It is more economically viable to spend big to ensure that they stay in the top division so they can reap these monetary benefits.

This is not the case in other European countries, however. With the majority of clubs not being able to flex their financial muscles, they are forced to produce their own players or scour the lower leagues for talent. What does this result in? Let’s use Spain as an example. They have 60% of home-grown players representing their top league.  They have received £340m in transfer fees since 2010 from Premier League clubs alone. They recorded an overall profit on transfer dealings this summer even after the purchases of Neymar and world-record holder Gareth Bale. They are the reigning champions of Europe and the world. These facts speak for themselves.

So what should be done? In danger of sounding xenophobic, we need to limit the amount of money and faith we afford to foreign players and managers. The likes of Cantona, Bergkamp, Henry, Zola and even Arsene Wenger, too, have undoubtedly had huge positive effects on the English game. But they are the exceptions. For every Zola, there’s a Juan Sebastian Veron. For every Henry, there’s an Adrian Mutu. For every Bergkamp, there’s an Andriy Voronin. The list goes on. We have talent in lower leagues, and Rickie Lambert is evidence of this. He has worked his way up through the tiers, and as soon as he was given a chance to prove himself on the elite stage he took it with both hands. He was the joint top-scoring Englishman last year, level on 15 goals with Frank Lampard. It is no mean feat to score as many as that for a club finding it’s way after a recent return to the Premier League. However, at 31 years of age, Lambert is approaching the twilight of his career and he will be a testament to how many of England’s top clubs ignore the talent pool on their own front doorstep at their peril.

“But English players are so expensive!”. This is a myth. A brilliant article by Chris Andersen dispels this notion. For those without the time to read the article, it basically factors many variables and compares English players to overseas players in many aspects and pricing. It was found that, on average, an English player is £1.5m cheaper than an identical import. We believe this ‘myth of the English premium’ because of a phenomenon known as confirmatory hypothesis testing. We are more inclined to notice an expensive English ‘flop’ even though they are so few in number – though credit is due to Liverpool for hoarding the majority of them – than we are to notice the many number of English players who are bought so cheaply. Similarly, when a bargain-bin foreign success story is found – be it a Michu or a Cabaye (or ‘Kebab’ if you’re reading, Mr. Kinnear) – we have a predisposition to think that quality foreign players can be bought so cheaply. We choose to ignore anything which contradicts this belief and our original, inaccurate bias is therefore ‘confirmed’. The lesson here is to spend money wisely.

As previously mentioned, Arsene Wenger has indisputably benefitted the English league in numerous ways. This comes as standard when serving in the country as Arsenal’s manager for the best part of two decades. But in modern day football managers are changed as often as a germophobe’s underwear. Unfortunately the trend here also mirrors that of Premier League players.

In the 1992/1993 season, 17 of the 22 managers were English and the remaining 5 were otherwise-British or Irish. There were no foreign managers in so much as even an assistants’ position. If we compare this to today’s figures, the difference is astounding. There are currently 10 managers of foreign nationalities appointed in a Premier League club’s hot-seat. There are 6 managers accounting for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland, collectively. This leaves a mere 4 English managers in charge of a Premier League club.

To put that into context, Spaniards comprise 14/20 of the managers in La Liga, there are 14/18 German managers in charge of a Bundesliga team, a huge 16/20 of the managers in Italy’s Serie A are Italian and France leads the way with 17/20 having a Frenchman at the helm.

As a rule, a foreign manager gives no thought to the English national team. Why should he? He’s collecting his wages whether England qualify for the World Cup or not and spares no time thinking about the future of our national football. What I find incredibly worrying is that Southampton – a club renowned for producing excellent quality home-grown talent in Walcott, Lallana, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Shaw and the world’s most expensive ever player Gareth Bale (albeit being Welsh) – appointed Argentinean Mauro Pochettino as manager in January and in his first full transfer window he spent almost £35m on foreign players. This is detrimental to the development of the English youth system which is already suffering and is indicative of what lies ahead for English football if this trend continues.

So why is this occurring? Why is it that we currently have 10 foreign managers in the Premier League when there have only ever been 33 managers hailing from outside the British Isles to manage a club competing in the Premier League? The answer may be due to lack of effective coaching.

Table 4. A table showing the number of coaches holding a UEFA coaching license in each country and the ratio of players-per-coach for each country respectively.  (Data taken from The Guardian and soccerbythenumbers.com).

As you can see, the number of English coaches holding a UEFA coaching license is dismal in comparison to other major European nations. A ratio of 1 UEFA-qualified coach to every 812 active football players for this country is pathetic. This stat effortlessly highlights the failings of The FA to produce quality in quantity. Their website claims that “the importance of coach education can never be under estimated”. That’s all well and good making that obvious observation in hindsight, but why has it been neglected for so long? We haven’t realistically competed for any major international honours for decades and Greg Dyke has recently verbally surrendered the next 5 international tournaments claiming we won’t be realistic contenders for anything until at least 2022. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to present a credible case which would suggest otherwise. At the European Under-21 Championships this summer England lost every game in their group without registering a single goal from open play. On the other hand, Spain were crowned champions, winning every game and fielding an enviable squad including David de Gea, Daniel Carvajal, Asier Illarramendi, Thiago Alcantara, Isco, Rodrigo, Cristian Tello, Alvaro Morata and Iker Muniain. If we were to assess our chances against that squad in a few years time the outcome would be very grim reading, indeed.

Granted, England can boast the opening of the £120m St. George’s Park as a signal of intent to building towards a brighter future. However, this project started in 2001 and funding was cut in 2003 – causing a huge postponement – because it was deemed that funding the largely unnecessary ‘New Wembley’ was a priority. Make of that what you will. The facilities include a luxury hotel with many specialised suites (the managerial suite included a birds nest) and a 90-seat auditorium which has been soundproofed for karaoke. We all know that Spain achieved world dominance because Andres Iniesta and Xavi do a fantastically moving duet of ‘Islands in the Stream’, right? To borrow a quote from The Guardian’s Barney Ronay, the St. George’s Park complex resembles the naïve desperation of a fat man deciding to lose weight by buying a really expensive tracksuit. Maybe I’m wrong and this will prove to be the signalling of a new era. But, excuse my cynicism, our current era is not much of a platform to build on.

Let’s face it; there has been a huge change in football culture in this country. We see footballers on the front page of newspapers equally as much as on the back. If they’re not caught in a prostitution scandal or an attempted rape case they are involved in assaults, gang activity or some recreational legal highs. Bear in mind some of these apply to players representing our national team. England’s finest. The icons and role-models are few and far between, nowadays. Who will we proudly exclaim was the embodiment of the exemplary English footballer of our generation? Who is this generation’s quiet, reliable, clincal Lineker? Who is this generation’s supremely talented, loveable rogue, Gazza? Who is our gallant, fearless, talismanic Shearer? Who are our lions?

Unfortunately, they are pampered as cubs. David Sheepshanks, chairman of St George’s Park, suggests that academy players are paid too much money and don’t have to do the hard work that former apprentices used to. Training becomes a drudgery and not an opportunity. A sense of entitlement befalls the youngsters, perhaps exemplified by England’s aforementioned U21 European Championship failings. Stuart Pearce went on record as saying that players who had graduated to the senior England squad adopted an apathetic attitude towards representing the U21s. “Once they go through the golden ivory towers of the seniors they don’t want to play with the Under-21s anymore. Our boys, for whatever reason, be it the power of the Premier League, the finance they get at such a young age, whatever it may be, there is a lack of real passion to want to play for your country no matter what.” I couldn’t agree more. Stuart Pearce is perhaps one of the most qualified men to give this opinion. A former England captain, a part of England’s backroom staff and a perennial member of England’s soldiering Italia ‘90 and Euro ’96 squad – he knows what is needed to play in a successful England team. And in his professional opinion, England does not have it.

The notion that “we are England – one of the best in the world” needs to be abandoned. England has some players that could walk in to any club in the world, granted. But these world-class players have honed their skills playing for their respective teams. The English national side is simply not a team and it hasn’t been for some time. Besides which, a national football team isn’t just about the players. It’s an indictment of the talent of a nation’s coaching, a nation’s footballing philosophy and a nation’s fans. This is why England is a footballing nation in decline.

When writing this section I thought to myself how many times I’ve referred to myself as an England fan or used the term “we” to endear  myself to England. I checked and the answer was ‘none’. This wasn’t for dramatic effect, and it may have been in an effort to remain impartial, but I can honestly say I feel such a minimal attachment to the English national team, and I’m sure I’m not alone. But the sad truth is that we will all be there next June with our eyes on the World Cup. We will all allow ourselves to listen and sing along to Baddiel and Skinner and cry out with emotion whilst covered in goosebumps that “we still believe…”

But we really shouldn’t.


  1. Smokey Bacon September 12, 2013
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