Buying British And The Cost Of Loyalty

British talent has always been bought and sold at a huge premium but if the ever-churning tabloid rumour mills are anywhere close to the mark then this summer’s transfer window has already seen Manchester United and Liverpool go head to head for such targets three targets at vast cost. Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson has plumped for Merseyside while both Phil Jones of Blackburn and Aston Villa’s Ashley Young appear destined for Old Trafford. Throw in the fee spent on Andy Carroll and the increased price for native youth is even more obvious. But while headlines about Liverpool and United battling for players isn’t unusual the fact that two clubs in very different circumstances are both placing such emphasis on attracting British players indicates that there is something about them which makes them worth far more to managers than foreign imports.

In the last six months alone Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones have commanded a combined fee of around £72m. While we can never be entirely sure to what extent which clubs wanted which player the fact that young British talent seems to be in such high demand this summer indicates two things. Firstly that the new rules about “homegrown” players are having an impact on the transfer market but the second reason is to do with loyalty and the comparative stature of the Premier League in global terms.

In 2009 all Premier League clubs agreed to include a minimum of eight “homegrown” players in their 25 man squads or limit the number of players they would be allowed. According to the Premier League in order to qualify as “homegrown” a player must havebeen registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Welsh Football Association for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21).” Furthermore four players must have been trained at the club using the same criteria except the player must have spent that time at the club rather than at any club under the auspices of the FA or WFA. This requirement has increased the value of British players as signing foreign players at the tender age of 17 or 18 often involves leaving their home country and family a problem which the likes of Phil Jones or Wayne Rooney have not had to handle and allows players to focus on their development without distractions.

However the squad limitations and rules about “homegrown” players only account for a small part of why British youngsters command such fees. The real reason is loyalty and an increased insecurity about the attraction of the Premier League among managers. The fact that Barcelona and Real Madrid have unquestionably become the favoured destination for the majority of players has been made painfully clear to managers in the Premier League as they watched Cristiano Ronaldo, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso depart for Spain in recent years. Arsenal’s desperate attempts to hold on to Cesc Fabregas look increasingly unlikely to succeed in the face of Catalonian pressure. Until 2006 Barcelona had only one Champions League to their name while Real Madrid went six years without managing to get past the first knockout stage in Europe. Other clubs could compete in terms of star names and chances for European glory. Yet in the past few years the duo have pulled away even from the rest of the elite and established themselves as the definitive culmination of a players career.   

Both Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson, having seen their stars depart for Spain, are keen to bring in players that see playing for Liverpool or Manchester United as the pinnacle of a career, that won’t be seduced by the promise of La Liga. The premium on British talent stems from the belief that native youngsters are more likely to remain in the Premier League than move abroad.

Furthermore there is a sound basis for the belief that British players won’t be looking for moves to Spain. There have been a number of Brits who’ve tried moving overseas but they very much remain the exception rather than the rule. For every Michael Owen there are dozens like Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard. It is no coincidence that in a season which saw both Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez blossom at the top level that Real Madrid have been linked with Hernandez rather than Smalling. It is certainly true that Hernandez had the bigger impact but the pattern is well established. Madrid took Alonso rather than Gerrard, Ricardo Carvalho over John Terry and Ronaldo over Rooney. In each case it could be argued that Madrid were taking the better player or the player that they needed the most but overall there is an undeniable tendency for the Spanish clubs to take the foreign stars from England over the British ones.

What Ferguson and Dalglish hope they are buying is the long term service of players. As well as the vast potential sell-on value of talented youngsters there is the prospect of decades of loyal service from players that the two managers hope to be able to build teams around. In Henderson and Jones they seek to have the same longevity at a club that Rooney has achieved compared to Cesc Fabregas. While both have been at their clubs for similar amounts of time Fabregas has been constantly courted by Barcelona and Arsenal fans wknow that he will leave at a certain point. Rooney on the other hand had his wobble in October but it is feasible that he will stay at Old Trafford for years to come. The inflated transfer fees for young British players stems from this desire to be able to build teams around the youth prospects that are coming through without them being poached by the big two in Spain.

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