James Lawton: Three cheers for Everton – a team that makes you proud to be English
Saturday 18 April 2009
Apart from underlining his brilliant body of work at Everton over the last seven years, David Moyes performs a wider service to "English" football this weekend when he busts into the elite FA Cup semi-final party at Wembley.
He proves that, despite the snarls and the gloats directed so fiercely at Michel Platini in the wake of the progress of Everton's opponents, Manchester United, and Arsenal and Chelsea into the same stage of the Champions League, fielding six Englishmen is not necessarily the last word in futility.
No one is saying that if Moyes had the financial options players like Tony Hibbert and Philip Neville wouldn't be under severe threat from more exotic-sounding names before the duel with such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov tomorrow afternoon, but it is a matter of impressive record that Everton's high blood count of native-born players has already accounted for Liverpool, who failed their European hurdle at Chelsea with a team of 10 high-priced foreigners.
The point is that there is indeed something to talk about rather than merely abuse in the Uefa president's advocacy of the Fifa-launched campaign to restrict imported players to a maximum of five in any one starting team.
It may be that Platini is indeed charging at windmills and that, rather less likely, he nurses some burning personal resentment against the strength of an English game largely run by foreign money and fuelled by foreign players, but it is idiocy to claim that his campaigning does not touch on the future health of football here and across the continent.
Ultimately, Everton may not be able to compete with the three or four top clubs, but in both their first-team squad and their academy they are providing outlets to young English talent simply not available in better-heeled neighbourhoods – and least of all across the park at the foreign legion parade ground of Liverpool.
While Platini, whose own superb playing career for Juventus and France and urbane nature have always struck this observer as reasons enough for a philosophical and generally charming approach to life, was having scorn heaped upon him in all branches of the English media, a more dispassionate reaction had to be that there was a certain hollowness in some of the national self- congratulation.
While Everton are likely to field six Englishmen, and a total of eight players who have the language as their mother tongue, Chelsea, Arsenal, and United managed to play just seven between them in their starting line-ups this week. It was also true, if you need to be reminded, that all three clubs are completely or majority-owned by American and Russian money and that one was coached by a Frenchman and another by a Dutchman. All in all, this didn't seem to be sufficient cause for a rousing rendition of "Jerusalem".
Yes, times are changing and with them evidence is mounting that the average fan is not concerned about who holds which passport – or the growing habit of clubs like United and Arsenal of signing under-18 foreign stars. Who really cares if Barcelona groomed Cesc Fabregras or United's young hero Federico Macheda was stolen away from Lazio if they can help put ribbons on English silverware?
It is an attitude sustainable enough under the weight of today's headlines and the financial power of colonised English football, but how long will these conditions obtain – and what happens when they don't? The basic English product will have been sold off, along with grandma's heirloom.
Today's English harvest could, of course, soon enough be England's drought, but that is tomorrow's work and why can't the current bliss last for ever? One reason is that even oligarchs go bust – or develop new interests.
If Barcelona wilt under the strength of Guus Hiddink's Chelsea, no doubt there will be another barrage of contempt aimed at Platini, all of it oblivious to the fact that, for example, while La Liga maintains a high involvement of nationally produced talent and Serie A has an Italian presence of two-thirds native-born players, the Premier League is down to a mere third.
Poor, misbegotten Italian football, you may say, how the wheel has turned. Yet they do happen to be reigning world champions, for the fourth time after six final appearances, their two defeats having been inflicted by Brazil, and they have kindly supplied the first England manager in decades to get something of a grip on a job for which native managerial talent is no longer even considered.
Certainly, we can celebrate the power of foreign investment and the brilliance of foreign players, we can say that the Premier League is the strongest league in the world, but whose league is it and what kind will it be if the colonisers ever decide to move on?
If we want to assert the ascendancy of our league football, as seems to have been the rather tiresome necessity this week, we also need to recognise it has come without any pretence of interests being balanced between the requirements of the big clubs and their ownership and those of the national team and the development of native youth.
Italy's outstanding record in world football didn't happen by accident. The Italian federation gives voting powers to different sections of the game, a factor which, at the height of their financial power, imposed restrictions on the number of foreign players who could be brought in by the most powerful clubs.
English football has gone another way and, we are told at Michel Platini's expense, it is a matter for unbridled celebration.
However, subscription to this view is not obligatory. It is certainly no offence against freedom of trade to raise a cheer for a team largely made in England – a team like Everton, who have made so much of what they have been left.
F1's troubles go deeper than just Dennis
There may be great relief in Formula One that Ron Dennis has collected up some distinctly murky laundry and finally bid farewell but it would be unrealistic to expect some vaulting image change.
Dennis may have been increasingly perceived as a ruthless operator, and suggestions that he orchestrated the lying strategy that has so discredited his protégé Lewis Hamilton probably made his continued presence untenable.
But if Formula One believes that a single bowl of hot water and soap and a set of towels will do the trick, it is much mistaken.
Dennis was, after all, rather more than one of the sharper denizens of the jungle. He was a huge influence in shaping the modern sport. He influenced the careers of titans like Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and his belief in Hamilton became a last crusade on behalf of his winning instinct.
But then there was spygate – and the massive hypocrisy of a ruling that punished Dennis's team but did not deprive the sport of key stars like Fernando Alonso and Hamilton, prime beneficiaries of the caper, in a world drivers' championship climax.
For those who retain their fascination for Formula One in these straitened times it probably didn't matter so much if Dennis left or stayed. However, for the sport's image in a wider world to improve it will certainly take more than a single ablution. Some would say a general hosing might be more appropriate.
Forget politics and say sorry
So the justice banners are put away again after the Sports Minister, Andy Burnham, is sent by his master to walk very much alone at Anfield, and Gordon Brown tells us that no useful purpose would be served by another inquiry.
No useful purpose, politically, perhaps but of some value to the mother of the victim who still, after 20 years, is trying to wean herself off the sleeping tablets prescribed when she first lost her son, a newly married and newly graduated engineer.
You may think, like the Prime Minister and all those police and other officials who have lived their lives without any apparent need to apologise for a tragedy that should and could have been averted, that we heard an old story this week, one that has lived beyond its time.
But then you would, wouldn't you, if you didn't awake each day with an ache that refuses to go away?
It took some courage for Burnham to face that crowd. How much more, you have to wonder, would it take for someone who mattered to say they were sorry?
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