Are Foreign Players In The Premiership Hindering England’s Chances Of Success?


I must apologise to many of my subscribers, as I realise this is not what you signed up for, but nonetheless I’m going to write about football.  I’ll be as brief as I can.

In the 1970’s England failed to qualify for four major international tournaments in a row, and this at a time when International football was far less competitive than it is nowadays.  In short, we were rubbish.  During the early 1980’s we fared little better, exiting at the group stage of Euro ’80, the second round stage of the 1982 World Cup and failing to qualify for Euro ’84.  Largely due to the heroics of Gary Lineker, the England team managed to create something to cheer about during the 1986 & 1990 World Cup Finals, but ultimately one man was not enough.  That these performances were a break from the norm is highlighted never more starkly than by the fact that we finished bottom of our group at both Euro ’88 and Euro ’92, registering the dismal return of four losses and two draws.  We then failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup Finals.  1966 sure seemed a long time ago.

But then something amazing happened (if you’re an English football fan).  In August 1992, there was a change in our domestic game.  The top division of the Football League broke away to form The Premiership, and huge sponsorship deals soon followed.  An inevitable consequence of this was the attraction of players from all over the world due to the large sums of money on offer.  From now on, kids across the country could watch the likes of Eric Cantona and Jürgen Klinsmann every week on television.  This sudden exposure to the superior technique and skill of continental players seemed to take effect in no time.  By the late nineties and early noughties we had players such as Shearer, Owen, Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard, and Rooney to select from.  Predictably, all of these players went on to score hatful’s of goals for England (almost 200 between them to date).  Even our defenders could finally control and pass the ball.  The contrast between the England of 1991 and 2001 was breath-taking – now we could play!  The England team had become a genuine contender at major tournaments for the first time since the heady days of the mid-sixties.

Some might point out that surely we always had players of genuine ability – what about Waddle, Hoddle or Barnes?  Well none of these players ever scored at a major tournament, they have a combined scoring record of only one goal in every ten games and their overall contributions can at best be described as frustrating.  Kevin Keegan also never scored at a major tournament and had a one in four goal scoring record for England – way short of the world’s elite strikers.  Ray Wilkins managed only three goals in his 84 appearances.  These were players who were flattered by the old First Division and whom were unable to excel on the world stage.  Bryan Robson and Paul Gascoigne were of course the genuine articles, and along with the aforementioned Gary Lineker, standout as exceptions to the norm between 1976 and 1995.  However, both Robson and Gascoigne were continually hampered by injuries at vital moments, with Robson effectively missing two World Cup Finals.  Gascoigne was brilliant at two major tournaments (Italia ‘90 and Euro ’96) but was often unavailable between these two career peaks, and in the end managed only seven competitive goals for England, almost all of them during demolitions of Turkey and Moldova.

So this is the England story that the facts inform us of.  Of course, right from its inception there were grumblings about foreign players in the Premiership, but as this seemed to have no point to it other than xenophobia or racism for its own sake, I assumed it was just an embarrassing remnant of a bygone era and the moment these fools expired, so to would the grumbles.  But then something else amazing happened – these protests gained favour with a new generation, only this time they had a philosophy attached to their complaint that appeared to have nothing to do with hatred or prejudice.  Apparently, so we are being told, foreign players in the Premiership are ruining the England National Team.  Here is what Joey Barton says on his blog page:

Joey Barton Blog1

However, what really spurred me into writing this article was the piece printed in the Mail On Sunday on 01/12/13.  Former Manchester United player Gary Neville conducted an interview with Paul Scholes, also a former Manchester United player, and Eric Harrison, the Manchester United youth scout who helped guide Neville and Scholes at the start of their careers.  Here are the relevant parts:

Neville Column

I have at least three problems with the statements from Joey Barton, Paul Scholes and Eric Harrison.  Firstly, as a matter of principle, I must insist upon some evidence!  However, neither article provides any.  They simply state in various different ways (none of which are particularly ingratiating or inclusive sounding) that there are less English players in the Premiership now than 20 years ago – and then predict impending disaster.  Perhaps they have the evidence for all this doom and gloom, but chose not to share it.

Personally, I fail to see how restricting the pool that Premier League Clubs can select from will maintain the quality therein, and I’m not aware of a statistical model that supports such a thesis.  To state it in footballing terms, promoting a Championship or League One player to the Premiership will not suddenly make him play like Hazard or Yaya Toure – or Rooney for that matter.

Secondly, noticing that 75 is not 32% of 220, I thought I’d better do my own research.  The actual number of English players who started for their clubs in the first matches of the 2013/14 season is 72, which rounds more accurately to 33%.  But the point is that this is not a numerical emergency.  You only need 11 players for a football team.  72 is more than enough to choose from.  Isn’t it better that these 72 are pushed to reach the highest possible standards?  This will only occur if competition is at its most potent – that’s just capitalism 101.

Thirdly, as I’ve hinted at already, I feel it’s more likely that the evidence for the influence of foreign players in our leagues on the National team points in the opposite direction to that which is suggested by Neville, Scholes, Harrison and Barton – at a minimum the consequences must surely be zero sum.  But let’s see what the numbers tell us:

England International Statistics

England Major Tournament Performance1

These numbers do not represent the collapse of the English National team in the wake of an influx of foreign players to our domestic teams.  It’s true we had a terrible 2014 World Cup (though we qualified in impressive style without losing a game) but who doesn’t experience short term dips in results – Spain and Italy also went out at the group stages and no one is suggesting they are in a moment of crisis.

Clearly football cannot allow itself to drag its knuckles behind other industries.  No one would have a problem with a talented young oncologist wishing to ply their life saving trade in this country – so neither should they have a problem when it comes to professional sportsmen and women wishing to do so.  And just as there is a common misunderstanding with regards to immigrants in general, who contrary to popular belief provide a net benefit to our economy, there is also no reason at all to fear the influence of foreign players on our National football team.  In fact, a brief study of the history of immigration ought to teach us to be rather unsurprised by the fact that foreign players are having a positive effect.  Fear is a useful survival tool, but it becomes self-defeating if it is not tempered by an honest consultation of the facts.