How to solve a problem like English football

From an underachieving national team, to a league flooded with foreign talent and the very real struggle of English talent trying to break into the first teams of the very best clubs,the introduction of a quota of ‘home-grown’ players in the Premier League alongside the implementation of the Elite Player Production Plan (EPPP) where prices for young players are decided by appearances and a set tariff, was seen as the solution to all of the problems of English football.

Since the advent of the 2010/11 Premier League season, clubs in England’s highest division have been forced to register a 25 man squad, 8 of which must be ‘home-grown’, defined as a player who, “irrespective of nationality or age, has been registered with any English or Welsh club for three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday”. Sadly for the chairman of the FA, Greg Dyke, and his merry men at the top of the bureaucratic mess that is the FA, this plan has backfired in the most awkward of fashions.

Hailed as the saviour of both domestic and national English football, the home-grown quota has led to hoarding and selfishness that threatens the very future of football in England. Statistics released by the CIES Football Observatory found that in matches up to 21 October, only 13.9% of players were home-grown, 77% of which qualified for the English national team. Compared to the rest of Europe’s big leagues, the Premier League is a laughing stock, and only marginally ahead of the increasingly obsolete Serie A.

What this has proved then, is that the home-grown quota is not working, but why? When introduced the idea was met with much fanfare and hope, it did seem to have some logical grounding as well as forcing even the richest clubs to develop their academy and increase the standard of English football. The problem, however, is two-fold; the increase in pressure on top clubs to field home-grown talent has led to hoarding you are only likely to see elsewhere at 9pm on Channel 4, while the failure of the FA to improve grassroots football and the EPPP has forced successful academies further down the footballing ladder, such as Dario Gradi’s famous academy at Crewe, into obscurity and financial troubles.

The first problem is slightly less obvious than the latter, but is arguably both the cause and the symptom of the failure of the home-grown quota. It is no secret that at the top of the Premier League teams are hoarding talent.

The worst culprits are unsurprising, Manchester City and Chelsea are both relatively new to the top of English football and in their determination to stay there alongside essentially endless funds, their academies have been developed to be the very best, and have then been filled with the very best of English and foreign talent. City, for example, have an U-18 squad of 24 players according to their website with an ‘Elite Development Squad’ of 31 players, dwarfing even that of Manchester United who have 20 and 13 in their equivalent squads.

The problem is even clearer at Chelsea. Their already huge playing squad (24 first-team, 20 U-21s, 17 U-18s) is offset by the 26 players they have out on loan at different clubs this season; a figure large enough to exceed the registration regulations for a Premier League club, 8 of whom are on loan at other English clubs.

Examining the list of players away, it’s clear that the talent Chelsea has acquired is wide-ranging and impressive. Notable exports are defender Tomas Kalas, at loan at F.C. Koln, midfielder Marko Marin at Fiorentina, midfielder Marco Van Ginkel and forward Fernando Torres at Milan.

The depth of foreign talent on loan from Chelsea is more than good enough to create a second team and compete in the Premier League by themselves. Not a good situation for the FA to find themselves in.

Their exploitation of the loan system is not the only problem with Chelsea’s approach. Their link with Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands has been controversial since its inception. Unlike a similar link that Manchester United have with Royal Antwerp where players are sent on loan to prove themselves, Chelsea’s relationship with the Dutch club has been investigated by the Dutch FA due to allegations of disproportionate influence from London, with regards to Vitesse’s transfer activity. With Chelsea having first option on any player the Vitesse academy produces, as well as regularly sending four players on loan to the club, there have been allegations that the ownership of the club by a close friend of Roman Abramovich, Alexander Chigirinsky, is interfering with the competitiveness of the club in both Europe and Holland beyond acceptable and normal factors.

This two-fold exploitation has led to a bigger problem in England football. The EPPP was derided from the beginning, with many academies complaining that the set prices made running an academy unsustainable. Academies such as Crewe’s and Crystal Palace’s were often only kept afloat by large fees for their successful graduates. Players such as Wilfried Zaha for Palace who signed for Manchester United for a fee of £10million, and Danny Murphy for Crewe who signed for Liverpool for £1.5m in 1997, were used as examples of extremely important and necessary windfalls for the clubs. With prices based on future appearances, academies are risking their future by developing talent that they used to get a large sum of money for. Instead they now receive a small sum that may or may not grow to a maximum of £1.5million.

This has meant that the larger clubs in England are able to much more easily take on young talent for much less risk. The days of large outlays for excellent youth talent are gone, and it’s creating a hole in English football. While big clubs are hoarding the best talent, and sending the same players back out on loan for years at a time, these players that are not guaranteed to make it anyway, take up space in clubs that would otherwise be blooding new talent players. Take Southampton as an example, one of the best producers of British talent in recent years with players such as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Calum Chambers, have this season taken Ryan Bertrand on loan to plug a hole at the back. In previous years it would be usually expected that an up-and-coming talent would be used to fill the space. This is not true any longer.

This change in English football is masking a deeper crisis. The lack of investment in grassroots football and a begrudging acceptance that the top clubs seem to deserve the right to develop the best British talent means that the traditional blooding of players in lower leagues at smaller clubs before joining a bigger club is going to stop. The days of players being discovered and snapped up are gone, and since only the best talent will go to the top, less skilled players will have less and less chance of getting into football. Academies’ profits have become negligible, and EPPP has created a scenario where focusing on player development is essentially a death wish for a club in any sort of financial trouble.

The thirst for home-grown players at the top and the hoarding that has caused, alongside an exploitation of the loan system, has created a vacuum of talent and opportunity in English football. The future of English football on both national and domestic levels is at risk. A lack of depth in talent will stagnate the very top and create a vacuum for the national game to be sucked into. The consequences of this will not only hurt the health of the Premier League but also the health of the game in general by destroying the integrity of the academy system and creating a financial black hole for lower league clubs.

Not only has the plan not worked, failing to increase the use of home-grown players in England, but it is slowly damaging English football beyond repair. It is clearly time for Greg Dyke and his merry men to reassess and retreat before it is too late.

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