Wednesday, 8 June 2011
The English Patience
You can’t hear it in the car park. You poke your head around the door to the club shop, but nothing. Through the sliding glass doors and into reception, you can’t hear it. Going up the stairs and into the bowels of the stadium, slowly a dull thudding starts to play on the eardrums. Along the corridor, it’s now clearly in earshot. Past the gym and along to the manager’s office, a repeating bang-bang-bang, of forehead on wood, is clearly audible. Through the door and the manager is sitting there, Premier League scout opposite, looking exasperated.
“I don’t understand”, the manager says. “He’s a kid who’s hardly ever played for the national team, who’s never played in the Champions League, who doesn’t have any medals, who’s never moved clubs so has no sell-on clauses and who hasn’t played 100 club games in his career yet. And he’s worth MORE than £10m?” “But boss”, the scout says, exhaling with the air of a man about to attempt to explain the finer points of physics to an intellectually reticent monkey – this isn’t going to make sense, but it’s fundamental truth – “he’s English.”
English indeed. Who would have thought that nationality, a pointless human stereotype in itself, could be enough to automatically inflate your Premier League transfer value as a sportsman by two, three or even four times? Particularly, and you might be aware of Magic Spongers’ fairly strong opinions on this, when the nation you are associated with has suffered years of ignominy on the international stage, and to bring things bang up to date, hasn’t won a home game in four attempts.
The natural step would be to ask if this peculiar anomaly affects the transfer fees of Englishmen moving out of the Premier League, but for the fact that a) hardly any do and b) David Beckham categorically does not count*. Maybe Michael Owen (£8m to Real Madrid) and Jonathan Woodgate (£13.4m) are decent examples, but all they really prove is that Real were in an era where they would’ve thrown £5m at a bag of chips if it was in the news that week. Actually, it also proves that English players don’t last long before coming home for yet another sizeable fee, whereupon they become perma-crocks (honourable mention for Owen Hargreaves).
So this is a peculiarly Premier League phenomenon. What a surprise. It can’t be that the league’s self-importance knows no bounds, can it? What possible advantage exists for the club to spend all the extra money on specifically an English player? It’s not as if there aren’t players from other nationalities with extensive experience of the Premier League these days. While there might be notional restrictions on academies, there are no limits to the amount of foreign players you can buy into the first team. It is also pertinent to point out here that however well-intentioned the homegrown players rule is, brought in at the start of last season, the eight ‘homegrown’ players in question in each squad of 25 do not even have to be English (read more here).
Richard Scudamore never once mentions 'English' players when dwelling on the rule. He states: "It will encourage youth development and the promotion of young players," and then adds: "It's a rule which we think will give clubs an extra incentive to develop players, and to make a better return from their investment in youth." That it was the Premier League that enforced this seemingly pointless rule merely adds weight to the Magic Spongers-endorsed Pull Your Finger Out Of Your Arse campaign aimed at the FA (Trevor Brooking notwithstanding).
As is no doubt obvious, this particular article has been brought about by Liverpool’s signing of Jordan Henderson for £20m, which may or may not include David N’Gog moving in the other direction. Now that amount of money on a young English midfielder might turn out to be value, it might not, but at the moment it seems a very hefty price tag when you consider Mesut Ozil (after a stellar World Cup) cost Real Madrid approximately £14m and Wesley Sneijder (just a stellar player in general) moved to Inter for 15m euros. It's as if... takes deep breath... I went to the local greengrocers and started squabbling over an incredibly nondescript domestically-grown onion with another customer, even though said onion costs £8 and is clearly inferior to the ones for 30p in the next basket that come from Germany and the Netherlands.
The BBC report on the transfer trumpets that “Henderson's [potential] acquisition fits in with Liverpool's policy under Kenny Dalglish, director of football Damien Comolli and owners Fenway Sports Group to pursue young, and preferably English, talent”. One argument here, of course, is that it benefits the national side for a young player like Henderson to be at a club like Liverpool. Fair enough. But considering Liverpool don’t really need him, well stocked in this area that they are – a strategy also apparently being applied to their pursuit of Charlie Adam – how will it benefit him to spend more time on the bench than he will on the pitch?
As if that wasn’t enough, this happened today an all. Blackburn had set Jones’s release clause so high because they knew the market would bear it out. Both he and Henderson had four years left to run on their respective contracts, so compensation was clearly an issue too. No doubt United had to stump up the maximum to gazump interest, as the Guardian says, from Liverpool and Arsenal.
United have previous, but paying just £6m for Javier Hernandez and, even more at odds with tradition, only a reported £8m for Chris Smalling, it seems strange for Premier League clubs to be squabbling over specifically English talent like this. Especially when Michael Mancienne has moved to Hamburg for £1.75m, exiting a contract with Chelsea that would have expired in 2013. Hmmm.
This isn’t to say there are no talented English players worth tens of millions, or that the Premier League is any different from any other market in prices being determined by supply and demand. Quite why the demand and therefore transfer fees for young English players is so high among exclusively English league clubs is what never ceases to amaze.
If the caveat applied to the chasing of young English talent is that they are hungrier for success, then a laboured analogy with Bushby and MacDonald’s Saturday night pulling attempts would blow that little gem right out of the water. Clubs that have have enjoyed success in recent times in the Premier League have not done so due to their proclivity towards English footballers. And the club that has fielded the most English players and found success over the past decade or so – Manchester United – either paid huge fees for their Englishmen (Ferdinand, Rooney, Hargreaves, Carrick) or saw them brought through the youth system in the 90s (Scholes, Nevilles G&P, etc).
A peculiar phenomenon then, this doe-eyed pursuit of young English players, when all it really amounts to is a costly transfer fee for players who will once more be absorbed into the Premier League tapestry and by virtue of being bit-part players at their clubs, become bit-part players for their country, which will in turn continue to be bit-part players in tournament. It doesn’t only apply to the juniors either, with ludicrous valuations the norm for perennially English transfers like Scotty Parker (allegedly available for £15m, previous price tag £6.5m), James Milner (£26m including Steven Ireland), Darren Bent (£18m) and Gareth Barry (£12m).
Does it make any sense? Of course it bloody doesn’t. Hooray for the Premier League.
*In that his category is not ‘footballer’ per se, but more ‘actually a lot like one of those blokes off an American football team who comes on and occasionally kicks the ball, but richer and with other interests. Like flying all over the world and saying “you know” a lot’.