Foreigners flock to the Premiership feast

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The Independent Online

The large-scale import of foreign footballers was justified in the past as a cheap, stop-gap solution for Premiership clubs before their academies began producing home-grown talent in numbers. If this summer's transfer activity is any indicator, the imports are no longer cheap or stop-gap, and home-grown youngsters are increasingly being overlooked - even at academy level - because trainees from overseas are being lured to the honey pot in their stead.

The large-scale import of foreign footballers was justified in the past as a cheap, stop-gap solution for Premiership clubs before their academies began producing home-grown talent in numbers. If this summer's transfer activity is any indicator, the imports are no longer cheap or stop-gap, and home-grown youngsters are increasingly being overlooked - even at academy level - because trainees from overseas are being lured to the honey pot in their stead.

Some 60 per cent of new recruits to Premiership clubs in the past two months have been non-British. They have cost a combined total of about £110m (or 75 per cent of the total Premiership summer spending) and will become part of a foreign legion that numbers about 200 in the top flight.

Chelsea's Gianluca Vialli, despite stating earlier this year that it was time to turn to native talent, has bought five players this summer costing £24.8m. They are all foreign and include the most expensive buy of the close season, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at £15m.

Arsenal's Arsÿne Wenger has bought three new foreign players - despite the Edu mishap - at a cost of £18.5m. At the same time the Gunners have released or sold a handful of young British players, including two midfielders to Crystal Palace and the promising 18-year-old striker, Jay Bothroyd, to Coventry.

"Arsenal want to buy success," Bothroyd said last week after his move to Highfield Road. "The Arsenal first team are not interested in youth. The manager's job is always on the line. He needs success now. If a few young players come through that's a bonus, but he wants success now." If immediate success is the reason for shopping abroad, then Walter Smith and Gérard Houllier will have high hopes for the coming season. Everton and Liverpool have both brought in five new players this summer, with three of the signings at each club being foreign. Smith has paid £10m in total for Alex Nyarko, Alessandro Pistone and Niclas Alexandersson. Houllier has been a more prudent importer, paying only for Bernard Diomÿde (£3m) while acquiring Pegguy Arphexad and Marcus Babbel on Bosman deals. Gary McAllister also arrived on a Bosman.

Houllier's major expense - the £6m paid for Nick Barmby - is illustrative of the dilemma facing managers. First, there are few British players of top class calibre around (let alone available). Second, when players of calibre do come on to the market, they cost a lot. Even Ben Thatcher, who was discounted as an England possibility for an act of on-pitch thuggery, and Carl Cort, who scored 15 goals in all competitions last season, have been traded for £5m and £7m, respectively, this summer.

This kind of market has led to David O'Leary at Leeds and Bobby Robson at Newcastle, both of whom see virtue in championing the home cause, splashing out on foreign players for want of alternatives. They have bought two apiece, with O'Leary spending £13.2m on Mark Viduka and Olivier Dacourt and Robson spending £4m on two Argentinians, Daniel Cordone and Christian Bassedas.

Even at Ipswich, a club where the youth policy has been excellent in recent years, the majority of newcomers this summer have been foreign, including a pair of Dutch youngsters, Guillermo Graaven and Nabil Abidallah, who moved to Suffolk from Ajax's development programme in Amsterdam. Their arrival in England, like that of the 17-year-old German, Sebastian Kneissl, who will play for Chelsea's under-19 team and reserves this season, is indicative of a wider penetration by foreign players even at academy level.

"Chelsea have one of the best youth schemes in Europe, especially for a young player still learning the game," Kneissl said. The statement will be of little consolation to local youngsters who cannotsecure a place at it.

For Chelsea's chairman, Ken Bates, there is a simple reason why his club are still buying abroad. "We didn't sign any English players this summer because, as Euro 2000 showed, there are not enough good ones about," he said.

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said that such sentiments are "a terrible indictment on our game's coaching standards". He added: "A lot of clubs buy a ready-made player instead of blooding youngsters. Managers are on thin ice so they need a ready-made team. Looking to the future is pointless because it might not arrive for them."

Taylor's concern, which becomes less protectionist than it might originally seem with every passing season, is echoed by Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director. Wilkinson has recently voiced his unease at clubs who set up academies and then fill their squads with overseas players. "It's a bit of a self-fulfilling and disappointing prophecy, I would think, if you happen to be a youngster at a club where that seems to be the policy," he said. "What concerns you is the future, that is what the FA have got to try and look after."

Therein lies the crux of the problem. It is the responsibility of individual managers and clubs to win trophies, sell tickets and stay solvent, not to safeguard the national interest. That responsibility must fall to the FA, the Premier League and the Nationwide League, who must devise ways of encouraging the nurturing of home talent and persuade managers that to do so will pay off.

Perhaps the fate of Leicester City this season will prove to be an inspiration, one way or another. Peter Taylor has signed five players this summer, all home-grown and all from clubs that were playing below the Premiership last season. No doubt his experience as a manager at the likes of Southend and Gillingham, as well as his time in charge of England Under-21 - leading them to the European Championship finals in style before being ousted - have bolstered his faith in what can be achieved with domestic players. Time will tell whether such faith is justified.

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