Hidden dangers of foreign policy

The rising tide of cheap imports could harm the development of young British players unless clubs look beyond the quick-fix solution. Nick Harris reports
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The Charity Shield will perform its customary role as a curtain- raiser to another English season at Wembley tomorrow, but if the game and setting are traditions of the domestic game, the same cannot be said of those taking part. Between them, Alex Ferguson and Ruud Gullit, the managers of Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, will have more than 20 overseas players to choose from, and it is virtually certain that at some point during the match that those from abroad will outnumber their domestic counterparts on the pitch.

In many ways this will be only fitting, following a close season dominated by an influx of foreign players, a trend that has caused increasing concern among some quarters in the sport. That trend has included a smattering of marquee names, but far more unknowns. For every Marc Overmars there have been many more Hermann Hreidarssons, Ales Krizans and Temuri Ketsbaias.

It is fitting, too, that the game should pit Manchester United against Chelsea, for in many ways the success of Eric Cantona at United was the catalyst for the fashion for foreign players in the 1990s, while Chelsea - under the stewardship of a Dutchman - are in the vanguard of clubs who now appear to prefer lesser-known names from abroad to Britons who may be as capable.

Chelsea have signed five foreigners since May while letting go such British stalwarts as Scott Minto and Craig Burley. That figure is surpassed only by Arsenal, who are managed by the Premiership's other foreign manager and who have bought six imports in the same period. In Arsene Wenger's 11-month tenure at Highbury, nine of his 10 purchases have been foreigners, while all 10 players to leave the club have been British.

For many at Arsenal, players as well as fans perhaps, the departure of Paul Merson to Middlesbrough a month ago marked a watershed. One of the most skilful players in the League, Merson, a Londoner, had been at Highbury all his professional life and at 29 might be judged in his prime. Still, Wenger regarded him as surplus to requirements.

If Merson cannot stave off the overseas invasion, it might be asked what hope do most British youngsters have? The impact the imports are likely to have on the development of the young worries Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. "In an ideal world, it would be nice to have a rule where teams should play three players who've come through their youth ranks," he said. "Or five players who've been produced in this country."

Gullit and Wenger both insist that they would like to develop British talent, but that financial imperatives frequently force them abroad. "I try all the time to find good players here but they ask five or six million," Gullit said recently. "I have to cope with what I can afford and if you can get another player from a European team for two or three million then you will."

Earlier this week Wenger resisted Blackburn's pounds 7m valuation on Graeme Le Saux, saying: "If Blackburn sell Le Saux for pounds 7m, they could buy a whole team on the Continent. That would mean theoretically there would be 11 English players not playing in the Blackburn team and that would punish English football."

There may, however, be another reason, which is that, as the English game becomes more Continental, managers want more Continentally minded (if not actually foreign) players.

"I find I have to push English players more," Gullit said yesterday. "After training the foreign players stay outside. They realise it is not over just when I say stop. Football is a profession, not just here but at home also. You have to be professional. That is hard for British players to understand, but slowly they are understanding. They are good for the young players. It means they get the chance to play with better players and learn from them."

This new way of thinking is not lost on Taylor. "Everyone appreciates that we've fallen behind in technical standards and that we need to invest in coaching," he said. "That's why we've appointed a technical director."

Howard Wilkinson, the man charged with that responsibility, has produced a Charter for Quality for the Football Association and has recommended that every Premiership club should have a football academy. "The only way to get better at anything is to practice and practice: improvement is not achieved overnight," he said. "A lot of clubs in the Premiership have started to realise that putting time, effort and resources in youth development is the sensible way forward."

Arsenal have done just that, and though the 1997 team is likely to be dominated by Dutch and Frenchmen, it may be that in five years' time skilful young Britons will again be holding sway.

While Wilkinson feels that importing quality players from abroad has been mostly beneficial so far, he believes that in the long term it is more sensible to concentrate on nurturing home talent. "Quantity-wise we're top of the league," he said. "What we've now to concentrate on is quality."

One club that is already planning development of high-quality, home-produced players is Barnsley. The Premiership newcomers announced last week that they will start a purpose-built academy before Christmas. Comprising six pitches, a changing room, gymnasium and specialist staff, it will liaise with local schools and cater for the players' educational as well as coaching needs.

Peter Casken, Barnsley's joint youth development officer, said: "It may be a bit of a League of Nations here at the moment [they have eight foreign players] but those players from abroad have been brought in to secure the short-term future of the club and its survival in the Premiership.

"Some see it as controversial and damaging to the English game. They wonder what will happen to our own youngsters. Well, we have the answer. This academy scheme will provide our long-term future and the board are totally committed to the development of home-grown talent."

Taylor, however, maintains that the foreign policy of many clubs has hidden dangers. "There are clubs looking for success and quick-fix players from abroad, and are stopping chances for home-produced players. Like any industry, if you have cheap imports, you damage your own production base, which might then be lost forever."

What is more, the notion that foreigners automatically bring success is flawed, Taylor argues, pointing to Middlesbrough as a prime example. "With possibly the two most talented foreigners in England, they were still relegated."