Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?

There was a time when £3.75m was a lot of money and clubs like Manchester United invested their fortunes in Irish players. Photograph: Malcolm Croft/PA
Standard

Originally published on The Guardian.

The Republic of Ireland teams that went to the World Cup finals in 1990, 1994 and 2002 were full of Premier League players. Why is the country no longer producing great footballers?

Upon arrival in cities, the first port of call for generations of Irish migrants, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

Some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.” The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, but the majority are now educated, skilled and employable. Irish migrants do not face the same hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

Playing in the Premier League represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers, as it does for millions of people around the world. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets it dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, north America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. The former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles writes in his autobiography about how he listened to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight years old, United were his favourite team and the captain, Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers looked to their neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful footballers in England. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United team, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. Last season the largest contingent of Irish players in the Premier League was at Hull City.

In the 2007-08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013-14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to the fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, but Irish football is clearly in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain, are ever dwindling and their career paths have been stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, and the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull City’s Shane Long, now of Southampton.

The paths taken by these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Republic of Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means of finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as the playing pools for England and Scotland continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long are also cases of accident rather than design. They come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams before moving to England as adults. Long was 18 when Reading signed him for a nominal fee; Coleman was 20 when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic, the transfers would have been considered low-risk transactions for the English clubs.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These players would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea, moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with the Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak picture for young Irish footballers. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new team-mates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make the first team of a top flight club, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home. Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5m – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done so in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However, football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over 200 clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However, it is strikingly obvious that, like in England, there are not enough coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 Uefa Pro licences, 183 holders of the A licence and 488 with the B licence. These qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than in Germany and Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who devote their time and effort admirably.

That said, there are also too many coaches who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a club in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant with a population of 200m, with so few creative, dynamic players in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

These players could materialise if Ireland had a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight and, of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the chief executive, has an annual salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing their debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom line is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those at the top the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings that allowed “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”.

The Special One another poor season away from being yesterday’s man

jose-mourinho
Standard

Originally featured on Back Page Football.

The dubious accolade for the Premier League’s biggest flop presented a number of viable, unfortunate nominees last season. There were misfiring strikers, such as Roberto Soldado or Ricky van Wolfswinkel, expensive but underwhelming signings, Erik Lamela and Marouane Fellaini, and mismanaged clubs, such as Fulham and Cardiff City. There was also David Moyes.

The former Manchester United manager was perhaps the most popular choice for the season’s biggest flop. Moyes presided over a disastrous campaign, devoid of any positive developments, where every occurrence, from the United’s falling stock price to the upsurge of Everton, his former club, seemed to further convey his inadequacy. When Moyes’ hellish year eventually ended, he was no more sacked than put of his misery.

While it would be impossible to dispute that Moyes’ time as Manchester United manager was anything but an unmitigated disaster, there is an argument to be made that he does not qualify as the worst flop of last season. The concept of being a flop is based on prior expectation not aligning with the subsequent reality. So while United underperformed last season, almost every other aspect of the season, from the team’s final position, points total and record against the top teams, was in line with David Moyes’ managerial career.

A more fitting recipient of such an unwanted distinction was not even among the nominees. José Mourinho, Chelsea manager and ‘Special One’, returned to England from Real Madrid last summer to great fanfare from football fans and media outlets alike. At his opening press conference, Mourinho re-anointed himself as the ‘Happy One’, spoke of staying at Chelsea for years to come and of a repaired relationship with owner Roman Abramovich.

He also dismissed reports that he wanted to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager and generally seemed humble and content. A more mature version of the brash Mourinho that first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, and nothing like the man whom had apparently waged civil war in his previous position. ‘I am where I want to be’, Mourinho said. ‘I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s my job and the job I want. It is the job I was offered and I accepted immediately’.

Mourinho seemed primed to return Chelsea to the pinnacle of English football. In the six-year spell since he left, the Blues, despite achieving European success, won just a single league title. The power vacuum created by Ferguson’s retirement partly resulted in the most open title race for years. It also provided Mourinho the opportunity to stake his claim as English football’s dominant figure, as he had threatened to do during his previous spell in the Premier League.

However, Mourinho was neither special nor happy. Chelsea endured a fruitless season, finishing third and exiting the Champion’s League in the semi-finals, the fourth time in four years Mourinho’s teams have lost at that stage of the competition. It was also the first time in his career that he had experienced consecutive trophy-less campaigns. To further compound Mourinho’s misery, his former club Real Madrid, seemingly bounded by his departure, and guided by Carlo Ancelotti, very much the anti-Mourinho, finally achieved La Décima.

Throughout the domestic season, Mourinho talked down his side’s chances of success. After winning 1-0 away to eventual champions Manchester City last February, Mourinho said: ‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump’. In this bizarre analogy, Chelsea, a club fuelled by a Russian oligarch’s millions, the recent European champions, team of internationals with the average age of twenty-eight, were the underdogs. Liverpool’s surge for the title, consisting of a sixteen game unbeaten run, made further mockery of Mourinho’s theory.

Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will long be remembered as the defining moment of the 2013/14 season. Combined with Liverpool’s subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace, the narrative has since been that the Merseyside club bottled their chance to win a first league title in twenty-four years. However, despite the dramatic de-railing of Liverpool’s season, there is an argument to be made that it was in fact Chelsea who squandered the greater chance of glory.

Last season, Mourinho’s side were undefeated against the top four, winning five of their six games. Yet Sunderland were the only other team to take more points from the top ten teams than those in bottom half. This trend was particularly telling during the title run-in, where Chelsea continued to drop points against struggling teams. Mourinho’s side lost away to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, at home to Sunderland and drew with Norwich City. Six points from these games would have secured Chelsea the league crown.

Mourinho attempted to pin the blame for his team’s woes on a number of variants, from misfiring strikers to poor refereeing to, without even a hint of irony, the opposition’s defensive, ‘19th century’ tactics. However, perhaps the real reason lies in Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. Spanish journalist Diego Torres’ book, The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho covers Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid and provides a dark, fascinating insight into the Chelsea manager’s methods and mindset.

The book depicts Mourinho as calculated, manipulative and extremely paranoid, a fish out of water, attempting to mould every facet of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to fit his own personality. Torres paints the Chelsea manager as a controlling, power mad, Machiavellian war monger, with a manic fixation on controlling media narrative. There are a number of telling passages in relation to Mourinho’s tactical outlook.

After the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final, where Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra-time: ‘he puffed out his chest … repeating, ‘This is football! This is football!’ The final reaffirmed his belief that a very good way of playing football is to give the ball and the initiative to the opposition’. Torres also said that Mourinho: ‘Insisted to his players that possession of the ball does not have value in itself and, if not treated with extreme care, at times can be dangerous’ Following Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last December, Mourinho essentially validated Torres’ tactical insight, saying: ‘It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves’.

This method has brought Mourinho great success, including two Champion’s Leagues and four league titles in four countries. However, will it be possible, in an era where tactical flexibility is ever-growing in importance, to further this success with such a dogmatic, one-dimensional outlook? How long will it be before English teams realise the path to defeating Mourinho potentially lays in playing him at his own tactical game? Those that done so last year, such as Sunderland, West Ham and Aston Villa, recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City dominated possession, but were defeated in both games against the London club.

Chelsea do however look a more formidable prospect for the forthcoming season as they are significantly bolstered by summer signings Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas and Filipe Luís, and the return of Thibaut Courtois. Yet this also means that, if his team ends another campaign trophy-less, Mourinho’s excuses will no longer have any semblance of validity. No more talk of little horses or misfiring strikers.

Mourinho dismissed Torres’ book as a work of fiction. If the author did in fact entirely fabricate events from the Chelsea manager’s time in Spain, then he should be working in Hollywood, rather than Spanish broadsheet El País. However, if even a percentage is true, then Mourinho’s best days may be in the past. If we take the Portuguese’s career in two halves, divided by the time he moved to Madrid in 2010, then the latter period is considerably less successful.

If the trend continues, then the ‘Special One’ may have run out of road, tactically and personally. If Mourinho can no longer guarantee success, conflict is almost certain. And, if Chelsea have a repeat of last season, one imagines it will not be long before Mourinho and Abramovich clash again. This could be the defining campaign of José Mourinho’s managerial career.

THE FALL OF IRELAND’S ELITE FOOTBALLERS

484c08_e45242fda86d497890515618ddeeb643.jpg_srz_p_578_386_75_22_0.50_1.20_0
Standard

The decline in the number of Irish players in the Premier League is concerning for a nation now ranked 70th in the world.

Originally published on These Football Times 31/07/2014.

Upon arrival in cities, generations of Irish migrants’ first port of call, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

However some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. The experience of migrants encountering racism is by no means exclusive to the Irish and such discrimination is something that is largely resigned to the past.

Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, escaping unemployment rather than famine, but the majority are now greater educated, skilled and employable. In this global and largely more tolerant age, Irish migrants do not face the same level of hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

To play in the Premier League, as for millions all over the world, represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and, for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets, dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, North America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. Former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles in his autobiography recounts listening to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight-years-old, United was his favourite team, and the captain Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers have long plied their trade successfully in their Anglo neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to Belfast’s George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful and, for some, best footballers of their respective generations. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams (pictured, the Irish contingent at the Gunners in the 80s – O’Leary, Stapleton, Jennings, Nelson, Devine, Rice, Brady) of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. In 2014, the largest Irish Premier League contingent is at strugglers Hull City.

In the 2007/08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013/14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, however when you consider this development alongside other aspects, it becomes apparent that Irish football is in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain’s big leagues, is ever dwindling and the career progression paths stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, while the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull’s Shane Long.

The paths of these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent, who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means for finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as England and Scotland’s own playing pools continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long’s careers are another case of accident rather than design. Both come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary respectively. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams until moving to England as adults. Long was eighteen when Reading signed him for a nominal fee, Coleman aged twenty when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic to secure such moves, the transfers, from the English club’s perspective, would have been considered low-risk transactions.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These previously considered, more talented players, would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea. Moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak scenario for young Irish footballers, but also an unavoidable reality. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new teammates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make a top flight first team, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The export market is one of the key tenants of the Irish economy, in both boom and bust years. However the market for exporting football talent has significantly diminished. Therefore the current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home.

Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5 million – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done such in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over two hundred clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However it is strikingly obvious that, like England, there are not enough of these coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 UEFA Pro licences, 183 holders of the ‘A’ licence and 488 with the ‘B’ licence. A factor may be that these qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than Germany or Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who admirably dedicate their time and effort.

That said, there are also too many who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a team in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant and country of two hundred million people, without a creative, dynamic presence in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

It could be argued that these players would materialise through self-sufficiency involving a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight, and of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the Chief Executive, has a yearly salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing the association’s significant level of debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those atop the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings which allowed ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.

THE FETISHIZATION OF ENGLISH FOOTBALL

484c08_5b53bfca3fcb42c5867b400e4bf1198f.jpg_srz_p_979_653_75_22_0.50_1.20_0
Standard

The problems facing English football have been well documented for almost two decades. But what about the fetishization of the national game and Premier League?

Originally published by These Football Times 17/07/2014.

There was one notable element absent from England’s exit from the World Cup: the tabloid scapegoat. Following exits from past tournaments, or failures to qualify, the popular press, either reflecting or attempting to dictate the popular consensus, have not been shy in anointing a fall-guy or focusing on a moment of misfortune.

David Beckham, in the most infamous case, was the ‘one silly boy’ among ‘ten brave lions’ in 1998. Phil Neville was pilloried for conceding a penalty-kick against Romania which led to England’s exit from Euro 2000. There was Steve McClaren, ‘the wally with the brolly’, and Fabio Capello, the dictatorial, overpaid foreigner. There was Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006, and even as far back as 1970, goalkeeper Peter Bonetti. However, following England’s exit at the World Cup group stage for first time since 1958, there is no serious outcry or, thankfully, digitised fusing of manager Roy Hodgson’s head with a root vegetable.

There are a number of reasons for this seemingly new measured departure. The notable decline of the popular press’s influence, eroded by social media, Luis Suárez hoarding the news cycle the day of England’s final game and the remainder of an engrossing tournament to digest. There has also been a general levelling of expectations to match with the perceived reality of the talent at England’s disposal.

However, in a slightly perverse manner, the lack of an obvious scapegoat is troubling for the Three Lion’s and their future fortunes. It means that there are possibly just too many shortcomings to shift focus on one singular moment, action or person.

English football is seemingly littered with contradictions. The World Cup campaign was deemed a failure, yet defeats to Italy and Uruguay is in line with England’s standard performance at international tournaments. When the Three Lions face a higher ranked team, it overwhelming ends in defeat. Players such as Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw were not first choice England players, but completed moves to Liverpool and Manchester United for £25 million and £34 million respectively upon returning home.

England was also widely considered to have a young squad and optimism remains for Hodgson’s team. However, the average age of the squad was 26, the ninth youngest in the tournament and older than quarter-finalists Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. The English Premier League is proclaimed by many to be the most exciting, and best, league in the world, yet just a third of the players are English.

Football is England’s national sport and crowd attendances at games are among the highest for professional sports leagues in the world. Meanwhile the numbers participating in sport continues to decline. With such polarising elements, it is no wonder that tabloids cannot find a scapegoat. As Paul Scholes, the former Manchester United and England midfielder recently said: “What’s the problem? Where do I start?”

The most immediate issues have been well documented upon England’s elimination from the World Cup. There has been focus on selection decisions, such as playing Wayne Rooney out of position, and the exclusion of Ashley Cole. The focus then extended to the talents of both Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suárez, England’s uncharacteristically porous defence compared to previous tournaments, and Roy Hodgson’s tactics.

Former England player Gary Lineker was among those critical of the England manager’s choices, stating: “The problem with this 4-2-3-1 is that it very quickly becomes a 4-4-2 or at least a 4-4-1-1 and we end up with flat lines and people getting between us.” There is undoubted merit in Lineker’s argument. The 2014 World Cup will be remembered for, among other things, the numerous tactical shifts by coaches, and the return to prominence of three central defenders.

England’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the default setting for the majority of teams at the 2010 World Cup, seems stale in comparison to the tactical tinkering of Netherland’s manager Louis van Gaal, the cohesive structure of Costa Rica or the exhilarating gumption of Chile’s 3-4-1-2.

Rio Ferdinand was also critical of Hodgson. The former England defender said the manager is: “…certainly no maverick, he doesn’t change matches with inspirational substitutions and I see little evidence of a collective buying into a master plan for England, if there even is one.” Whatever about the merits of the rest of Ferdinand’s view, the final five words of the excerpt are particularly telling.

Ferdinand’s admission further conveys that England’s woes do not begin and end with Hodgson. The manager may not have a master plan but apparently neither do the Football Association. Chairman Greg Dyke claimed the country can win the World Cup in 2022 and proposed forging a new league between the Conference and League Two. The proposed league, now seemingly unlikely to happen, was to consist of Premier League ‘B’ teams, acting as a gateway to the first team for young English players starved of action in the top flight.

The semi-final stage of the World Cup had twenty players who compete in the Premier League, just one less than the German Bundesliga. However, none of these players are English, while seventeen of those who ply their trade in the Bundesliga represent Germany. A picture begins to emerge when these factors are taken into account. It is surprising that those who seek scapegoats have not fixed their gaze on the Premier League.

That said, scapegoating or media witch-hunts are not to be welcomed as they are neither constructive nor attractive. Yet the lack of serious, sustained conjecture regarding the seemingly negative effect the league is having on the development of English players is perhaps evidence of which is of greater importance to many fans and elements of the media.

Paul Scholes does however pin a degree of blame for England’s failings on the Premier League, saying the division “is a cash cow and it’s hurting our national game”. Scholes also believes that it is the high number of foreign players within the league that is proving damaging to England’s international hopes. “We should limit the amount of foreign players allowed in each Premier League squad. Clubs will then only sign the best, and English talent gets priority for development.”

Scholes is not the first to propose a limit on foreign players and he won’t be the last. However, the English top flight would have been unquestionably weaker without the contributions of players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez. Is the problem that less distinguished foreign players hamper young English development? Or are there simply not enough good home-grown players?

This is seemingly something of a chicken and egg scenario, as there merit for both sides of the argument. However, it is an ultimately futile question, as a cap on foreign players will not happen and it is not in the league’s interests to introduce any measures to potentially alter their product. The Premier League may not be the cause of all the Three Lions’ problems, yet it is seemingly not the solution either.

The competition is undoubtedly exciting, full of compelling narratives featuring some of the world’s best players. However, it could be argued that the Premier League is not an English league, but rather a league based in England. It features elements synonymous with English football, such as open attacking games, packed stadiums and clubs steeped in tradition and history.

It is also a free market capitalist enterprise and, as a result, the Premier League operates primarily in pursuit of profit for its stakeholders. A competitive England team is simply not a concern for the league’s powerbrokers. That does not mean these same people do not wish the Three Lions to be successful, rather that they would not see it as their obligation. The league is broadcast worldwide and as such its participants reflect its audience and the freedom of labour and capital that is at the heart of free-market capitalism.

German philosopher Karl Marx’s theory of fetishism seems apt in relation to the Premier League and the national team. Marx wrote that objects or systems, such as commodities or money or the open market system, are created by people but eventually come to hold power over them. At this stage the needs of the fetishized system or object must be preserved over all concerns.

So if one was to argue that some of the billions sloshing around the coffers of the Premier League clubs could be used to more effectively foster young English players’ development, they would be missing the point. It is not about how much money these clubs have or how willing they are for English national team to be successful.

The more money that flows into Premier League clubs, the more it will be used to preserve the current system; a system where a squad player from a national team that crashes out of the World Cup in the first round is valued at £25 million. A system where domestic players represent 32% of top flight participants, where fans eagerly expect the next overseas star to drive their team to glory and agent fees total almost £100 million per year.

David Goldblatt, author and academic, recently noted: “Like the wider economy, English football will continue to excel at its peak as a globally orientated commercial venture, but for the world of the lower leagues and youth and grassroots football, out of which a successful national football culture is built, there is more penury to come.”

England was failing on the international stage long before the Premier League, billion pound broadcasting deals and the influx of foreign players. The league alone is not to blame for England’s early World Cup exit and will not be the sole cause of any future heartbreak. However, its needs now seemingly surpass all other concerns.

Scholes does not seem optimistic for the future of the English national team. Speaking about the FA Chairman’s claims that the Three Lions can win the World Cup in 2022, he said: “From what I’ve seen at this World Cup, we’ll be lucky to qualify. I fear England are going the way of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.”

Wales last qualified for an international tournament in 1958 and Northern Ireland the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Scotland, once regular participants on the international stage, last featured in 1998, while the Republic of Ireland, at Euro 2012, had a jilting experience. At the 2002 World Cup, Ireland recovered from the loss of their captain Roy Keane, outplayed Germany in a 1-1 group game before losing to Spain on penalties in the second round.

Ten years later, within the space of three months, Ireland lost 4-0 and 1-6 to Spain and Germany respectively. In the preceding decade the two European footballing superpowers had undoubtedly improved, yet Ireland had equally regressed. Irish football fans, the majority of whom support English teams, still enjoy the World Cup. The presence of so many recognisable Premier League players perhaps offers a degree of solace despite the national team’s absence from international tournaments. In ten years’ time will such a scenario appease English fans?

Enjoy watching Spain at the World Cup as you will miss them when they’re gone

Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images
Standard

Originally published by The Guardian 13/06/2014.

Despite winning three international tournaments in a row, this Spain team are more respected than they are loved. We should savour their artistry and applaud their successes while we can

As TV becomes increasingly saturated by football coverage, there is a chance that fans might take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players was a rare treat for previous generations but it is now a weekly habit for many. Each weekend we can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence and then switch over to see Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain overexposure can extend to international teams, in particular world and European champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection or even adequate appreciation of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements and the road Spain took to reach such heights.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, the Telegraph conducted a poll on their website, asking: “Is watching Spain boring?” Of the 1,243 people who voted, 66% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter-attack. Games could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, Spain still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with in-from players such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, but Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown.

Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying: “It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain were crushed 3-0 by the hosts. After the 7-0 aggregate pummelling Bayern Munich doled out to Barcelona in the Champions League, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki-taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated Spain’s play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil were worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team.

Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of 30. Spain enter this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, this is probably the last World Cup for Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being “boring” return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything.” However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time Del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The team has boasted some of the most technically proficient players to have played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. His prime, like that of the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and managing his playing time effectively could be crucial in Brazil. He is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer with such technical ability and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them?

Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so: “Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past did not experience such exposure. Between 1951 and 1956, Hungary played 59 games and only lost once: the 1954 World Cup final, in which they were defeated by West Germany. Games at the time were more open, but this Hungary team are universally adored while Spain’s dominance in the modern era is greeted indifferently by some.

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is dominant and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now. This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

Perhaps this skews some fans’ enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. They have the mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer and keep winning.

This could be the last summer to watch some of their greatest players in action. In that 1981 interview Del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back.” Perhaps people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.

Ugly Brazil team unworthy of World Cup glory

BruAr0iIgAAT4b6
Standard

Originally published by Back Page Football 4/6/2014.

Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff was appalled after watching his country play Spain in the World Cup final four years ago. Referring to the Netherlands as: ‘ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic’ Cruyff, the iconic leader and symbol of the great total-football Netherlands and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and architect of the current style of Barcelona and Spain, said the Dutch: ‘were playing anti-football’.

The Netherlands kicked and hacked their way through a gruelling 120 minutes, committing twenty-eight fouls, receiving eight yellow cards and had, fortuitously, just one player dismissed. The team, rather than the wonderful attacking Dutch sides of the past, featuring players such as Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten, was typified by the aggression and gamesmanship of players such Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The classic, romantic image of technical, graceful Netherlands teams was firmly dented when de Jong karate-kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso.

Spain still prevailed though, winning 1-0 thanks to an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta. The tournament had been dour, the final was ugly but the Spanish were worthy winners, a measure of saving grace for an otherwise forgettable month of football. The 2014 World Cup does not require such redemption as it is on course to be widely considered as the best tournament in recent memory.

Within this festival of football there have been some disappointments. The most notable being Luis Suarez’s bite, the performance of some European teams and the petty squabbling among the Ghana and Cameroon sides. However, the biggest disappointment of the tournament, with the possible exception of one hungry Uruguayan, has been the Brazil national team.

The hosts, with the exception of golden boy Neymar, have failed to adequately contribute to their own party or come close to playing the type of samba football synonymous with the country. Following their controversial, unconvincing opening victory over Croatia, Brazil laboured to a goalless draw with Mexico and secured top spot in Group A with a 4-1 victory over hapless Cameroon. They now face Colombia in the quarter-final after eliminating Chile in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

For those who watched last summer’s Confederation Cup, the sight of a functional, aggressive, hard pressing Brazil team, relying on some Neymar magic to save the day, will be familiar. Indeed, there has not been a Brazil team to fit the romantic image, forged by the great teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in over thirty years. It has been well documented that the 1982 World Cup team are considered the last to match the famous ideal of Brazilian jogo bonito.

That Brazil side, featuring some of the country’s greatest ever players such as Zico, Socrates and Falcão, were playing exhilarating, fluid attacking football. However, their defensive failings were exposed by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick as they crashed out 3-2, in the second group stage, to eventual winners Italy. Zico said the game was ‘the day football died’.

While that description may be dramatic, subsequent Brazil teams, such the teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, have been more functional than fantastic. Each side have had ultra-attacking full backs, a plethora of defensive midfielders and individual brilliance from a star forward. However, if one ascribes to Zico’s view that the classic, romantic Brazilian nature of football died in 1982, then the current side must resemble the equivalent of Brazilian football zombies.

Brazil now treats the centre circle as though it is a shark infested lake, repeatedly hoofing long balls into the opposition final third in hope something will land for Neymar. They attempted almost sixty long passes against Cameroon and again in the second-round tie with Chile. In both games they played just a handful of through balls and against Cameroon their main pass combination was between midfielder Luis Gustavo and central defender David Luiz.

Neymar said this week:

The games are very hotly contested and equal and whoever shows the most commitment is the winner. Brazil didn’t come to put on a show, we came to win.

Further evidence, if any was needed, that the image of beautiful Brazilian football now borders on myth. This team is built on an ethos of ‘commitment’, which seemingly extends to their embarrassingly overly emotional rendition of the national anthem and crying before penalty shootouts.

Brazil are also committed to a tactical plan that involves pumping the ball as far down the pitch as they possibly can, abjectly defending, physically bullying the opposition and desperately relying on Neymar. The defence is creaky, the midfield lacks incision, and gets bypassed anyway, and to claim Fred is misfiring would be incorrect because that involve the striker actually shooting.

One may argue that Brazil do not have the required personnel to play an expansion, attacking game. That it is foolish to imagine Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Hulk could play like Zico, Socrates or Ronaldinho. However, we have seen apparent lesser teams, such as Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico, play in an attacking style with cohesion, neat passing and tactical discipline. The current Brazil side may not have to tools to mirror the famed teams of the past, but that does not automatically mean they should resort to playing like the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s and 90’s.

Regardless of whether one is viewing through a purist or pragmatist prism, Brazil verge between being ineffectual, ugly and, at times, difficult to comprehend, typified by David Luiz. In the 73rd minute of the host’s game with Cameroon, Luiz, the most expensive defender in the world, stepped onto a misplaced opposition header around thirty-five yards from his own goal. Brazil was leading 3-1 against a dispirited team who had already been eliminated.

However, Luiz, under no opposition pressure, rather than taking the ball down, playing a short pass or even attempting to pick out one of his attacking teammates, aimlessly smashed a volley seventy yards down the pitch. If this was to occur during an over forties Sunday league match it would be a needless waste of possession. However, this was a Brazilian player with undoubted technical ability, in the World Cup in Brazil, and in a situation that presented vast scope for personal expression. In this context, the act was infuriating, nonsensical and dispiriting.

Next up for Brazil is South American rivals Colombia in Friday’s quarter-final in Fortaleza. Los Cafeteros have comfortably dispatched each side they have faced thus far and have, arguably, the tournament’s star performer in the form of James Rodriguez. The Monaco forward has been a revelation and, with Brazil’s defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo suspended, could be in line to continue his heroics. Colombia looked primed to provide the Seleção with their toughest test of the tournament so far and cause a potential upset.

Cruyff was asked, prior to the World Cup final in 2010, if the Netherlands would mirror Inter Milan’s defensive performance in their aggregate victory over Barcelona in that year’s Champions League semi-final.

I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style… I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style.

This Brazil team has seemingly taken such a path, but they are neither pragmatic nor purist. They instead resemble a parody and perversion of past Seleção sides and the supposed footballing ideals of a country regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game.

A victory for Brazil would be a triumph for FIFA and the ruling establishment within the country, both of whom will wish to use a sixth World Cup title as a way to paper over the failings of the tournament’s organisation, corruption allegations and the plundering of Brazil’s economy and poorest citizens. A final perversion, but this time also serving to distract from the failings of the Seleção, and an unfitting outcome to a wonderful festival of football.