Safety in numbers

Strength in depth – quantity over quality?

Amid the general admiration for Bobby Robson’s achievement in taking Newcastle to the top of the Premiership table at Christmas, it was widely asserted that he did not have a strong enough squad to make a serious challenge for the championship. That may well be true. However, Newcastle currently have no few­er than 40 players under contract who are considered near enough to the first team to be given a shirt number.

Various factors have emerged to encourage clubs to build ever vaster squads. The number of substitutes allowed has gradually increased so that now 16 players are required for the first team on every match day. The relaxation of restrictions on foreign players has led to clubs casting their net ever wider and thus running the risk of losing more players on in­ternational duty.

But mostly, of course, they build bigger squads because they can afford to. As the ever upfront Peter Ridsdale put it in December: “You are never ever satisfied with the quality of your squad. You have to add to the squad as you find players who will take you to that next level.”

The result is that Premiership clubs used an average of 27.95 players over last season in their league games alone – Ipswich and Aston Villa got by with the few-­est, a mere 23 each, while West Ham clock-ed up a whopping 34. Nor is the trend likely to change when England adopts the European rules on transfer windows. Italian clubs like Milan were among the first to stockpile massive squads in the early Nineties and the restrictions on when players can move encourages those who can afford it to hoard.

The consequences for players are frequently dismal. Andy Cole’s move from Manchester United to Blackburn is only the most high profile example of an inter­national player moving on because he can’t get enough games, having started only se­­ven times for United this season.

For obvious reasons, the reckless accumulation of players is particularly bad news for goalkeepers. Chris Kirkland, who might have been knocking on the door of the World Cup squad if he had had a good season, has so far played only a solitary match for Liverpool, a League Cup tie against Grimsby. Likewise Paul Robinson, called up by England last year, has scarcely played this season for Leeds.

Others have had their career opportunities distorted in different ways by the extension of the squad system. Lomano Lua-Lua, for example, has made 44 appearances for Newcastle at the time of writing, but 41 of them have been as a sub­stitute. It’s hard to see how that kind of treatment is going to help him move, as Ridsdale might put it, to the next level. It’s one thing to make a living out of cameo appearances when you are 35, like Gianfranco Zola, but Lua-Lua is 21 – surely an age when he needs to play full matches to get better.

At least he is getting on the pitch on a fairly regular basis. Aston Villa’s Bosko Balaban, a £5.8 million summer signing, has so far racked up fewer than 90 min­utes in his five league appearances so far, all as a sub. Maybe he isn’t good enough to get in the team. But then you have to wonder how a club that is notoriously reluctant to splash the cash could have made such an expensive mistake. The answer is that, like all managers, John Gregory is making more errors because he is making more signings. They can be costly to the club, but more often they are damaging to the players who find themselves with limited opportunities.

The real losers are the fans. It verges on a scandal that some of the best players in the country are so rarely seen in action. Supporters of lower division clubs lose out too, because their teams are deprived of players who would be stars in the First Division or below. And so do smaller countries, whose top players are hoovered up by the biggest clubs in western European leagues, only to find themselves adorning the reserve team.

It is hard to see how Slovakian football, for example, benefits from having one of its stars, Szilard Nemeth, loitering on the fringes of Middlesbrough’s first team rather than playing a full season somewhere slightly less crowded. Junichi Inamoto is looking increasingly like £4 million worth of marketing opportunities, which Arsenal may think is a smart move but won’t do much for Ja­pan’s World Cup chances.

It’s all very well clubs developing strength in depth. But many are now confusing quantity with quality. Players can at least console themselves with the fact that they are being handsomely rewarded to do very little, though no doubt the vast majority would rather be doing what they are good at.

From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month