This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
If the last month has taught us nothing else, it is that crass short-termism is still the primary philosophy espoused by English football culture.
Another anti-relegation transfer splurge from Queens Park Rangers has probably taken their wage bill over two-hundred per-cent of the club’s annual turnover. Fans and pundits have demanded that Frank Lampard be given a new contract at Chelsea despite it being in the club’s long-term interests not to keep him. Most worrying of all, however, has been the widespread and hysterical condemnation of youngsters’ shaky performances by fans that should be more understanding.
Opportunities are famously hard to come by for young players in the Premier League and for young English players in particular. The riches boasted by even the top flight’s smaller sides allow them to explore the globe in a way which relative giants in other countries cannot. As a consequence, our clubs tend almost exclusively to sign and sell foreign players ready for first team action.
Those who have previously criticised this practice have had to shut up and adapt to the rules of the game. During his tenure as West Ham manager, Alan Pardew repeatedly criticised Arsène Wenger for ignoring young English players and importing cheaper, technically-skilled Francophones. These days Pardew buys exclusively from Ligue 1.
With the Premier League’s new TV deal worth £5bn, one can be forgiven for expecting things to stay largely the same. English clubs will continue to produce talents like John Bostock, Josh McEachran and Fabian Delph only to kill their careers by denying them game time. This cannot be allowed to continue: it is important that English clubs promote home-grown players.
One will inevitably encounter a couple of familiar arguments when making statements such as the above, so it makes sense to address them pre-emptively.
Firstly, talent does trump nationality in the short-term – this I will not contest. As a spectator, it is undeniably more rewarding to watch twenty-two talented imports play a sophisticated brand of football in the Premier League than it is to go to your local lower league side and sit through the depressing up-and-under drivel that poorly taught home-grown players continue to play.
Secondly, there is the Club versus Country argument: most English fans appear to have given up on the national side, assuming they ever gave a hoot at all. Following on from a testing decade for the Three Lions, they would much rather their club side of choice succeed. Again, that is a perfectly acceptable standpoint. Personally, I do not support England or wish their current set of players any more success than I do those representing South Sudan or the Solomon Islands.
That said, we all love watching great footballers in action. To that end, the most important part of a club – indeed, of your club – is not its first eleven but its youth team, for that is where great footballers are made. It is in this department that English clubs lag behind the standards set by those on the continent.
Only two Premier League teams have used a majority of English players this season: Norwich (62% – none from their academy) and Southampton (52% – but only four youth products). We all know someone who had all the talent to go to the top but did not make it; a player who, had they been born in Spain, the Netherlands or Germany would have become a skilled and esteemed footballer instead of a bricklayer. This is the tragedy English football.
The plight of English youngsters is nothing new. What has proved worrying of late is the lack of compassion afforded to those who are lucky enough to get a game. Foreign youngsters, in particular, arrive as messiahs and are expected to perform like Ballon d’Or winners as soon as they get out of the airport. It is almost as though fans have forgotten that footballers are people too, and that young ones are bound to struggle at times.
David De Gea has only been at Manchester United for eighteen months but such has been the repetitive nature of the criticism to which he has been subjected, it feels like an eternity. He has inevitably made mistakes but the positive aspects of his game are overlooked by United supporters demanding instant and spectacular success.
Disapproval of De Gea has been so widespread that the Spaniard is rumoured to desire a return to his homeland in the summer. For English football to lose a talent of De Gea’s potential would be highly damaging. The twenty-two year-old will, without a shadow of a doubt, be one of the world’s best goalkeepers in a few years. This, it appears, is not enough: he must be the world’s best goalkeeper now.
Similarly, Liverpool’s Sebastián Coates had a bad game in the Reds’ FA Cup defeat to Oldham Athletic and was subsequently derided as the club’s worst ever defender by some fans. Again, they chose to take his performance out of perspective in order to criticise.
Although Coates has been at Anfield since August 2011, it was only his twenty-second appearance for Liverpool. He has grown up excelling in an entirely different style of football in his native Uruguay, been flown halfway across the globe, dropped into an alien environment and then denied playing time.
Is it any surprise, therefore, that Coates appears to lack authority and self-belief on the field of play? With a summer exit apparently likely, it seems Coates will join Gabriel Paletta, Emiliano Insúa and Ryan Babel on the list of potential stars that failed on Merseyside, though he will doubtless find success in a more supportive environment.
One of the only English clubs investing in youth is Arsenal and yet they too are an obvious casualty of short-termism. Their supporters, demanding to see a re-run of 2003-04 every season, seem to want the club to sign a £30m player for every position. Of their current squad, only Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere enjoy anything close to approval from the Emirates crowd and even then the former has endured seven years of impatience and scorn in reaching this point.
Wojciech Szczęsny, Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey have been given regular football by Arsène Wenger and his trust in them will see them blossom into fine players. For now, none is trusted by the Emirates faithful. All have been regularly derided, seemingly for not being as good as David Seaman, Ashley Cole and Cesc Fàbregas already.
While those fans would argue that Arsenal’s prioritisation of youth has seen them fall away as title challengers and contributed to their annual exodus of senior players, the Gunners’ trust in youth will see them producing talent long after their rivals have exhausted their spending power. That supporters choose not to see this truth is illustrative of the stranglehold that short-termism holds on English football’s top echelons.
By focusing on the here and now, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past over and again. While the high-octane helter-skelter that is the Premier League will keep drawing fans from all over the world with its drama, excitement and big names, the England team will continue to be made to look foolish and truly talented foreigners will choose to learn their craft elsewhere. It is up to each and every one of us to ensure that this does not come to pass.