Time to follow Europe's lead

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The Independent Online
WELL done, Arsenal. Even more congratulations to Norwich. Both have been amply rewarded for their success in Europe with plum Italian ties next time out. As for the rest, it was a sorry night for British football last Wednesday, with the doom and gloom most deeply felt in Istanbul, where I and many others were depending on Manchester United to strike a much-needed blow for English football in the European Cup.

Having tried to stop the United Championship charge as an adversary last season, I have marvelled as a thrilled spectator at their fluid attacking style which has resulted in their unrivalled domination of the Premiership this season.

After the major disappointment of England's World Cup campaign, United looked likely to give our football a timely boost by at least progressing to the mini-league stage of the competition. Other competing clubs excepted, I believe most of Europe looked forward to the joint favourites, United and AC Milan, meeting at some stage.

Since the defeat much has been made of the financial implications and the short-term effect on the share price. Most United fans could not care less about the loss of revenue; their pride has been hurt and they feel cheated.

Almost everyone with United sympathies has mentioned the unjustness of the club not being able to field its strongest XI in Europe. This two-team mentality has long puzzled me. I am amazed that we still consider ourselves special cases and are so out of step with the rest of Uefa.

The rules for Europe allow clubs a maximum of three foreign players and two further 'assimilated' players (those who have played at youth level in that club's country). Given such criteria, why is it that United are allowed to field more foreigners in our domestic programme? In essence, we are giving certain wealthy clubs an advantage.

Despite my huge loyalty to United and my massive appreciation of the type and style of football they play, I feel that sooner rather than later we must conform to Uefa regulations.

Cricket responded to the invasion of foreign players by limiting each county to one foreign player. This has proved an over- reaction and Imran Khan, for example, now argues strongly that English cricket has become ordinary as county players do not have the opportunity on a daily basis to mix with more of the best players in the world. The England team's results have supported his theory.

The English football clubs play in the English League. Allowances are already made to introduce the skills of exceptional international players. But perhaps the time has come to change our traditional perspective and look afresh at the status we give the Irish, Welsh and Scots.

How much stronger would our national team be if each Premiership side were allowed only three foreigners, including Irish, Scots and Welsh - especially at a time when even a marginal improvement would have seen England qualify for the United States.

I suspect that after an initial drop in standards we would compensate and improve the England team. Some people would complain about Britain's special environment and our footballing indebtedness to our Celtic brethren, possibly the same people who bemoaned the Premier League casting adrift financially the other 70 League clubs. Times are changing quickly, however, and we must try to anticipate developments to regain our former European club status, because the assimilated player rule was introduced by Uefa only to appease the British and it will not remain forever.

At the beginning of this season I tipped Liverpool to win the Premiership as I thought United, although the best side, would concentrate on, or be diverted by the attraction of a long European campaign. The result last Wednesday means my crystal ball- gazing has been doubly wrong. I believe United will respond to their defeat by being one of the first clubs to qualify for next season's European Cup.

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