Football: Flair schools must be on the FA agenda

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE THIS starting line-up for the showpiece climax of the current English football season, the FA Cup final at Wembley on 22 May:

Arsenal: Manninger, Dixon, Vivas, Adams, Grimandi, Petit, Vieira, Garde, Overmars, Anelka, Bergkamp.

Chelsea: De Goey, Ferrer, Lambourde, Babayaro, Leboeuf, Petrescu, Wise, Goldbaek, Forssell, Flo, Zola.

Only three players - Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Dennis Wise, all well past the first flush of youth - are English. Will the first Cup final in the new millennium be totally bereft of players eligible to represent the home country? If it is, will it matter?

The Cup final has long been graced with the special artistry that foreign players can provide. In 1952 Winston Churchill, the guest of honour attending his first FA Cup final, presented a medal to the winning goal scorer, George Robledo of Newcastle United. The Chilean inside-forward's 84th- minute strike had put paid to 10-man Arsenal's brave resistance in those pre-substitute days after the Welsh international full-back, Wally Barnes, damaged his knee early in the game.

The following year Blackpool's South African left winger, Bill Perry, was another winning goalscorer. Perry, later to qualify for England, swept home Stan Matthews' cross to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3 in a match known ever since as the Matthews Final.

In 1956 Bert Trautmann, Manchester City's German goalkeeper, bravely finished the 3-1 victory over Birmingham City despite suffering a badly damaged neck 20 minutes before the end.

And, of course, in modern times Manchester United's French talisman, Eric Cantona, drilled in the only goal against Liverpool in 1996 following his suspension for assaulting a yob who had hurled a racist epithet at him at Selhurst Park.

We can do little to legislate against the foreign invasion. The Bosman judgment in 1995 ruled that any discrimination against European Union nationals was illegal.

Previously teams could include only three foreign players. Now the FA Premier League rules merely stipulate that, other than players who have been resident in the United Kingdom for five years, clubs can field a maximum of three non-EU players. These players have to meet strict criteria before a work permit can be obtained from the Department of Employment. They need to have appeared in 75 per cent of their country's full international matches over the previous two years.

The Bosman case was expected to dampen down the transfer market. It did, but only at a certain level. Second and Third Division clubs began to experience serious difficulty in selling players to the Premier League. The trade from Scotland to England all but dried up. Bank managers of smaller clubs became increasingly uneasy as the books became harder to balance. However, premium prices still prevailed at the higher end of the domestic market and clubs were compelled to shop abroad.

Moreover, the money on offer in the Premier League made it increasingly easy to attract overseas stars. By and large, Germans, Italians and Spaniards earn top money in the leagues of these three countries, but few other nations can compete with the salaries that the cash-rich Premiership can pay. Even France, the World Cup winners, lose most of their players to other leagues.

So in the absence of any real shift in the economics which affect football across Europe, not even King Canute would attempt to push back the tide of foreign transfers.

Not that I would want any further restrictions. The Carling Premiership is the envy of the world, with the added colour and flair which the foreigners place alongside the traditional English passion and commitment, even though the quality of defensive play is not always of the highest calibre.

Ask any of Manchester United's brilliant young Englishmen - Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham or Paul Scholes - what Cantona's presence meant. They will testify to his touch, his vision and, above all, his willingness to practise his skills all day long. He helped them enormously.

Speak to any Arsenal player (except possibly Marc Overmars!) and they will tell you how the emergence of Nicolas Anelka has provided a vital outlet not only for them but also for the stunning French team, which seems to have improved since victory over Brazil last July.

Finally, question any Spurs supporter who struggled to beat the traffic in north London after last Wednesday's David Ginola-inspired FA Cup replay victory over Leeds United sent the Seven Sisters Road into a horn-tooting frenzy of Parisian proportions.

The foreign players are a clear asset to the game. They attract crowds and inspire home-grown players to emulate them. The clubs are not going to be deterred by critics bemoaning the scarcity of English players or the damage that may be caused to the England team if domestic talent is unable to break through. The fans, staunchly supportive of their own teams before they think about England, are not going to desert the turnstiles.

So it is the Football Association which must act: not to stem the foreign tide but to improve the quality of our own players. The Premier League already licenses its clubs to have player development academies with high standards of training and care. It already subsidises Football League clubs to the tune of pounds 137,000 per club for centres of excellence.

The FA's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, must persuade the Premier League that long-term investment in academies which produce English players of the highest skill and flair is compulsory, not optional. He must ensure that young talent is identified and nurtured whichever part of the country it emanates from, not just near a Premier League club. And Wilkinson must press ahead with his visionary plans to build a true centre of football excellence like that at Clairefontaine which has served the French so effectively.

If this happens we will have our own Ginolas competing with the overseas stars for Premier League places; the England team will be renowned for its technique in years to come; and Her Majesty the Queen will find herself torn between loyalty to her family antecedents and her own subjects when she attends the World Cup final at the new Wembley between England and Germany in 2006!