Football: Wilkinson fears victims of the import overload

Norman Fox says the FA technical chief is worried over a loss of local talent
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Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director who has masterminded plans to make it less difficult for Premiership clubs to succeed in European competition, admits that they are unlikely to have any bearing on the serious possibility that at international level England's future could soon be damaged by the effects of a growing importation of foreign players.

Wilkinson has yet to raise the delicate subject with Premiership clubs but is clearly worried and has warned that unless the matter is given serious consideration young British-born players now being held back by the arrival of so many foreigners could turn their backs on the game.

For the moment the clubs are more concerned about themselves being held back in European competition by domestic fixture congestion. Wilkinson has listened to the complaints from Manchester United and Liverpool particularly and, though there is the possibility of reducing the number of clubs in the Premiership, he says it is just as important that they are better prepared for Europe.

United and Liverpool have even agreed to set aside their traditional rivalry and pool their European knowledge. There is also widespread support for a future FA data base which Wilkinson hopes will include extensive video footage of opposition teams in Europe as well as that of referees.

His long-term responsibility is also for the development of young players. There have already been well-founded rumours that some young potential England internationals are so disillusioned by having their club first-team appearances restricted by the arrival of foreign players that they are seriously considering whether to give up the game.

"In the long-term if the present trend of buying foreign players continues," Wilkinson said, "the British-born players will suffer. At the moment we have the highest percentage of foreign players of any Premier League in Europe - well over twice the number they have in Germany."

He says the football grapevine is buzzing with rumblings of discontent among the young players who believe they are being restricted in their progress by foreign players, many of whom have been bought for not much more than it costs to develop a British player from youth to first-team level. He accepts that the top foreign players have added a new dimension to the game in Britain and that the best of their skills can act as an incentive.

However, he added: "I know that if there are young players who are expressing their concern about their first team chances that will have a knock-on effect on England teams of the future. And a successful England team, as we saw in France recently and in Euro 96, is good for football. We've got to be thinking about this for the long-term - that's our responsibility."

He is obviously concerned that his own hard work in the setting up of new plans for the development of young players could be eroded if they see that at the highest level there is a barrier created, especially by clubs buying middle-of-the-road but already experienced players from abroad.

"We just have to produce players who cannot be ignored," Wilkinson said. "In the long term it's worrying, but in the short term, the good ones, the brilliant ones will be fine. However, there comes a point when there is a problem and we will all suffer the consequences. At the end of the day, what happens if there are not so many foreign players here? Someone may have to pick up the pieces.

"You can't blame the players coming for the money or the clubs living from day to day by buying foreign players they can afford, but eventually the governing bodies here have got to spot the trends and do something about them."