How English football became foreign football played in England

Robert Henderson

English football has “enjoyed” the benefits of more or less unrestricted market forces
and the globalist ideology for twenty years. The result is instructive: a combination
of huge amounts of new money (primarily from television, sponsorship, inflated ticket
prices, the cynical merchandising of club strips and money introduced by immensely rich foreign owners) and greatly increased freedom of movement for footballers has gone a long way to destroying the character of English professional football and the nature of its support.

Before all this happened English league football had existed very successfully for more than a hundred years – the Football League was formed in 1888, the first in the world. With 92 clubs, England has supported (and still supports) the largest full-time professional football league in the world (since 1992 the Football League has been divided into the Premier League – the old First Division – and the Football League which contains the other three divisions. As there is relegation and promotion between the Premier league and the rump of the Football League, the position structurally is essentially the same as the old 4 division Football League).

Despite many alarms about clubs going bust, very few went out of business in those one
hundred odd years. Their teams were overwhelmingly staffed by Englishmen and the minority who were not English were almost always drawn from the rest of the British Isles. Players frequently stayed with one club for much of their career and many came up through the youth and reserve teams of the clubs for which they played. Frequently the players were also supporters from childhood of their clubs. Ticket prices were cheap and even the poor could regularly watch their teams. It was truly a game for all.

The poorer clubs made ends meet by selling players to the richer clubs. Even if a player was out of contract, a club could demand a transfer fee or insist on a player continuing to
play for them, provided they had offered the player another contract not inferior to the one he had previously had with them. Until the early 1960s, players were subject to a maximum wage and could not move at all if a club refused to release their league registration.

Very much a controlled market. The point is it worked. English club football was stable. After the reforms of the 1960s players had reasonable freedom of movement and decent wages. The Football League was also strong in footballing terms. Until they were banned from European competition in 1985 after the Heysel stadium disaster, English clubs  dominated European club competition, winning the European Cup every year between 1977 and 1984. Although such extravagant success was not matched at national level, the England side had a record which was more than respectable – in the 1990 World Cup, despite having been kept out of European club competition for five years, the England side reached the  semi-finals.

In twenty years the leading English clubs have gone from being staffed overwhelmingly by English players to a position whereby most Premiership clubs regularly put out sides with
fewer than half the side made up from English players. In some cases, such as Fulham and Chelsea, teams frequently take the field with two or fewer English players. In 2009/10 the average number of foreign players in the first team squads of Premier League clubs was 13. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/eng_prem/8182090.stm.) Moreover, the more prominent the club, the less likely English players were to play English. Arsenal illustrates the change dramatically: 1989-90 season: 19 players were born in UK, two born abroad; in 2009-10 four players were born in the UK, 23 were born abroad. The Premier League inquiry into the “tapping-up” of the then Arsenal and England left back Ashley Cole by Chelsea (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/eng_prem/4596209.stm)n quotes Peter Kenyon of Chelsea as claiming that ‘Cole told him at the meeting that there were a series of cliques at Arsenal, that the “team was primarily run by the French boys” and that he was concerned with a lack of team spirit at Highbury. (http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/french-clique-runs-arsenal-coles-revelation-to-chelsea-492976).
That epitomises what is wrong with the current English elite mentality. Arsenal
are a team run by a French manager who has systematically excluded English
players from the team whilst ensuring that his own countrymen are dominant in
the imports.

Why do foreign managers favour their own? It is partly because those are the players they
know. They come to England knowing next to nothing about English players other than those in the top clubs or England side. Football below the Premier League is unknown to them. But there is also the ethnic factor. When a foreign manager comes into a country the thing he is most fearful of is a homogeneous phalanx of native players. He fears this because they people he doesn’t understand and because they are representatives of the dominant culture. The manager’s response is (1) to divide and rule by bringing in many foreigners and (2) to bring in many of his own countrymen to act as a cultural guard for him.

But it is not only foreign managers who have gorged on foreign players. British managers,
including English ones, have done so albeit to a lesser degree. One of the drivers of this behaviour is driven by the demands of owners for instant success. It is obviously easier to buy an established player from abroad than taking a chance on young English players untried at first team level. Even if the foreign players do not bring success the manager can say well I tried and the board can point to foreign purchases as evidence that they are “willing to invest”. However, there are other incentives, legal and illegal, for English managers to buy foreign. Managers’ contracts can contain clauses which give them a percentage of any fee if a player is subsequently sold on. That’s the legal way. The illegal way is to take “bungs”, that is, payments made to a manager by the selling club as a reward for selling a player they would not otherwise have sold or persuading the board of the buying club to pay far more than a player is worth. Deals for foreign players make it much easier to hide bungs because the buying and selling clubs are in different legal jurisdictions.

The destruction of the old ties between players and their clubs has other pernicious effects.
Foreign players are mercenaries and move very frequently chasing higher wages. The wages of players have become so astronomical that the future of many clubs has been placed at risk. The fans have been milked by ticket prices which have gone through the roof. Many of the poorer followers who had watched their clubs man and boy have found themselves unable to continue going regularly to games. What has happened in the Premiership is mirrored in varying degrees by the clubs in the Football League.

If other circumstances had remained the same, things might not have changed radically. But of course circumstances did change and, indeed, the Premier League would almost certainly not have been formed when it was formed if new media opportunities had not arrived. Satellite television was in its infancy, but provided a dynamic competitor for the  terrestial channels. The only British satellite broadcaster BskyB was in severe difficulties in its early years. The company decided to try to save itself by concentrating on high class sport. It began paying massive amounts for sporting events which had previously been seen only on terrestial TV. No sport was more handsomely rewarded than Premiership football. The formation of the Premier League resulted in a five year contract with BskyB worth £304 million, riches which utterly dwarfed anything which had gone before. Not only that, but the amount of televised football was massively increased. That in turn increased media exposure generally which inflated revenue greatly as international interest grew. The Premiership TV deal in 2010 was worth £1.4 billion (http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/premier-league-nets-16314bn-tv-rights-bonanza-1925462.html)

To the new TV money was added much increased sponsorship deals, itself driven by the additional media exposure football was getting. Merchandising became a racket with the larger clubs changing their strips every five minutes. Clubs also found they could put their ticket prices up substantially and still fill their stadia. This was not surprising because Margaret Thatcher had insisted after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 that clubs in the higher divisions become all-seater. That commonly reduced the capacity of stadia by 50%. By the early 1990s that policy was taking effect.

So much money came into Premiership football that it changed utterly the way the top clubs were run. Many floated on the stock market and became responsible first and foremost to their shareholders. They could also afford to pay wages which matched those of the more extravagant clubs on the continent such as Real Madrid and Inter Milan. If nothing else had  changed, it is a fair bet that the likes of Manchester  United would still have employed some of the great foreign players of the world. However, the numbers would have been few and the quality high. Unfortunately, in the decade in which the new money became available, two events greatly increased the mobility of players both
domestically and internationally.  These led to a massive influx of foreign players, managers, coaches and eventually owners into England.

The first event was ever increasing scope of the EU’s single market regulations followed by the “Bosman ruling”. Together they allow free movement within the EU of players with
citizenship of an EU country, provided the player is out of contract. (Bosman is an obscure Belgian footballer who in the mid 1990s successfully challenged the right of his  club to prevent him playing at the end of his contract by refusing to transfer him by holding onto
his registration).

The position was worsened by the pusillanimous behaviour of successive British Governments when dealing with players from outside the EU. In theory any non-EU player can be banned from playing in Britain. However, the Major government introduced a system of work permits for such players whereby any player playing more than 75% of his country’s international matches in the previous year could play in Britain (the rules
were somewhat tighter for the weaker FIFA ranked nations). Not content with this concession, clubs began pleading special circumstances, to which the Government almost invariably acceded if the appeal was from a leading  club. The result was that for the Premiership at least, any player from anywhere could in practice be employed.

Without the Bosman ruling allied to the Single Market regulations and government weakness over non-EU  players, the basic form of British football would have remained. Players would not have been able to move very freely between countries or even within clubs in England. Football wages would still have risen, but by nothing like the as much as they have because the bargaining position of players would have been much less.

Perhaps most importantly, teams in the higher divisions, including the Premiership would
have spent the money they have allowed to go out of English football through foreign transfer fees and wages (very few English players have gone to foreign clubs) on English players and with English clubs. A good deal of the transfer money would have gone to  clubs in the lower divisions, strengthening their position and English football generally. As things stand, Premiership clubs have virtually ceased buying players from the divisions
below the Premier League.

The effect of the ever growing reliance on foreign players is the exclusion of not merely established English players from the leading sides but also the denial of opportunity to the coming generation of England players. Talented English youngsters are being denied regular opportunities or any opportunities at all. It was not from a lack of talent. Take the case of Liverpool. In the 1990s their academy produced McManaman, Gerrard, Fowler, Owen, Carragher. That was under British managers. From 2000 to 2010 Liverpool had foreign managers, Houllier and Benitez. Not a single Academy player gained a regular place in the first team. This was all the more surprising because Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup in successive years (2006,2007). To add insult to injury, Benitez not only refused to use any the Academy players from these years, he instigated a “reform” of the Academy which prompted the departure of successful Academy director, the old Liverpool
player Steve Heighway.

Opportunity is the key. This has always been a problem. To take a few examples from the 1980s Peter Beardsley nearly slipped through the net before making it in the big time, John Aldridge was in his late twenties before being given a chance in the old First Division and Gary Lineker was a comparatively late developer who did not play for England until he was twenty-three. If this occurred when most places in the top division of English football were available to Englishmen, it is one greatly magnified today when most positions are not available to Englishmen.

All the major English clubs have academies with age group teams running Ajax-style from
primary school age upwards. In the first half of the nineties, Man United’s youth football produced Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Neville Brothers for England. Ominously in the last five years, no  other English youth player has come through to be a first team regular. In the past fifteen years, Arsenal have produced only three players from their own resources (Parlour,Ashley Cole and Jack Wilshire) to command a regular place in the first team. Chelsea have produced one – John Terry.

The denial of opportunity to English players inevitably damages the English national side. There are 20 teams in the Premiership which gives 220 starting places. Less than half of those places go to English players. Does anyone doubt that if another 120-150 or so English players were given the opportunity to play in the Premiership, a dozen or so would not show themselves to be of international quality?

All in all, a very dismal story for anyone who cares about the long-term health of English football, which is looking less than rosy. Players’ wages have become so grossly inflated – they have risen fantastically since 1990 with players being paid £200,000+ a week at the top of the scale – that they threaten the viability of many clubs, A few clubs, such as Blackburn Rovers when they won the Premiership, have managed to arrive at the absurd situation of playing more in wages than their total income.

The heavy dependence on TV money is potentially dangerous. In 2000 the English Football League (then known as the Nationwide Football League) discovered the worth of a private contract. They signed an agreement with ITV digital for a three year contract worth around £300 million to show Nationwide games. A year into the contract, ITV Digital  found that they grossly overpaid for the contract and presented the Nationwide with a take it or leave offer of £50 million instead of the contracted £189 million which was still to be paid. This was refused and ITV Digital placed in administration.
(http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/football-league-sues-itv-digital-for-acircpound178m-651218.html).
The result was many clubs below the Premier League being severely embarrassed as they had budgeted on the assumption that the ITV Digital money would be paid.  The same scenario could conceivably hit the Premier League.  BskyB no longer have a monopoly of Premier League TV rights because of the intervention of the European Competition ommission. Setanta obtained some of the rights when the last TV contracts were signed. They rapidly failed  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2009/jun/22/setanta-espn-premier-league-tv).
It is conceivable that the at some time in the future either BskyB will run into trouble or the Premier League will cease to have its international appeal and bids for Premiership matches plummet.  That would place most Premiership clubs and all Football League clubs
(they receive a share of the Premier League money) in serious difficulties because many of their players are on long contracts (as a result of Bosman) with grossly inflated wages. Clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea would doubtless be able to become very rich by marketing their own TV but most clubs would be much poorer.

The other  financial dangers to football in England arise from foreign owners. Some, such as the Glazers at Manchester United, take a great deal of money out of the club to both finance the massive borrowings they made to purchase the club and in profits. That means fans are paying more and more for tickets and merchandise and there is less money to spend on players.  The situation is also only sustainable if United continue to have the same sort of success and world-wide appeal. Others are immensely rich men or consortia such as the owner of Manchester City and Chelsea. The danger here is that the owners may lose interest and sells the club on to someone without such deep pockets who cannot bear the cost of the existing players’ contracts. The other danger is that an individual such as Roman Abramovich runs into the same sort of trouble that his fellow Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who now languishes in a Russian jail or simply goes bust. That would leave the club high and dry unable to meet running costs. As more than half of current Premier League clubs are foreign owned this is a real source of danger.

What the present plight of English football shows is that the market is inappropriate in some spheres of economic activity. Football is not the same as selling baked beans (as the erstwhile MD of Birmingham City, Karen Brady, once said). Football is about sport. It is
about trib al loyalty. The emotional relationship between the fan and the club is intense. It is formed most commonly in youth and remains until the fan’s dying day. It is only incidentally about money and business.

A combination of excessive money and the free movement of people has turned a social institution, English professional football, on its head. It has gone from being a sport available to all even at its highest level to one affordable only to the better off. The national character of the game has been tossed aside in the pursuit of money. The long term interests of the English game have been ignored. And for what? The satisfaction of businessmen who have no concern for anything other than the balance sheet.

The ill effect of market forces and free trade on football illustrate the shortcomings of the
market. When selling bake beans it may be the most efficient and desirable method of meeting the customers needs. When more than mere material need or profit are involved, the market is not merely  inefficient in producing the desired ends but is positively destructive.

What happens in football occurs in all our major team spectator sports. County cricket games commonly start with four or five foreigners in a side; rugby union teams  are awash with South Africans, New Zealanders, South Sea Islanders  and Australians.

What goes for sport goes for the rest of British society. Our industry and commerce is
increasingly run by foreigners or exported abroad  incontinently; senior public service positions go  increasingly to foreigners. Immigration on a massive scale continues to undermine the economic prospects of native Britons.

Generally, the elite attitude is that a foreigner has exactly the same status in Britain
as a British citizen, who is no longer privileged by the fact of being British in culture as well as name. That is a recipe for the dissolution of a nation state.

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4 Responses to How English football became foreign football played in England

  1. Pingback: How English football became foreign football played in England (via England calling) « English Warrior

  2. efgd says:

    Must say I agree with the premise that young players today are not coming up from the ranks of local talent local teams as they used to. The fact is that money has overtaken the sport side of football. Success at all costs regardless.

    As much as it would seem hypercritical of me I would like to see more British nationals in the world of British football. The get rich quick tends to bog down the natural progress of local talent. If the only way to win is to staff the team with individualists and not team players that can be related to by the normal football loving public then football is all the more poorer for it. One reason why I stopped following the so-called successful teams of a ramshackle collection of money men. I wanted local lad make good and a good national feel to the team, be it local, national or country based. We fail as a national team because we do not relate as a national team, in spite of what the players say. You only have to look back to Brazil to see the pride and team spirit. Did we see that in the England team of 2010?

  3. Kenneth Potter says:

    Man city v arsenal 22players only 3 British
    + 2 foreign managers this is getting stupid !

  4. Pingback: English sport and the alien invasion | England calling

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