Domestic problems

New legislation is aimed at a lack of homegrown players but, as Andy West reports, the issues are deeper than that

September’s announcement that Premier League clubs will be required to adhere to a “homegrown quota” from the start of next season came as no surprise. The question of whether clubs should be forced to limit the number of overseas players has been openly debated for a long time. In the face of increasing pressure from the government as well as the football authorities, it was sensible for club chairmen to follow the example of the Football League and voluntarily introduce new legislation.

The essential intention of the quota, to increase the number of homegrown players in the Premier League, undoubtedly enjoys widespread support. However, an examination of the new regulations reveals loopholes to exploit; there is a long way to go before the recruitment ethos of our leading clubs fulfils the “make, rather than buy” ambition of Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore.

From the start of next season, top-flight clubs will be restricted to contracting a maximum of 25 players over the age of 21, of which no more than 17 can be from overseas (including Scotland and Ireland), with an unlimited number of players under the age of 21 allowed to supplement the 25-man “senior” squad. This falls in line with squad requirements for UEFA competitions and the Premier League would argue that sensibly limiting the number of senior players permitted within each squad, and further restricting the number of foreign imports within that tally, will hand greater opportunities to members or recent graduates of each club’s youth system.

In reality the immediate impact will be minimal. There will be direct ramifications for a small number of clubs, most notably Liverpool, whose current squad narrowly exceeds the 17-man overseas limit. But the vast majority of clubs already have squads that comfortably fit within the new guidelines. And in terms of limiting the number of overseas players, it’s hardly a revolutionary development when you consider that it will still be possible to field an entire starting XI (plus six substitutes) of non-Englishmen.

The regulation becomes even less significant due to the definition of “home­grown” which includes any player who has spent three seasons in the country prior to his 21st birthday. So Arsenal’s 25-man senior squad can include, in addition to their 17 permitted overseas players, Cesc Fàbregas, Denílson, Johan Djourou, Gaël Clichy, Nicklas Bendtner and Vito Mannone. Furthermore, there are no stipulations about the nationality of the limitless under-21s within the squad, so Carlos Vela, Armand Traoré and Nacer Barazite can also be included.

The Premier League acknowledges that the new regulations don’t address this anomaly, with Scudamore admitting: “We’re not going down the route of a nationality test.” The League would prefer to think that the quota will encourage clubs to focus on bringing through players from their youth system, irrespective of their nationality.

Scudamore would also point out that EU employment law permits anybody over the age of 16 to work in any member nation, so there’s little that could be done to prevent clubs from scouring the continent for the hottest teenage talent (provided they do so legally). But whatever the rationale, it does leave unanswered the issue – identified by Sir Trevor Brooking as a growing problem – of Premier League academies filling up their places with overseas recruits, leaving less opportunity for locally born youngsters.

A related cause for concern is that although clubs may well be increasingly encouraged to focus on the development of youth players, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will look towards their own academy. Instead, with capturing the best available youth talent an increasing priority, the bigger clubs could expend even more energy on recruiting the best youngsters from other clubs, both in this country and overseas.

As Reading director of football Nick Hammond explains: “For smaller clubs, the big issue with young players is protection. You don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on developing a talented youngster and then have him snatched away by a big club for minimal compensation as soon as he’s ready for the first team. The new regulations won’t prevent Premier League clubs from scouting youngsters at other clubs and plucking away the cream of the crop.”

The crux of the whole issue, as identified by Rafa Benítez, is the need to improve the quality of young English footballers. Premier League clubs only go to the strenuous effort of scouting, buying and integrating talented youngsters from other clubs because they feel that they have no option – local players simply aren’t good enough. It would be far easier (and cheaper) for Chelsea to fill their Surrey-based training ground with promising lads from Chertsey and Kingston rather than trekking the globe in pursuit of players who might make the grade. At the moment, clubs simply don’t have sufficient confidence in the ability of domestically reared young players and therefore feel compelled to cast their net further afield.

The question of who should be held chiefly responsible for the lack of quality in domestic youth football is open to conjecture. You could blame the Premier League and clubs for ther management of the academies, the FA for allowing themselves to become largely disempowered in the development of youth talent or the government for failing to provide adequate sports facilities. Those are real issues behind the increasing absence of Englishmen from the pinnacle of the English game. The intorduction of artificial restrictions on overseas players will only mask the problem, not solve it.

From WSC 273 November 2009