Arsenal right to resist dumbing-down dangers

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The Independent Football

They weren't the first, not by any means. But back in 1978 they were perhaps the most exotic.

They weren't the first, not by any means. But back in 1978 they were perhaps the most exotic. When Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa arrived, suited, anxious to please, and smilingly bemused by the commotion, in Tottenham High Road, it was as if Spurs' manager, Keith Burkinshaw, had raided Buenos Aires for precious artefacts. In a sense, he had. The shop window had been that summer's World Cup, a tournament graced by Mario Kempes's goals and Ardiles's bewitching wiles on their home turf. Afterwards, the canny Yorkshireman had simply ransacked the place, snatching that visionary, beautifully poised midfielder and his compatriot.

Ardiles would proceed to make his own contribution, enhancing the British game as a player, and subsequently as a manager. Villa proved less distinctive, but scored on his debut and, of course, spectacularly so in the 1981 FA Cup final replay. Yet, even then, as I recall, some doom-merchants were plying their wares outside White Hart Lane. "What about our own homegrown players?"

That day came to mind last week when, a couple of miles down the road, Arsène Wenger's teamsheet ahead of the Crystal Palace game on Monday provoked The Mystery of the Missing Englishmen. Not a hint of English DNA was in evidence. He had revealed a squad in which the Amsterdam-born Dennis Bergkamp's 12 years at Highbury, making the striker virtually an adopted Briton, was the closest we would come to a home-produced player.

The ensuing headlines were as predictable as Ken Livingstone's ability to tarnish the 2012 Olympic bid a week before the inspectors arrived (since when Lord Coe & Co have been valiantly covering the traces, like Basil Fawlty attempting to hide Manuel's rat).

But back to Wenger's opprobrium. There were grave reservations from the players' union boss, Gordon Taylor, who is concerned about his membership and the England team, but really should have been capable of a rather more enlightened analysis than suggesting, to borrow the Sun's interpretation of his words, We'll end up worse than Scotland! He then supported his case by claiming that, as it is 40 years since England last won a tournament, "it is clear the balance is totally wrong". To which the obvious response is: so what happened to all those trophies when the English League was primarily British?

And then we were greeted by the wisdom of Paul Merson, a member of an all-British-Irish Arsenal squad who won the title in 1989. He referred to Wenger's action as a "disgrace"; as to its effect on future England teams, he suggested that "we were cutting our own throats".

It has apparently passed the notice of Wenger's critics that England has, arguably, a more gifted array of talent than it has had for many years: with a surfeit of central defenders, midfielders and forwards, and younger players such as Stewart Downing emerging. At the highest level, class will flourish, with or without the vaunted academies. As Harry Redknapp says, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard were not "produced" at West Ham. They walked through the door. Crucially, they have all flourished by playing alongside the best British and foreign players at Manchester United and Chelsea.

What the influx of foreign players has done is to depress the middling-to-decent British player into the Coca-Cola Leagues when once he may have performed in the top division.

Uefa plan to introduce "quotas" - a certain number of homegrown players, though of any nationality - for Champions' League sides. It is an ugly word, whether employed in politics, sport, or both, and Arsenal are right to resist the imposition of such a system. It is football's equivalent of social engineering. What the measure will achieve, if taken to its logical extent, is effectively a dumbing-down of all talent.

Is that what those who have stood, like so many Captain Mainwarings, on the clifftops howling their disapproval, truly want? As Wenger says: "We have a club based on values of quality and attitude. We do not look where our players come from." That said, one suspects that privately, the Frenchman can appreciate the benefits of a foundation of players from the British Isles. Manchester United appear to have reaped the benefits during the Ferguson years.

As Gary Neville, part of that British bedrock at Old Trafford, told me: "I think it's important to the stability of the club and the spirit within the dressing room to have a homegrown base. We have an unbreakable spirit here. There is a core of British players who will ensure that the foreign players who come in are embraced into it. But it is a British spirit; they have to develop an appreciation of what this club means; we put over to them the history and tradition of this club and what it means to the fans.

"If there isn't that base of British players in the dressing room, the spirit is [he paused and chose his words carefully] a bit more fragile. It can crack a bit more easily, because it's not the club they have in their heart."

The problem is that even United cannot endlessly produce players like Bentley do quality cars. The reality is that United's British Isles-based core has been supplemented in recent years by the purchase of the country's best young forward (Wayne Rooney) and defender (Ferdinand). Nevertheless, that British presence is still dominant at Old Trafford. Neville explained: "I don't think our fans would accept having no homegrown players in our team. They have to have a representation of Manchester, of the surrounding areas, of England, of the Irish going back to George Best, of the Scottish with Denis Law... there has to be that sprinkling of homegrown talent, so that they can see an identity on the pitch."

It explains, he insisted, why Jose Mourinho was so determined to build his Chelsea team around Lampard and John Terry. "He has done that very cleverly," said Neville. "He hasn't built his team around his other talented players, but around Terry and Lampard. It was probably the best thing Mourinho did. They play nearly every match in a way that Tony Adams always used to play."

Speaking of which, he added: "When Wenger came to Arsenal, one of the coaches apparently advised him, 'Whatever you do, don't touch the back five'. In his early years, he developed his team round them. Since then, Ashley Cole has come through, and he's bought Sol Campbell. I think it's important for a foreign manager coming in to have that British heartbeat, as if to say, they're my leaders out on the pitch."

No doubt Wenger will be hoping that the 20-year-old defender Justin Hoyte, a product of Liam Brady's youth system who replaced Lauren last month, will be an addition to the British contingent. But that must be his decision, not enforced by an edict from Uefa.

Football worldwide has moved forward, and significantly as far as class is concerned in this country, since the day two Argentinians set foot in Tottenham. We should applaud it. Not run scared.

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