Two decades since the formation of the Premier League and the football landscape in this country has changed dramatically. The Taylor Report brought in all-seater stadia; the advent of television money has resulted in TV rights increasing from £50m in 1992 to £3bn today; the availability of talented Englishmen has dropped precipitously as the league has filled with foreign-born footballers, and home-grown players no longer ply their trade abroad. Why?
There are several ways of approaching this, but the most obvious is money. Players in England benefit from a laissez faire wage structure – indeed structure is arguably too generous a term. Clubs pay players what they want, and the more desirable an individual is, the greater the outlay will be from the side that wishes to retain or purchase them. Wages of £100,000-plus per week are commonplace, creating a safety net for English footballers who are of sufficient ability to be remunerated so generously.
Outside of perhaps Paris Saint-Germain in France (newcomers to the billionaires’ playground), Bayern Munich in Germany, AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan in Italy and FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, the remaining clubs in the top divisions of these respective nations simply cannot afford to import English talent. Even mediocre players go through their careers being paid a “market rate” – it is not uncommon for nPower Championship sides to have several “middle earners” receiving around £10,000 to £15,000 per week.
However, while this is a highly interesting fact, it is not entirely relevant to the specific question. The players who previously “flew the nest” to play their trade across Europe were recruited by the continent’s leading clubs. Gary Lineker at FC Barcelona, Chris Waddle at Marseille and Paul Gascoigne at Lazio – all of these were giants of La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A respectively. It is no coincidence that as the Premier League has increased in quality and stature, so the flow of players has dried up. However, there were individuals leaving with some degree of regularity at the beginning of the 2000s, even, such as Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate and David Beckham – so what has changed in a decade?
It is fair to say that Real Madrid, the club responsible for recruiting the trio above, has certainly “altered” its recruitment policy since and attracted players of what one might term a slightly higher calibre: Cristiano Ronaldo in particular springs to mind. However, footballers’ reluctance to leave home might be due to the belief that no other division in Europe is more attractive to be a part of than the Premier League. It is a comfortable, pampered, media-heavy existence that English players enjoy in the top flight in this country. After all, there is no language to learn when switching from Liverpool to Tottenham Hotspur (besides an unfamiliar dialect). English (indeed, British) footballers have never been notorious for their adaptability or willingness to embrace different cultures – Ian Rush ordering tins of baked beans to be sent over to Italy during his Juventus days is a case in point.
The “technical question” could also explain the dearth of Englishman upping sticks and moving to the continent. The Premier League is frenetic, occasionally quite exciting, and for the most part reflects the traditional culture of English football. The majority of clubs, barring the influence of foreign coaches, play a conventional 4-4-2 formation. Most outfits adopt high tempo styles, and attack using a “big man up front” and pacy wingers. The best players in this country typically have “spirit” and “heart”, as well as a latent inability to retain possession.
This was illustrated in no uncertain terms at the recent European Championships, where even the Ukrainian midfielders were able to hold on to the ball better than their English counterparts. England produces few players of significant technical ability, and footballers are not technically trained at a young age, with the exception of a few clubs. Thus, when it comes to recruitment, managers in Italy, Spain and Germany, as well as being unable to afford English talent, will turn up their noses at those who are not of sufficient technical ability.
Another point to be made is that a high number of Premier League sides employ foreign coaches, at least in the upper echelons of the division. Thus, in order to work with the foremost managers throughout Europe, English footballers do not need to journey across the Channel. In this case, the mountain most certainly comes to Mohammed, and not the other way around. There is also a significant risk in heading abroad, given the competitive nature of the Premier League. If a player fails to make a significant impact in another European league, he can be easily forgotten and find it extremely difficult to secure a return to the English top flight. A nightmare scenario, when taking into account wages, the international reputation and prominence of the Premier League and the stature of its leading clubs.
Despite the general lack of English footballers plying their trade abroad, there is one for whom a spell in Europe has worked wonders and returned him to first-team contention at one of the league’s leading clubs. If you are yet to work out the identity of the individual in question, it is Joe Cole. After enduring nothing short of a nightmare at Liverpool, the winger headed out to French club Lille OSC. Once described as “a technically gifted player with the creativity to unlock a defence”, Cole was shipped out on a year-long loan at the beginning of last season.
Far from being the death knell for his career as a Premier League footballer, the short-term move revitalised the former Chelsea star. Despite Lille manager Rudi Garcia publicly stating his desire to keep the player in France, new Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has opened the door for Cole to return to first-team contention at Anfield.
So it can be done – English players do have the potential to acquit themselves abroad without having rings run around them by technically superior Europeans and needing to decry the cultural inferiorities of the continental nations. Having said this, it must be pointed out that Cole’s move came through weakness, as almost a “last resort”, rather than strength. If an English player is on an upward trajectory, in England he will remain.
Top Premier League clubs do not sell their talented Englishman – perhaps something to do with the “home grown rule” – and dominant sides in Spain and Italy either cannot afford the players that might be available, don’t want to afford them, or see them as backward, insular and typically “English”. Don’t expect the situation to change any time soon: with the latest television rights deal likely to see wages remain as astronomical as ever, living somewhere with a little less rain during the spring months suddenly appears less alluring than it otherwise might.
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