Football: Small minds of the little Englanders

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ENGLISH football has taken the first step towards declaring the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish to be foreigners, therefore limiting the number who can appear in teams competing in the FA Carling Premiership and the Endsleigh League. Wogs used to start at Calais. Now they start at Chepstow and Carlisle.

We cannot be sure how far advanced the Football Association is towards shattering the traditional intermingling of the UK's races at club level but it has certainly reached that stage at which wind of it is leaked in order for reaction to be gauged. The government does it all the time. It is called 'walking an idea around the block to see who craps on it'.

Well, here goes. It would be an act of galloping xenophobia that could almost immediately jeopardise the international futures of Wales and Northern Ireland and, in time, even that of Scotland. This would be particularly ironic in Scotland's case because it was in cahoots with them 10 years ago that the English killed off the Home International Championship which was the lifeblood of the Welsh and Irish associations.

England and Scotland retained their lucrative annual meeting until the threat of hooliganism put an end to the oldest of all international fixtures in 1989. As the English thresh around for meaningful friendly games to help their preparations for the 1996 European Championship, it is not unkind to suggest that they would benefit more from meeting their old sparring partners. Far from relishing that, they are now considering distancing themselves even further from their cousins.

The subject is on the agenda because the FA are concerned about the number of foreigners coming into the English game. At the last count, it was more than 150, and is set to increase as at this very moment Everton and Leeds are chasing anyone who looks remotely Scandinavian. In addition to hundreds of the less geographically advantaged of Her Majesty's subjects, it is felt that this might be stifling the development of English players.

If the FA decide to adopt the rule that Uefa imposes on clubs in their cup competitions - a maximum of three foreigners and two 'assimilated' players, ie those who have been with the club since their mid-teens - they would be risking the very progress the Premiership has brought to the club scene. And for what? Are the English fans upset at the aliens they see before them?

This is hardly the time to be discussing this subject; not while the country is still buzzing after the excellent match between Manchester United and Barcelona on Wednesday. Even with the Uefa rule applying, the game was still dominated, begging Lee Sharpe's pardon, by players who were neither English nor Spanish. Barcelona would not have shone so brightly without Romario, Koeman and Stoichkov. Neither would United had Hughes, Kanchelskis, Irwin, Keane and Schmeichel been missing.

With Cantona and Giggs to be fitted into the team later on during the competition, we should be talking about allowing more foreign players to take part not fewer. Supporters are far more interested in the quality of football their team play than they are in the nationality of those playing it. This attitude has existed throughout 100 years or so of league football in England. Players were on the move to English clubs from the more remote parts of these isles almost before they laid the railway tracks. And the great teams of the past blend into our history with no thought of what nationalities they were comprised. No Welshman misses a chance to emphasise that the FA Cup used to be called the English Cup until Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 to win it in 1927. He might forget to add that only three of the Cardiff team were Welsh. There were, however, two Welshmen among the five non-English in the Arsenal team.

Does it matter to Spurs that their great team of the early Sixties owed more than a little to Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, John Smith and Cliff Jones? Did Manchester United fans of the same era care where George Best, Denis Law and Paddy Crerand came from?

As for the argument that too many outsiders hinder the development of Englishmen, the infusion of better players is the only sure way to raise standards and foster styles that are bound to add to the natural attributes of the home-bred. It is argued that by cutting down on local imports, England would be aiding those countries by not taking as many players away.

The reverse is more likely to happen. The major English clubs already hoover up most of the young talent - and send many of them back home severely disillusioned a few years later. The new rule would heighten the urgency to create 'assimilated' players by stepping up the factory farming of young Celts.

There's an even more sinister aspect. The struggles of Wales and Northern Ireland to get their players released for the qualifying rounds of the European Championship already hampers their progress. It is not likely to get easier and the more they flounder the easier it will be for managers to persuade promising Welshmen, Irishmen and Scots to seek eligibility for England - a sure way around the foreigner rule.

George Best never played in a major international championship. The greatest of his time, yet he was denied a place on the biggest stage. Ryan Giggs may well suffer the same fate. Perhaps he now regrets opting for the land of his birth when he could so easily have been helping England towards the highest achievements? These will be powerful examples of lost horizons to put before an impressionable young man from outside England. I've long advocated the creation of a UK side for the World Cup so that the Bests and Giggses of our islands can get their chance. England might have seen the chance of getting the best of the UK into white shirts. Would we want that to happen?

There was a time when all of us British were in this game together, pausing only to kick each other on the international field once a year. Just because those days are gone, there is no excuse for stamping out all trace of their memory.

IT WILL be interesting to get the result of rugby's television battle yesterday. Union bravely put up two rivals to the Great Britain v Australia rugby league Test. One was in Wales, where the BBC elbowed the league game in favour of Cardiff v South Africa.

In England, Sky Sports were due to show the Courage League encounter between Sale and West Hartlepool, but asked permission to switch to the top-of-the-table match between Bath and Leicester. At the start of the season, Sky agreed to visit every club in rotation before they began selecting matches, but despite this being a departure from the contract the RFU agreed immediately.

Those union fans who would have happily ignored Sale to take a look at the Kangaroos were thus given a much tougher choice. I am sure, however, this was not behind the RFU's decision.

IAN WRIGHT of Arsenal was up before the FA disciplinary committee for calling the referee a 'Muppet'. They insisted that he apologise. Quite right, too. Why can't he use 'Bastard' like everyone else?