Football: Banks' 'ridiculous' England plan

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The Independent Online
After the crossed fingers, the cross foreigners. No sooner had Tony Banks, the new Sports Minister, enraged Westminster's traditionalists with his unusual stance when taking the oath of allegiance, than he risked an even more extreme reaction from the footballing variety with his prescription for a successful England team. Take a handful of Italians, a couple of Frenchman, the odd Dutchman - and maybe even a few Englishmen.

Within hours of his much-criticised Commons performance, the maverick Minister demonstrated that his talent for controversy was as developed as ever when he suggested to the man from the Press Association that the rules be changed so that overseas footballers playing for English clubs become eligible to play for Glenn Hoddle's national side.

This immediately conjured the mouth-watering, if far-fetched, image of Alan Shearer forming a dynamic World Cup partnership with Gianfranco Zola, with the two being supported by the likes of Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp. Banks insisted, however, that he was not simply indulging in fantasy international football.

"We ought to think about, if you play in this country for one of the league teams, you can play for the country as well," he said. "In other words the right to play is not one of birth but one of residence. Think about it. Freedom of movement within the European Union, able to vote, let's start thinking the unthinkable. If people are playing over here and want to play for England and Scotland, why not play?"

For good measure Banks added that what he was really in favour of was a combined United Kingdom team, comprising the best of the English, Scottish and Northern Irish teams - as well, presumably, as the best foreigners.

Mr Banks' extraordinary suggestions drew a guarded response from the Football Association. Graham Kelly, its chief executive, said: "The FA's reaction to such comments would be entirely and wholly sceptical. I'm sure the four British associations have similar views, and indeed I think I would say the same for Uefa and Fifa."

Cesare Maldini, the coach to the Italian national side, was more forthright. Describing the idea as "ridiculous", he said: "If you follow through what this man is saying, then Paul Ince ought to play for Italy.

"This minister has probably only been in his post for a short period of time and doesn't know anything about sport yet. He might be a fan, but obviously he hasn't been briefed about the football world. On certain subjects it's better to think before you speak."

Banks admitted his ideas were not Government policy, but added: "Let's discuss it. Why don't we talk about it? We're in Europe, we're involved. Tony Blair said to me, 'Get in there and liven it up', and I'm going to do precisely that. These are things worth discussing. It's no good saying it's rubbish, we can't do it. Why shouldn't we discuss it? My role here is to be a bit challenging and controversial and to act as a catalyst."

Banks' capacity to be "a bit challenging" has already seen him removed by Downing Street from his weekly slot on a radio phone-in, on the grounds that its was too wide-ranging for a Sports Minister.

His latest outburst, clearly within his brief, hardly received a ringing endorsement from Downing Street yesterday. "Picking the England side is a matter for Glenn Hoddle. Tony Banks is certainly livening things up," a spokesman said.

And if the Prime Minister is entertaining any second thoughts about his new Sports Minister, the man himself would certainly understand. "I know one thing," Banks said as he concluded his latest controversial interview. "If I'd been Tony Blair I wouldn't have appointed me."