English Premier League – the decline in English talent


With England’s recent Euro 2012 exit and equally underwhelming World Cup performance in South Africa burned into the memory of England fans, our focus turns inevitably to reasons to excuse such embarrassment on the world stage by a national team that has not tasted major tournament success since 1966.

Despite such ever familiar disappointment at international level, the English Premier League remains heralded as quite simply the best in the world both in terms of quality and entertainment value, despite growing competition from the German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga and is watched by millions around the world.

English clubs; Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea are among the highest grossing and best supported clubs in the world and have enjoyed success in the pinnacle of European and world football, the UEFA Champions League as recently as 2005, 2008 and just months ago in Munich respectively, having also reached several finals along the way.

Looking further into the past, Liverpool’s 4 European Cups, United’s 2in 1968 and 1999, Nottingham Forest’s euphoria in 1979 and 1980 and Aston Villa’s 1982 win serve as reminders of English football’s healthy participation amongst Europe’s elite – taking more than a lion’s share.

Breeding home grown talent both as a means to save money and maintain a denser loyalty in the ranks seemed a prominent trend in the premier league in the 1990s – rivalling that of current coaching and grass roots training revolutions in Germany and Spain. In the lead up to major tournaments, many heralded the so called ‘golden generation’ of English footballers; John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney. All were made priorities of by their respective clubs and either embellished or sold on for inflated amounts to other Premier League clubs.

Again drawing comparisons with La Liga, Barcelona, guided by the great Johan Cruyff –overhauled their academy system and the players produced now form an integral part of the first team and national team as well as those overseas.Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Gerard Pique,CescFabregas and David Silva are recognised as the best of their generation.

Barca, with the grafting on of expensive internal and foreign signings have since tasted considerable Champions League success in 2006, 2009 and 2011 as well as major tournament success with essentially the same crop of players, seizing Euro 2008 and 2012 as well as the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.Similarly, academies at clubs such as West Ham, Southampton, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea and the players producedhave acted as essential cornerstones of English football both in the Premier League and on the International stage, undoubtedly inspiring a generation, me included.

In recent years however, there has been a shift in focus by the Premier League’s big clubs. In the context of an increasingly rich and fashionable swathe of English football, as a result of the influx of capital from rich ownersand by the Sky TV network –Premier League clubs have been less patient to say the least in their transfer dealings, opting to buy flair from abroad or internally for inflated amounts in an image conscious, self-perpetuated cycle of bidding. Most notable are the transfers of Robinho for £32 million from Real Madrid to Manchester City in 2007, Eden Hazard for £32 million from Lille to Chelsea in 2012 and Fernando Torres for £50 million from Liverpool to Chelsea in 2011.

The consequence, English players capable of performing integral roles in the big teams are increasingly hard to come by and therefore increasingly expensive. Youth products of the big clubs are given little chance to prove themselves in the first team compared to prominent English players in their twilight such as John Terry and Steven Gerrard, both youth products of their respective clubs. Instead, English talents, seemingly with potential are replaced shortly after their emergence and loaned out or sold on to lower league clubs.

Not only does this have a negative effect on player’s development at the top level, it puts the England National Team at a serious disadvantage when competing at major tournaments – being forced to play players that receive little game time or coaching by the top clubs. This is evident given our tendency to pick England internationals from the Championship in recent years such as Jay Bothroyd, Robert Green and Jack Butland and from lower league Premier League clubs – Bobby Zamora, Kevin Davies and John Ruddy. If one was to compare the England squads for the 2006 World Cup and the one emerging in the lead up to Rio 2014 – there is a considerable gulf in class and Roy Hodgson has perhaps one of the poorest groups of players to pick from since a similar fallow in the 1970s.

Yet, perhaps this could be seen as misleading. The ‘golden generation’ still seemed to disappoint at International level, despite massive expectations, reaching the quarter finals of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, just the Round of 16 in 2010 and failing to even qualify for Euro 2008. Many have put this down to the primitive game plan that every England squad seems to bring with it to major tournaments, nicknamed ‘long-ball’ and our failure simply to keep the ball – inviting pressure upon ourselves from those such as Germany who move the ball with confidence and prowess.

Fingers may be pointed at the team’s management – Roy Hodgson’s willingness to surrender possession throughout Euro 2012 a considerable example – and at grass roots coaching in England. There are just under 3,000 UEFA qualified coaches of young footballers in England compared to just short of 24,000 in Spain, 30,000 in Italy and 35,000 in Germany. If football is measured in this way, we are, perhaps overachieving even by reaching quarter finals in major tournaments.

Grim reality:

Italy honours

4 FIFA World Cups 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006, 1 UEFA European Football Championship 1968, 1 Olympic Gold Medal 1936.

Germany honours

3 FIFA World Cups 1954, 1974, 1990, 3 UEFA European Football Championships 1972, 1980, 1996, 1 Olympic Bronze Medal 1988.

Spain honours

1 FIFA World Cup 2010, 3 UEFA European Football Championships 1964, 2008, 2012, 1 Olympic Gold Medal 1992.

England honours

1 FIFA World Cup 1966.


There is also a greater emphasis on possession football and technical ability rather than on the physical side of the game in these nations at grass roots. What success has been achieved by club teams in England in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League owe considerably to foreign footballers compared to that of German clubs, Italian clubs and Spanish clubs. For instance; the 2012 Champions League Final winning Chelsea team consisted of just 4 English players compared to the 8 German players in the Bayern Munich team. It is an increasing trend that what English players do play for the top Premier League teams perform the donkey work in the side above anything else. It was arguably the influence of such players that caused Chelsea’s surrendering of possession in Munich or parking of the bus tactics. Not wishing to dismiss the European impact English players have made, it must be emphasised that what success has been achieved could not have been without the influx of foreign footballers in the Premier League compared to other European leagues.

Not wishing to impose a right wing slant on this article, there is no doubting the flair and entertainment brought by players of all nationalities to the Premier League during the last 20 years. Players such as Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola and Paul Di Canio and more recently Cristiano Ronaldo, David Silva and Robin Van Persieare legends in their own right and have inspired a generation. Yet, a balance must be struck between the Football Association and Premier League that gives us the best of both foreign and English players that preserves the Premier League’s entertainment value andthe England National Team.Measures have been imposed by the FA, such as regulations ensuring at least 6 home grown footballers in every 25-man Premier League squad. Yet perhaps more is needed concerning starting line-ups. Furthermore, loop-holes such as academy products of foreign nationalities being regarded as home grown must also be stemmed, unless we wish to start producing talented footballers for our own international rivals at major tournaments, to play against us. Furthermore, more UEFA grass roots coaches are needed to rival coaching revolutions in Spain, Germany and Italy.

Yet, English football is not in total free-fall, young talented players are still being produced and are still competing in major tournament qualifying campaigns and finals, most notably, Joe Hart, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott.

Or, perhaps, we should just practice penalties. 

Alex Keith

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