Sam Wallace: Gerrard gives welcome voice to an endangered species

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The Independent Online

The England football team is on its knees and the current mood is to pin the blame for our impending Euro 2008 failure on just about anybody: Steve McClaren, the Football Association, the underachieving "golden generation", multimillion pound salaries, fat kids and lazy parents. The truth is some people would rather blame it on the American sub-prime mortgage collapse before they looked at the most obvious factor.

There is no easy way of saying that foreign footballers in the Premier League are making the English player an endangered species. Which is why it was a relief yesterday that Steven Gerrard grabbed the subject by the lapels and gave it a firm but much-needed shake.

Blaming foreigners for the demise of English institutions always seems one dangerous step away from believing everything you read in the Daily Mail. It is dangerous and it can be downright xenophobic. But sport, and more pertinently the national football team, is a different subject altogether. The whole point of football is competition and rivalry about our very best against their very best. It is about that inexplicable welling of pride in English football that can still touch the most cynical. And it's why we have to protect the future of the English footballer.

Gerrard did not try to dress the subject up yesterday, he did not offer a single conciliatory caveat to Rafa Benitez or Xabi Alonso – he just went straight for the jugular. The Premier League is in danger of eradicating the old ways in which English footballers have developed. Gerrard can see that; as an Englishman he is a minority in his own Liverpool dressing room and he has watched the academy that nurtured him now develop the talents of players from Kosovo, Bulgaria and Australia.

He does not have to apologise to his Spanish team-mates or manager because he knows that if it was their national teams or major clubs they would feel exactly the same way. Gerrard epitomises what we like most in English players. A local lad, bit of a scally, terrific raw talent, learnt his game the right way and look at him now: articulate, intelligent and what a footballer. Gerrard may be famous all over the world but he is still playing for the club he grew up with.

That is exactly what English football was designed for more than a hundred years ago: clubs representing the grand cities and obscure towns of our country with a connection to their communities. The figures speak for themselves, however: in August 1992 there were 11 foreign players in the first XIs of clubs competing in the first weekend of the new Premiership. Today there are 330 foreigners from 66 different countries in our league.

What is to be done? Maybe failure to qualify for Euro 2008 will focus minds, but don't bet on it. The system that gave France their all-conquering generation of 1998 was developed at the famous Clairefontaine academy. Recently the FA has mooted relaunching its mothballed National Football Centre at Burton upon Trent for the same purpose. It is a beautiful idea but has one fatal flaw.

Will Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger or Benitez permit their best teenagers to spend their most crucial development years away from the clubs who have taken so much time to scout them? Not likely. And at the current rate not many of them will be English anyway. It is not so much the foreigners in Premier League teams that should worry us; it is those in our top clubs' academies.

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