Ken Jones: Foreign players master committed culture of British game

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The Independent Online

I'm always reluctant to suggest anything as an expression of national character because it is so easily and so often wrong. But the one thing you have to say about the foreign footballers who have swarmed into the Premiership is how well the best of them have adapted to the game's most robust culture.

I'm always reluctant to suggest anything as an expression of national character because it is so easily and so often wrong. But the one thing you have to say about the foreign footballers who have swarmed into the Premiership is how well the best of them have adapted to the game's most robust culture.

This again sprang quickly to mind on Tuesday night, when 15 of the men who started for Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield, plus the six substitutes used, in what turned out be a gripping if not classic match for a place in the final of the Champions' League, were not in possession of a British passport.

Players available to the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, were conspicuous throughout the tense proceedings, most notably Liverpool's centre-back Jamie Carragher whose towering contribution in both ties should ensure selection for the national squad, but the physical commitment that comes naturally to footballers raised in these islands was significantly matched by expensive recruits from other shores.

Of course, there are foreigners who have found the relentless pace of the Premiership an insurmountable problem, physically and mentally, and others who have arrived here with reputations inflated by spiv agents. However the most accomplished of them have not flinched from complementing advanced technical ability with an unstinting willingness to compete.

One of the big arguments for casting the net wide was, and still is, that the example set by players brought up to respect technique as a paramount virtue would inspire an improvement in the standards of our game. Against this has to be set the struggles endured by home-grown aspirants whose development is all too often blocked by impatient employers.

Tottenham's recent insistence that they are set up to provide opportunities for graduates of their youth scheme is unlikely to strike a chord at many clubs. The young voices in Arsenal's dressing-room indicate Arsène Wenger's preference for foreign flair. English is not the predominant language at Chelsea's training ground and further foreign recruits are likely to arrive in the summer.

At Anfield on Tuesday, or more significantly on television screens across Europe, the attitude of the foreign players to an encounter that called for a maximum effort was immediately detectable. None stood back from physical responsibility, nor conformed to weary stereotype. "More of a traditional English cup tie than a European Cup semi-final," somebody said. There was some truth in this but the guts of the game was laced with tactical nous and skill under intense pressure.

Those who argue that many Premiership games fall short of the standards supposed by commentators and pundits have a point. Amid the endeavour, mediocrity is evident.

Modern football is such an exciting game, many coaches are sold on the idea that the only way to to produce a proper level of intensity is to bang a drum loudly and constantly. It is doubtful whether that was so at Anfield. The passion came as naturally to foreigners as it did to the home-bred players. Against the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the game, Liverpool had heroes other than Carragher: the veteran Dietmar Hamann of Germany, Luis Garcia of Spain, John Arne Riise of Norway.

Going back in time, when the presence of a foreign player in English football was still a novelty, Keith Burkinshaw took the bold decision of signing two members of the successful 1978 Argentina World Cup squad, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa for Tottenham. It was questioned on the basis that they might struggle to cope with alien conditions and the percussive nature of English football. Ardiles was an instant success but the question remained. "Wait until winter sets in, that's when we'll know," people said. Steve Perryman remembers the proof of it vividly. "We went to Sunderland on a rough winter's day of wind and rain. Ossie [Ardiles] never gave it a second thought. He got roughed up a bit but he was our best player."

It is doubtful whether the supporters of Liverpool and Chelsea gave a second thought to the fact that their hopes were in the hands of mainly foreign players. All that mattered was devotion to the cause. Success comes seldom in any field without it. There are some who cannot keep pace with their companions because they hear a different drummer. On Tuesday they responded to the same urgent beat.

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