Premier League Academies: the Cause and Cure of a Dearth of English Talent

28.34% of players in Premier League academies aren’t eligible for England selection.

Often quoted in the hysteria that followed Greg Dyke realising England are not very good has been a statistic that just 32% of players appearing in this season’s Premier League are eligible to stifle in the Manaus humidity against Italy on June 14th.

32% – that is excluding Adnan Januzaj – is a figure wealthily condemned in the British media; it is a figure looked scornfully upon by England fans and most importantly a figure which Dyke and his crackpot team must seek to rectify.

However, will Messrs Mills and Gradi look backwards, beyond the bare statistics from football’s strongest brand?

I’m not talking politically – this is not a plea for more funding in the grassroots game – nor am I talking idealistically but perhaps said members of the commission should be interested in the multinational state of Premier League academies.

Of current top flight sides, a sizable 28.34% of participating players in U21 and U18 squads are ineligible to line up for the Three Lions. Hysterical or not, clearly this is a statistic that should worry the FA commission.

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Clubs, with the luxury of Sky money, have long spent lavishly on foreign imports with differing success yet this new trend of luring foreign teenagers with the security of a generous contract poses arguably the greatest danger thus far to the prototypical filter of English youngsters into the most expensively composed starting elevens in the world.

The excuse of an English premium is blatantly invalid here; clubs don’t have to pay an Andy Carroll fee to attract a player to their academy.

Lazily shifting the culpability towards the wallets of foreign owners doesn’t muster much confidence either; Portsmouth fans aside, we’ve all extolled the exemplary success young Englishmen have enjoyed at Southampton under foreign ownership.

Arsenal signed a 16-year-old Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona in 2003 for £500,000 and then sold him back to the Spanish giants eight years later for £35m.

As with any line of business, if an innovative approach is taken and it proves successful, even just in one Spanish midfielder’s case, the approach is repeated and repeated, sometimes glibly, in the hope of a profitable turnover.

I suppose the pivotal question I intend to raise is whether that profitable turnover is any less likely to be achieved with a man called Steve than a man called Adnan?

The blame game

Relegation-threatened Fulham have an astonishing majority of 51.11% of foreign players in their two development sides.

Among those include Portuguese winger Mesca, ineffective on his debut against Chelsea earlier in the season, and Italian forward Marcello Trotta, who has performed well if not spectacularly on loan for Brentford but is yet to experience the Premier League at the age of 21.

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Fulham’s multinational academy

Speaking to the club’s official website, Academy Goalkeeping Coach Vic Bettenelli admits their international approach: ‘Now, full credit to the Chairman and the CEO, they’ve given us a brief to try and get the best young players in Europe’.

Now, full credit to Bettenelli, he’s given us a bit of transparency but whilst Fulham hover precariously above the top flight’s trap door, I’m yet to note the appearance of ‘the best young players in Europe’.

Ironically, the young player who has starred most promisingly is a child of the green and pleasant land, Dan Burn – the rangy 6ft7 centre half has looked assured and composed in his handful of first team starts.

At the opposite end of the table, title-chasing Manchester City have also adopted a policy of importing young talent, with a similar unproductive end result, with 45.61% not eligible for England selection.

Coached by retired midfield stalwart Patrick Viera, the progress of City’s plethora of U21 stars has been tethered by an inevitable pressure inflicted upon Manuel Pellegrini for instant success.

Promising English striker Jordi Hiwula, for all of his talent, will struggle to surpass Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo to spearhead the Sky Blues’ starting eleven.

Even then, the standard of coaching available is still valuable to a Jordi Hiwula or George Evans, as it could be to so many more English youngsters if their already treacherous path to the first team had not been made trickier still by the formation of another perilous brick wall: an abundance of young foreign talent.

Of the 26 foreign players generously contracted to City and available for their youth teams, only Portuguese starlet Marcos Lopes has started with the Hollywood cast of their senior squad this season. Considering that, it is inevitable to question why 26 young English players’ football education was deemed unworthy of enrichment: worrying.

The globetrotting nature of youth scouting is becoming increasingly popular. West Ham United (since when have they had difficulty producing quality English players? Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole et al) opened their ‘International Academy’ in 2006, aiming to establish a presence in the USA and Canada.

The club host camps for stateside ability to be exhibited before Director of Youth Development Tony Carr and his contingent of academy coaches.

Such a scheme has also seen a flurry of partnerships with clubs and academies across the pond, flung as far as the dubiously named Pioneer Valley Storm to the familiarly named Arsenal FC of San Diego.

The first yield of this cultivation came in 2009 when the club announced the acquisition of American midfielder Sebastien Lletget, one of the youngsters elevated into the starting line-up for the dire FA Cup performance at Nottingham Forest in early January.

The solution

Most of all, however, it is the FA, not the Premier League, who need to initiate some action. They are standing by gormlessly allowing their rivals’ future tournament squads to be by the expensively absorbed coaching available to top flight players. Are we all going to congratulate ourselves in 2022 when Arsenal’s Thomas Eisfeld, Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem lift Germany’s World Cup trophy in Qatar?

Calls for quota systems in match day squads have been rebuffed because of EU legislation on the free movement of workers; subject to the improbable election of UKIP, it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Similar challenges would surely limit the possibility of quotas being employed in development squads too but the FA and Premier League could seek to manipulate the extent of the ‘homegrown’ rule currently in place.

For a footballer to be eligible for ‘homegrown’ status as it stands, they must have been coached for at least three years at an English or Welsh club before the age of 21.

The rule has been farcically exploited to the extent that players like Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny and Nicklas Bendtner are ‘homegrown’ despite being full internationals for other European countries.

Perhaps that could be extended to five years, although the danger exists that clubs would attempt to poach foreign players at an even younger age than they already do, further detrimental to the already fractured progression of English talent.

Producing players of Steven Gerrard's quality is difficult when foreign players take so many academy places

Producing players of Steven Gerrard’s quality is difficult when foreign players take so many academy places

Another option would be to tighten the work permit appeals process. Now, the FA would be helpless to stop players from other EU-member countries joining clubs’ academies but they could however stop players not fulfilling that criterion from being allowed a work permit.

For example, Argentinian goalkeeper Damien Martinez was allowed to join Arsenal aged 17 in 2010; obviously, he was unable to suffice the requirement of having played in 75% of internationals over the preceding two-year period yet was allowed to play in England after Arsenal appealed claiming he was a ‘special talent’.

This vague description is where the system dumfounds – there can be no mathematical equation to find whether a player is a ‘special talent’.

Contextually, I find it hard to decipher how talent can be judged from case to case at the age of 17 when the physicality of players differs so diversely. Martinez was 6ft3 at the time of signing but would an aspiring goalkeeper of 5ft7 have been granted a work permit?

However, Martinez did sign and now further dilutes English ‘keeper Matt Macey’s chances of evolution into a Premier League starter.

Loopholes exist, as shown by Stoke’s recent acquisition of American forward Juan Aguledo – he failed a work permit, the Potters still purchased him but loaned him immediately to Holland – but it is a far healthier situation than the one that presently exists.

Most crucially

Dyke has batted away much media cynicism during his unconvincing start at the helm of the FA.

He has been brave to consider the views of others, with ex-professionals, broadcasters and your average fan lamenting the quality of coaching supplied to kids. Others counter-argue that the Premier League caters for an excessive number of sub-standard foreign players when Englishmen could do a better job – it does, and they are right.

I place the cause somewhere in the middle. It is illogical to strive to lower the proportion of foreign players in the Premier League before trying to decrease the 28.34% of academy players that are ineligible for England.

And similarly, that decrease needs to happen before coaching is revolutionised so that a clearer path to the promised land can be mapped for a new wave of talented English footballers. Over to you Mr Dyke…

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