Formed in the autumn of 2013, last May the England Commission – established by the Football Association to improve English football and aid the national team, and headed by FA Chairman Greg Dyke – published its first report. The report’s two flagship proposals – B-teams for Premier League clubs, and ‘Strategic Loan Partnerships’ between the top two and lower two professional divisions – were widely derided and quickly dismissed. Undaunted, on Monday evening Greg Dyke announced an update on the commission’s progress. The update has two distinct but interrelated concerns: the FA’s rules regarding ‘home-grown’ players; and the work permit regulations, agreed with the Home Office, which pertain to non-European Economic Area talent.
Dyke’s proposals would define as ‘home-grown’ players – regardless of nationality – who have been registered with a club in England or Wales for three years prior to their 18th birthday. The current definition allows as home-grown players registered for three years prior to their 21st birthday. Thus where today players can join a club aged 18 and qualify three years later as ‘home-grown’, under Dyke’s proposals players would have to be settled by the age of 15 to hope to meet the same criteria.
The number of non-home-grown players permitted in a club’s first team squad of twenty-five would be reduced from seventeen to thirteen. This means that squads would have to contain twelve home-grown players: an increase on the current eight, which would be phased in over four seasons from 2016. Finally, the proposals include that at least two home-grown players must be club trained, meaning that they have spent three years prior to their 18th birthday with their current club.
These proposals will have to be negotiated with Premier League and Football League clubs; and there is little to indicate that they will be embraced by the Premier League in particular, as they would demand a significant shift in the balance of first team squads, and disrupt the work many academies are undertaking in line with the current rules and definitions. A two-thirds majority among clubs is required to pass any Premier League reform.
As for work permits for non-EEA footballers, changes to the system have already been approved – last Friday – by the Home Office. The new system will come into effect from 1 May, meaning that it will apply over the summer transfer window ahead of next season.
Presently the regulations are that players should have appeared in at least 75% of their country’s international fixtures, over the past twenty-four months, to qualify for a work permit. This holds for all players representing international sides within the top 70 of the official FIFA rankings. The new regulations are tiered, dependent on these same rankings. Players from national sides ranked 1-10 by FIFA should have played at least 30% of international fixtures over the past twenty-four months; for players from national sides ranked 11-20 this rises to 45% of fixtures; 60% for those from sides ranked 21-30; and 75% for those from sides between 31-50. The reference period has been reduced from twenty-four months to twelve months for players aged 21 or younger.
In theory, players belonging to national sides ranked outside the top fifty will be ineligible for a work permit. But just as important as the above criteria, the work permit appeals process has been reformed – and made much more strict. According to the FA, the old system saw almost 80% of work permit appeals succeed; meaning that around half of all non-EEA players arrived at their clubs via the appeals process. Under the new regulations, there will still be an ‘exceptions panel’, but it will sideline ‘subjective supporting evidence’ in favour of a ‘stricter assessment of relevant objective criteria’. The FA suggest that 33% of those who received a work permit under the old system would fail to achieve the same via the new regulations: an equation that would have resulted in 42 fewer non-European players in English football over the last five seasons.
The Guardian additionally suggests that – in accordance with one of the ideas mooted last September, when the FA began the consultation process with clubs towards changing the work permit regulations – players signed for about £10 million or more will be exempt from all of the criteria above.
While viewing critically these attempts by the England Commission to restrict the number of foreigners in the English game, perhaps one should look also at the improvements to coaching and facilities at grassroots level which the commission has proposed. But these currently amount to little: a promise to add 25 full-time FA coach educators and vastly increase the number of youth coaches; a new head of coaching education at St George’s Park National Football Centre; and an idea to create ‘football hubs’ in thirty cities by 2020, which should include greater public access to artificial and full-sized pitches.
Plans such as these take time to implement and longer to bear fruit. But it may be asked whether they are sufficiently proactive; whether they do anything to produce from within English football coaches at the top level; and whether they help constitute the revised and coherent footballing philosophy which many see as essential if young English players are to succeed in the Premier League and excel when they come together to form England squads. Perhaps, rather than restricting foreign players, the FA could encourage and support English players and coaches in making their own careers abroad.
It would be much too kind to suggest that the England Commission’s headline proposals are bluster which mask the important work they are doing elsewhere. The commission does not appear to have the scope to modify the game in anything more than a cosmetic way. And in interviews and appearances, Greg Dyke’s focus is repeatedly on what he considers the ‘bog-standard’ foreigners holding back home-grown talent.
The flaws and deceits in the commission’s latest changes and proposals are manifest. The proposed revision on the number of home-grown players required in a first team squad would only inflate the price of English players: already ridiculously high owing to the home-grown requirement as it stands. This has seen clubs pay, in recent seasons, excessive fees for players including Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Jack Rodwell, and Andy Carroll. The sort of prices clubs are quoted even for lesser English talent often impels their search abroad.
Meanwhile the likes of Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, and Adam Johnson – bought by big clubs to bolster their home-grown quota – have seen little playing time and their careers stagnate. Peculiar signings like the goalkeepers Brad Jones and Ross Turnbull have lingered at big clubs solely because they fill out the home-grown allocation.
Along with the sense that players costing £10 million or more will be exempt from work permit hassles, the commission’s designs emerge as ones which tilt the playing field ever further in the direction of the few biggest clubs. They will have the money to hoard English talent, while bypassing the work permit system for any player they deem worthy of the fee. On the other hand smaller clubs who scout well and feel they have found a relative bargain will find themselves stymied by the unsympathetic requirements of ‘objective criteria’. Aspiring players from smaller leagues outside of Europe will struggle for a chance to fulfill their potential in the Premier League.
While there is the view that the proposed change to the definition of ‘home-grown’ would prevent clubs signing foreign players at 18 in order to fulfill the criteria, it seems equally likely that it would encourage the biggest clubs to attempt to bypass all restrictions and entice prospects at an ever-younger age. Likewise, the work permit revisions could entrench trade routes into the Premier League via European countries with shorter requirements for obtaining citizenship. Players born or residing outside of the EEA who have the ability to choose which nation they represent will be swayed towards whatever allows them to move most freely between leagues. Rich clubs have shown time and again that – where they may succeed in hampering other clubs – regulations and limitations will have little affect on them: they consistently find ways to not only bypass regulations, but to turn them to their advantage, as Chelsea well demonstrate with their ongoing abuse of the loan system.
If England, with all of its wealth and resources as a country, with its footballing background, and with the supposed success of the Premier League, cannot produce talented youth the fault hardly lies with those from outside the EEA who have generally worked harder with less to establish a reputation. Certainly there is something to be said for managers giving young players – of all nations – an adequate chance in the top flight. Young footballers must be afforded the opportunity to fulfil their talent, and for this they need playing time and trust.
But this opportunity shouldn’t be forced and the preserve of English youngsters alone; and it also doesn’t imply a need for more English managers. The likes of Sam Allardyce, Harry Redknapp, and Alan Pardew have achieved little towards the development of youth, and they are among the chief culprits for misusing talent and treating players as expendable commodities. Even with clubs forced to make home-grown players a greater part of their squads, there is nothing to say that managers won’t still persist with experienced professionals rather than risking a chance on youth. Arsene Wenger is one of the few managers at the top level genuinely committed to developing youngsters – and he argued earlier this year that work permits for footballers should be scrapped altogether. Wenger believes that the best prospects only improve from training and playing alongside the world’s best players.
Beyond all of this, the concept of dictating what clubs can and cannot do for the sake of the betterment of the England team is absurd. Few fans in my experience care profoundly about the English national side; and there is no reason whatsoever why they should care. Club football comes first – and while the World Cup in Brazil last year was a tremendous success, there is the widespread sense that club football has surpassed international football for quality and consistency.
International football, through the tedium of friendlies and qualification campaigns, comes alive once every two years at most. Meanwhile fans want to see their clubs sign the best players from across the world: they want the excitement of foreign signings and the coming together of different styles of play; and they relish the chance to compete, through the astute signing of a relative unknown, against the financial inequality which marks the game. Local players can still sometimes forge a special attachment with their club’s fans; but English players in general are no more loyal to English clubs than their overseas counterparts. The coldness which is increasingly characteristic of supporters’ feelings towards English football is a product of the disparity between clubs, negative tactics, rising ticket prices, inadequate punditry, and the wages and behaviours of players from across the spectrum. The sorry state of refereeing and FA decision making – replete with its prejudices and hypocrisies – hardly helps.
The England team has a history of underachievement entirely separate from the influx of foreign players over the last couple of decades. From the early 1970s through to the mid 1980s, qualification for international tournaments was the exception rather than the rule. The group of players who played for the national side over the last decade – from Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney to David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard, and John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, and Ashley Cole – were routinely cast as a ‘Golden Generation’, and qualified for international tournaments regularly while still managing to thoroughly disappoint.
The England Commission is made up of FA Chairman Greg Dyke alongside FA Vice Chairman Roger Burden; League Managers’ Association Chairman Howard Wilkinson; Football League Chairman Greg Clarke; ex-England manager Glenn Hoddle; Professional Footballers’ Association Chairman Ritchie Humphreys; former professional Danny Mills; and Crewe Director of Football Dario Gradi. To these initial appointments Rio Ferdinand and Roy Hodgson were quickly added, after the commission came under fire for its lack of diversity.
There are still no women on the commission, and the average age of its members is 57. Roger Burden was known for his conservatism while chairman of the grassroots-focused National Game Board. Greg Clarke was roundly criticised last autumn for making excuses over the Football League’s failure to engage black coaches; and for dismissing these criticisms as amounting to nothing more than the ‘shrill voices of the vested interests’. The commission features no representative on behalf of the Premier League. It is hard to see the commission as particularly relevant or well suited to its self-proclaimed task; rather, its venture seems misguided and largely self-serving. Ferdinand is the only member with any wide credibility. There is a crass irony in Dyke leading the likes of Mills and Wilkinson as they pontificate on how to produce excellence in English football.