Steven Gerrard yesterday became the first senior England international to voice his fears over the potential damage to the national team from the vast amount of foreign footballers playing in the Premier League. The Liverpool captain, who will lead England into what could be the last two games of Steve McClaren's reign, said there was a "big danger" that a Premier League with too many foreigners would not produce English players of the requisite ability.
Gerrard's comments came as England face a nerve-racking weekend during which they must hope that Croatia and Russia slip up to give them a chance of qualifying for Euro 2008 by beating Croatia on Wednesday. With McClaren's future as manager hanging in the balance in the run-up to tomorrow's friendly against Austria in Vienna, Gerrard admitted that the future for English football looked bleak if clubs could not produce home-grown English talent.
Captain in place of the injured John Terry, and with a reputation for plain-speaking, Gerrard, 27, said that he supported the concept of imposing quotas of home-grown players on teams – a system already in effect in the Champions League. "I believe if foreigners do take over [in the Premier League] completely it will affect the national team in an even worse [way] than maybe they have now," Gerrard said.
As a minority in his own club – where there are only four Englishmen in a senior squad of around 30 – Gerrard was a product of the Liverpool academy run by former player Steve Heighway who quit last season in protest at manager Rafa Benitez's policy towards the young players he recommended. Since then the Liverpool manager has scouted players from as far and wide as Kosovo, Bulgaria, Austria, Australia and his native Spain to develop in the club's junior sides.
"It's no good having one of the best leagues and a national team that is struggling," Gerrard said, "it is important to keep bringing quality players in – the likes of Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen – otherwise the national team will struggle. I am all for that [quotas of home-grown players]. I came from the Liverpool academy and now I am desperate for another young English player to come through into the Liverpool team. There is a big danger that we stop producing quality young kids because of the amount of foreigners in the game – it is worrying.
"You have got to get the chance [as a young player] but you also have to understand the manager's situation – these are big games to take risks with youngsters. But these youngsters will only become good players if they are given the chance and get the experience. I can sit here as an international but I would never have done it without Gérard Houllier giving me my chance."
As English football faces up to the bleak prospect of the national team failing to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1994, the question of foreign players in the Premier League is set to be the subject of a major study later this year.
In the meantime, Owen added his rather more cautious opinions to the debate. He said: "There is no doubt the influx of foreigners has helped our game. We would like that standard to be raised by English players as well. I have always felt the top English players will come through. The problem is for the late developers, who tend to get pushed to the back of the queue."
A crisis in English football there may be, but the first training session of the week for McClaren's England team was remarkably upbeat yesterday. Despite having lost Owen Hargreaves to a knee injury for the Austria game and Shaun Wright-Phillips suffering an ankle problem, the team's dire situation in Group E was not immediately discernible from their demeanour.
They threw themselves into the training game which ended with a hit-the-crossbar competition. Completing a full session in front of the cameras at Arsenal's London Colney training ground, McClaren's formations suggested that Peter Crouch would start up front with Owen against Austria. He also seems likely to bring back Frank Lampard in the centre, David Beckham on the right and keep Micah Richards at right-back, which could mean a place for Joleon Lescott alongside Sol Campbell in central defence. Wayne Bridge may even start ahead of Ashley Cole at left-back.
Gerrard defended McClaren, although he conceded that there would be little that the players could do if the Football Association decided to sack him in the event of England failing to qualify. So far there have been no players' meetings in support of McClaren and, while there was sympathy from Gerrard and Owen yesterday, there was no discernible militancy about keeping their manager in a job come what may.
"What happens to the manager is not in the players' hands but if I was asked to back [McClaren] then certainly I would put my name forward," Gerrard said. "He has believed in me from day one so the least I can do is support the manager. As a player I do believe in him. I feel as if he's done the right things since he took over. The criticism he has is slightly unfair because at the end of the day it is us players who have not achieved the results.
"Sometimes you are left with no choice, who is put in charge of your team is out of the players' control. It's the same with England, but it is important that we keep going and focus on football rather than worry about whether there will be a change of manager."
As far as the disgruntled England supporters were concerned, Gerrard admitted "as a player you have to be a man and take it on the chin" should they make their feelings known on Wednesday. As usual, they will be there in full force. The FA has sold its entire 4,400 allocation for tomorrow's game at the 50,000-capacity Ernst Happel stadium and Wembley's 90,000 seats are all sold out for the Croatia tie.
l The Uefa president, Michel Platini, has attacked the foreign scouting policy of English clubs,. Arsenal beat Reading 3-1 on Monday night with an all-foreign starting XI and the Frenchman said: "I am totally against this philosophy and I am a firm believer that we need to take care of the identity of the club. I don't like the system that scours other countries for the best young talent to bring back to their team."
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