Post football writer assesses the future of the game
This has been a memorable summer for English football. Alas, for all the wrong reasons.
The embarrassing failure of the Stuart Pearce’s side at the Under-21 European Championships was bad enough.
But that it was compounded by the subsequent slump by Peter Taylor’s outfit at the U20 World Cup brought the whole set-up of the English game into sharp focus.
The questions are still being asked.
Why, after earning qualification, do we so often underachieve on the global stage?
Will the impact of the Football Association’s new St George’s Park facility be sufficient?
And what else needs to be done?
Jamie Carragher, already as forthright in retirement as he was as a player, this week provided an answer.
“The foreign players have been brilliant for this country,” he says.
“But it’s at the stage now where reserve and youth teams are full of foreign players – and what chance do young players have if they can’t get into the youth or reserve team?
“Let’s give them that chance to show a manager what they can do and then ask, are they ready?
“Academies should be for our kids and if you buy foreign players they should be for the first team.”
Carragher was a member of Liverpool’s FA Youth Cup-winning side of 1996 in which only one player – Welshman Gareth Roberts – was not English.
The rise in foreign influence at youth level can be tracked. Everton’s team in the finals of 1998 and 2002 contained just two non-English players.
By the time Liverpool reached the showpiece in 2006 and 2007, the numbers were up to four and five. In 2009, there were six, only one of which was not from overseas.
At Anfield, part of the reason was former manager Rafael Benitez’s insistence in flooding the youth levels in the hope that a few gems could be unearthed while able to sell on the plethora of foreign starlets who couldn’t quite make the grade.
It was a controversial approach that was never universally approved. Indeed, towards the end of his time at Anfield, Benitez urged to bring in more English talent, which led to, among others, Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom being snapped up.
“If I was in a youth team and Liverpool bought the French Under-18 captain in my position, that would deflate me,” adds Carragher.
“I don’t think it’s that good for the foreign players either – leaving home at 15 or 16 without their family and friends, adapting to a new style of football. I just don’t think it works.”
Carragher is right. But this isn’t just a problem for Liverpool.
Only 189 English players featured in the Premier League last season, compared to 332 Spaniards in La Liga, 320 French in Ligue 1, 269 Italians in Serie A and 224 Germans in the Bundesliga.
In their defence, the Premier League claim 95% of 16 to 18-year-olds at academies are British and that 75% of players competing in the new Premier League U21 competition last season were British.
Perhaps the tide is starting to turn. But English football should only be turning to the very best of foreign talent while safeguarding the nurturing of their own.
Otherwise, the Premier League will become a finishing school for other countries – until, of course, the money runs out.
“Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots.”
So said Bill Shankly when discussing his approach to the game during his time as Liverpool manager.
It was a general observation. But made today, it could easily refer to the ‘management speak’ that has permeated many a workplace in recent times.
Football has not escaped.
Too often, press conferences and post-match interviews with managers both home and abroad are littered with utterances that, when properly deconstructed, mean either very little or are complete nonsense.
Few modern-day coaches are immune. And those on Merseyside are guilty of falling into the trap now and again.
Such was the case with Brendan Rodgers who, when asked to assess Philippe Coutinho’s position in the Liverpool side, offered this explanation of the Brazilian’s freedom to cut inside from the left flank.
“He had the licence and freedom to jump inside so he is not playing as number 11, he is playing as a number 11-and-a-half, coming inside joining in and making the passes.”
Number 11-and-a-half? Wouldn’t that push Coutinho halfway towards the substitutes’ bench?
Nevertheless, Rodgers remains crystal clear when it comes to Luis Suarez, warning the Uruguayan he has no chance of rejoining the first team until he apologises for his behaviour.
Liverpool are intent Suarez will not be sold, and for now a battle of wills ensues. We’ll know come September 3 who held firm strongest.
The clock ticks down and still Brendan Rodgers is seeking reinforcements.
Many supporters needed a double take when it emerged this week Liverpool were chasing Anzhi Makhachkala midfielder Willian.
Not because the Brazilian had only earlier this year joined the Russian club for a whopping £32million.
Instead, Liverpool supporters were checking to make sure their team weren’t about to sign will.i.am, the elegantly-coiffured pop-producing, movie-starring, talent-judging, Cheryl Cole-admiring American. He might not be all that great at knocking the crosses from the left flank.
But old Bill would surely be the go-to man for any post-match ‘choons’.
Boom boom pow indeed.
The manner in which the Ashes were retained may have been something of a damp squib.
But England’s clinching of the series in the shadows at Chester-le-Street on Monday evening encapsulated everything that is right about Test cricket.
Twenty20 and one-day forms have their advocates. Nothing, though, can compare to the sheer drama and rollercoaster of emotion that a five-day Test match can provide.
Of course, it’s not always perfect – the game’s critics will always wonder how an encounter can go on for so long without a guarantee someone has won – but the timescale allows for a real ebb and flow. So it was on Monday. England began the day on top, but attempts to move into a commanding position were thwarted by a late Australian wicket spree.
Then the Aussies raced away to 168-2 only to collapse in dramatic fashion as Stuart Broad’s six wickets in 45 balls earned England a third win in a series in a home Ashes test since 1985.
To clinch a 4-0 triumph at The Oval next week would be a first on home soil for England against their oldest rivals.
Yes, that would be greedy.
But Alastair Cook’s men have proven they are now the best team in the world.