Michael Farrow's sports blog

A collection of new and old writings

…on Englishmen not making it in the Premier League

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The speedy Imre Varadi - About as foreign as it got in the early 80s

When people have the tiresome discussion about the “best league in the world”, the inevitable stones are cast at the Premier League and the quality of the players.  However, what is indisputable is that, year upon year, the English top flight draws from a far larger and far more talented player base than it did previously.  With the increase in money, most of the top players are now foreign and while Trevor Brooking has been sounding the alarm bells for years about youth development, the problem lies in two things.  Firstly, top division clubs have changed the way they recruit players.  Secondly, the standard at the top level is now so much higher.

Changes have occurred over the past 30 years.  Top clubs plundered young players from Ireland and Wales, instead of Spain, Italy and France.  Difference being that Welsh and Irish clubs didn’t defend themselves but top-flight French teams can fight back.  Gaps were filled first by Scots and then later by Scandinavians.  Foreigners were rare but emerging in numbers.  When I was a kid, Imre Varadi was about as foreign as it got.  In addition, low salaries kept foreign players away, as almost every other country in Western Europe paid higher salaries than ours.  Spain and Italy both became fashionable after the 1982 World Cup, which the former hosted and the latter won.   Bar signing Ozzie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, England remained light on international stars and by the end of the 80s, some top English players were lured to France.

Generally, when your club wanted a player, they looked down a division or two, saw who was tearing it up and brought them in or signed from a club in the same division.  Some clubs bought young, Liverpool most notably, and got the players when they were talented fringe players.  Many clubs used the same strategy to recruit their managers.  This isn’t completely extinct but it is much rarer now at the top level than it used to be.  David Moyes was the last Football League manager with no top-flight managerial or coaching experience to be appointed manager of a Premier League club and he has used a similar recruitment policy with some players.

Premier League teams in general play differently and the games are refereed differently.   Whilst following West Ham in the Championship, I started talking about “Premier League fouls”, which would be physical exchanges that would result in a foul in the Premier League but would not in the Football League.  However, the good players still rise up the ranks.  According to the advice Neil Warnock gave Garry Nelson in the book “Left Foot in the Grave”, lower division players are stupid and can’t remember anything so generally it is the exceptionally physically gifted, the exceptionally skilful or the exceptionally smart that rise to the top level.   However, the physically gifted are those that are now getting the breaks.

Height and strength have always been important.  Both my cousins, now in their 40s, were dropped by league clubs because they were too small.   The late growth spurt prevalent in my family came for them and they are both 5’10”, a healthy height for a footballer, but now pace and power are so important that it affects player recruitment.   Some players who formerly would have played top division football now cannot get a look in.   Michael Chopra would have easily been a top division player had he come onto the scene twenty years ago but now he’s just a little too slow and just not quite skillful enough to play in the top division and the financial rewards are such that he’s better off playing for Cardiff than he would be trying his luck for abroad.  His lack of success at Sunderland shows that prior results do not indicate future trends, especially compared to Kenwyne Jones, who was signed at a similar time for a similar sum.  Chopra was a far more effective Championship player than Jones but Jones has height, power and pace.  For Chopra to be a success he needs a team to be set up for him and no player will have a team totally built around his strengths, unless he is exceptional.  Fellow Sunderland striker David Healy suffers from the same thing to Chopra.  Unwanted by Sunderland but still Northern Ireland’s best player and former Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez built the team around him.

It is arguably the African influence wearing most heavily upon the league.  When playing Wardrobe in midfield becomes the standard, it takes a brave man to go against the grain and sign a short, gobby kid from South London to boss his midfield.   There was once only one Alan Shearer (and maybe a Les Ferdinand) but now several clubs have international strikers of real ability and so lesser English forwards move down the leagues.

Similarly, top clubs no longer seem to be going out and signing players in their prime from the lower divisions or even lower-table Premier League clubs.  Arsenal are the exception for signing Aaron Ramsey (and in itself, an exception to their own rules) because Man United and Liverpool want to see exceptional play at a mid-table club before they’ll shell out the money and Chelsea seem completely disinterested unless it’s a freebie or a cheapie.   Ashley Young’s excellent play at Watford was good enough for almost every team in the Premier League but the top clubs weren’t interested, Aston Villa being the side to eventually land him.  Michael Carrick had played for England but after a spate of injuries and dropping to the Championship, the lack of top level suitors was astonishing.  Now he has a Champions League winners’ medal but only after “proving” himself at Spurs.   In previous eras, top clubs would have snapped them up straight away.

It’s frustrating because while Brooking is right about youth development, the problem isn’t easily fixed.   The pressure to stay at the top level is crippling.  Players aren’t getting a crack unless there is no other choice or a manager goes out of his way to sign English players.  Would Carlton Cole be on the fringe of the England squad if West Ham didn’t suffer an injury crisis and Cole was the only option?   Would James Milner if Martin O’Neill didn’t have a policy of signing English players?  It’s a tough situation for these players to find themselves in.  However, I guess my conclusion is that when foreign players started coming across en masse, the argument was made that it would improve English players and it doesn’t take the benefit of hindsight to realise this isn’t true.

And yes, I’m aware Imre Varadi was English.

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Written by Michael Farrow

October 7, 2009 at 11:11 pm

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