So where are the kings of the South?

Norman Fox studies the reasons for the decline in midfield mastery
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The Independent Online
THE EMERGENCE of the promising Barry Ferguson in Scotland and the continuing hope against hope that his predecessor in the Rangers team, Paul Gascoigne, may still re- appear like a genie out of a beer bottle and work magic for England, merely draws attention to the lack of young, creative English-born midfield players in the Premiership.

Among others, Howard Wilkinson, the Football Association's technical director, has long been warning of the consequences of the mass importation of foreign players. He believes that although many years of emphasis on strength and stamina above skill produced formidable players who were, traditionally, the envy of most other countries in the world, that reputation was achieved at the expense of skill and has now been compounded by cheaply bought foreign players who restrict the progress of home talent.

Although Wilkinson and many other coaches of his generation now regret failing to "do the work we should have been doing on ball skills", the problem of producing inventive young players has got worse even more rapidly than even he believed likely. The glut of moderately skilful but already match-hardened imports has, he says, "become a great discouragement to many of our better young English players".

Originally Wilkinson had been thinking of "serious consequences" being perhaps five years off, allowing time for the new academies linked to professional clubs to counter the danger. The reality is that when England play Bulgaria in the European Championship next month, the absence of Paul Ince and David Beckham through suspension could badly expose the squad's lack of resourceful ball players - thus the almost pathetic clutching at any slight sign that Gascoigne could be a shade sharper and thinner than he was when he left Rangers to join Middlesbrough where, recently, a few touches of his old wizardry have been misleadingly construed as a comeback.

On the more reasonable assumption that Gascoigne will never make a significant return to the England cause, originality of thought and action behind the striking partnership of Michael Owen and Alan Shearer is unlikely to exude from Glenn Hoddle's only available candidates for the playmaker role not just next month but for the longer term. Ince, Beckham, Ray Parlour, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Robert Lee, David Batty and Jamie Redknapp are not exactly sorcerers in the mould of Zinedine Zidane, Ortega, Okocha, or Gazza himself.

Parlour, of Arsenal, is one of the few Englishmen at present playing in a foreign dominated club team and holding down a regular imaginative midfield position. He admits that it is not easy. "Perhaps it was a bit different for me. I needed the extra competition that the foreign lads brought. I couldn't take it easy and expect to keep my place." He feels that in the future good, young ball players will need to be "better than ever" to establish a place, particularly at the richer clubs. Like Wilkinson, he sees that as a threat to England's international future.

At some clubs the problem of getting top-class experience is not even restricted to first teams. As an example, the present Arsenal reserve side regularly includes only three or four English-born players. The former England striker Alan Smith, whose career with Arsenal and England owed much to midfield players skilled enough to offer him good possession, says: "I would like to think that the new youth academies will produce homegrown skilful players, but too many clubs still prefer to buy average players from abroad because it costs less than either buying or producing their own." The academies will have their successes, but can they produce a World Cup-winning team, as did France?

The French began their "centres de formation" back in the Seventies and later, under the leadership of Gerard Houllier (now of Liverpool), began to let professional coaches work with players as young as 10 years old. But Houllier admits: "In France we knew that we always had good ball players, just as we did in rugby. We had to develop that, but we started with the advantage of knowing that our young players had flair."

Flair: the word that for too many years was sidelined in the coaching philosophy of Charles Hughes and his ilk. Yet Houllier refuses to accept that Britain can no longer produce inventive players, citing, particularly, Liverpool's 20-year-old Jamie Carragher and adding diplo- matically: "I really believe that the heart of a good Premiership side will remain British."

Obviously most of the foreign players based in the Premiership refute the idea that they are the cause of England's lack of highly skilled creative players. Paolo Di Canio, of Sheffield Wednesday, is not one of them. "I've seen what has happened in Italy where young Italians can't get into the teams and the Italian Under-21 side is made up of Serie A reserves and players from the lower divisions." He suspects that it has become the norm for foreign players in Britain to have contracts demanding a specific number of first-team games each season, whether they play well or not. "That cannot be helpful to young home-born players who may have the skill to take first- team places but are kept out."

The Italian experience is beginning to be re-enacted in England. None of the five players from Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea (last season's top four clubs) selected for England's recent Under-21 squad against Sweden has yet claimed a regular senior place.

Wilkinson finds that disturbing. As with Houllier, he says that the main reason for the lack of naturally highly skilled ball players is probably the fact that kids no longer play in the streets. Houllier says: "In France they moved into the car parks, but that didn't last. In the end we had to find an alternative, which was the beginning of the French academies."

It took two generations of players for the work to come to fruition. Hoddle, master midfielder himself, is facing the consequences of several generations of neglect in the recognising, teaching and cultivation of precious skill.



Stoke City: Erratic certainly but his performance against West Germany in 1975 alone was the expression of a rare and wasted talent. Wembley witnessed a display of such breathtaking creative passing and ball control that it was difficult to believe England could continue to ignore his flair. They did.


Tottenham Hotspur: Ironically, the present England coach was a victim of his predecessors' scepticism. He was accused of failing to be a 90- minute player, but opponents never knew when he would tear them apart in a split second. Wonderful inventor of scoring free-kicks.


Fulham: Provider of perfect passes for colleagues of lesser ability, he played 56 times for England, often brilliantly though not in the World Cup. Would have gone to Milan if Fulham had not made him the League's first pounds 100-a-week player.


Sunderland and Derby County: An inside forward in the old tradition, and few better. His career embraced pre-war seasons in which Sunderland were League and FA Cup winners and post-war ones in partnership with Peter Doherty at Derby. Poorly recognised by England, he linked superbly with Stanley Matthews in wartime internationals.


West Ham United: Considered a soft southerner only by envious northerners, many of whom were defenders whom he bemused with exquisite ball control and underestimated strength. Sadly not fit in 1982 World Cup. Neither was Bryan Robson. In perfect shape they could have given England the guile and power to win.


Middlesbrough: At his fittest and best, among England's most effective ever creators and goalscorers. Acceleration and ability to fend off markers made him difficult to stop. Natural taker of chances, often allowed to play too deep in internationals.