Here’s a quiz question to get the brain working again after a bank holiday spent resisting the temptation to light the barbecue in the garage. What links Fraser Forster, David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves?
When the Celtic goalkeeper arrives in Brazil he will be the only member of the England squad who plays abroad, and Scotland isn’t really a foreign country. Not yet, anyway. Four years ago England’s squad was exclusively chosen from the Premier League. In 2006, there were Beckham and Hargreaves, who almost doesn’t count either after spending most of his life outside England. In 2002, Hargreaves was a one-man band. In 1998, it was again an England for the English-based, so since the Premier League began Forster, Beckham and Hargreaves make up the sum total of those who have had to be called back home for World Cup duty.
As the bones are picked out of an election week that saw the English vote in disturbingly large numbers for a party that wants to look only inwards and let nobody else in, it seems grimly appropriate that the nation’s football squad is home-based with a token Scot thrown in. Except Roy Hodgson, the most international of England managers, has not ignored the claims of any English player earning his living outside these shores, with the questionable exception of Jermain Defoe. Englishmen just don’t go abroad.
Watching Gareth Bale enveloped by his team-mates in Lisbon on Saturday was a reminder that seeing a British player performing overseas with any significant degree of impact has become rarer than ever. It is over half a century since John Charles, Bale’s brilliant compatriot, was acquiring legendary standing in the black-and-white stripes of Juventus. It remains a path rarely trod, and one that is frequently followed home again with bemused alacrity and tales of strange customs and funny food. Bale is more than capable of achieving in Spain as Charles did in Italy – which would leave him among very rare company indeed – but the young Welshman remains an exception to the stay-at-home rule.
Perhaps Bale is different in that he had already left his home in Wales behind as a child to move to Southampton to further his football education. But there is something insular about our footballers and unlike in rugby union – Steffon Armitage was an Englishman who shone in a European Cup final at the weekend – there are no obstacles erected to put players off European adventure.
Hodgson is different from the players he will instruct in Brazil in that he has learnt a good proportion of his extensive footballing knowledge from time spent on the other side of the Channel. That should benefit England, as Terry Venables’ time with Barcelona did. Only once has an England World Cup squad contained more than two foreign-based players – in 1990 when Bobby Robson’s side reached the semi-finals with five in the squad. The fact that four of them played at Rangers somewhat limits that as an argument but nevertheless, as Greg Dyke and his commission seek to tear up the lower-league fabric of the game for what they insist is the greater good of the national side, maybe there is a way to improve the England side in the short term by encouraging players to broaden horizons.
The success of the Premier League, and the level of reward it offers, means there has never been less financial incentive to move abroad, particularly for the next level of player down from Bale’s top tier, but some encouragement from the broad-minded England manager over the coming weeks to his young charges to look further afield might be well heard (even amid outraged howls from the clubs).
It does not have to be in Real’s ranks or Barcelona’s – that is a level only a few can aspire to – but a spell in Spain or the Bundesliga would surely aid Adam Lallana’s development. And if Danny Welbeck is to leave Manchester United how much would it benefit the 23-year-old to spend a couple of seasons abroad? It would bring life lessons and footballing lessons – broader minds might make for broader on-field vision.
At the last World Cup England were one of three nations to bring squads entirely taken from their domestic league. Germany and Italy were the others. Italy’s players have been historically on a par with their English counterparts in not wanting to let go of Mama’s apron strings. Serie A’s standing has slipped in recent seasons; there has not been an Italian club in the Champions League final since the last World Cup. This time the provisional Italian squad has three foreign-based players, all from Paris Saint-Germain. Four years ago Germany were young and well brought up; an older group now, they have seven from outside the Bundesliga in their provisional 27-man squad for Brazil.
And take Spain, the world and European champions, home of the Champions League winners and the world’s strongest domestic league. Of Vicente del Bosque’s 30-strong provisional squad 13 play outside the country. It is a surprisingly large number and a tally made up of players at different stages of their careers, ie not just those further down the line. David de Gea and Cesar Azpilicueta left home with their careers ahead of them and have become better players for their English experience. Then there is the call-up of Gerard Deulofeu on the evidence of a season’s form with Everton. He grew tired of waiting for a chance at Barcelona so went abroad and seized it for himself.
Premier League clubs are accused of stockpiling English talent, and then blocking its emergence. Instead of B teams and loaning youngsters to Swindon, it would be much more beneficial for England’s game if more English players of Deulofeu’s level, such as a Welbeck or even a James Milner, were to look overseas for their finishing school.
Butcher in the driving seat as Hibs crash and burn
It is pretty difficult for a club of any reasonable stature to get relegated from the Scottish Premiership purely on footballing terms, but fair play to Hibernian for managing it so spectacularly as Terry Butcher once and for all shredded a managerial reputation so hard repaired at Inverness. Fifth around the turn of the year Hibs have cocked up 2014 more than just about any other professional club in these isles. They even won the away leg of their relegation play-off with the Championship runners-up Hamilton 2-0 before blowing it at home on Sunday.
They join Hearts and Rangers (who averaged 42,000 at home in League One this season) in a second tier of Scottish football that will regularly attract larger crowds than many in the top flight next season. The Championship incumbents can’t wait, although how level the playing field will be is another matter.
“It’s not David and Goliath, it’s Goliath and an ant,” was the summation of Mike Mulraney, Alloa’s chairman. The good news for the ants is only two Goliaths can be promoted next season, which is probably going to be bad news for Hibs, who look in even more of a mess than their neighbours – and, given the mess Hearts have been in, that is some doing. A car crash, as Butcher rightly put it, only he was the man at the wheel.