Maybe this is being written in anguish in the aftermath of the national team’s laborious goalless draw with Slovenia, or maybe it’s not. Either way, I’m convinced that the basis of this argument is solid.
The English Premier League is regarded by many as “the best league in the world.” “No other league provides this much excitement and competition across this many teams,” the pundits bleat out as we struggle through a 0-0 draw between West Brom and Middlesbrough. The fact of the matter is, though, our domestic league may well be the best, but that is not because of our national team players.
Think of the five best, no, 10 best players in the league (I’ll even stretch it to 15 because I’m nice), and if an English player is included in your list you’re probably a West Ham fan (“but Antonio is statistically more effective than Hazard” “shuup man”).
Our English players often play supporting roles to more talented and driven foreign players, who are the real stars of the team/league. Take away our expensive foreign imports and, like the British Steel industry, the whole thing comes grinding to a painfully abrupt halt.
It’s no surprise then that when it’s time for our players to group together and step up for the national team, the thrust is not forthcoming. They try to replicate the kind of plays that they are used to executing for their club teams, but that last touch of quality is missing – that Ozil pass, that Silva touch, that Aguero finish.
There was a time when things were different, though. A time when English players weren’t playing second fiddle to players flown in from overseas and when our players were, in fact the best in the world. Unfortunately, many of us were not around for the 1966 World Cup, and so won’t be familiar with such a utopian period. Instead, we’ve grown up in a world where the money in football is astronomical, and where English clubs will often pay £20m for a talented 19-year-old from Brazil, whilst simultaneously sending an equally talented 19-year-old in the academy out on loan to Ebbsfleet United for experience.
As such, ‘home-grown’ talents are consigned to continuous loan spells at lower league clubs, getting experience but not at the level required to truly fulLfil their potential. Occasionally young talents make it to the big league and make appearances for the first team, but it just doesn’t work out. An example that springs to mind is Josh McEachran. McEachran is something very very rare – a home-grown English player that made it through the ranks and into Chelsea’s first team. After winning the club’s Young Player of the Year award in 2011, many thought that McEachran would be the first English player from the academy to establish himself in the first team since John Terry. Unfortunately not everything went to plan, and 22 appearances over 5 years later McEachran was bought by Brentford for £500,000.
There are, however, times when it works out brilliantly. We all know the story of Marcus Rashford and his meteoric rise in football. The story though may not have played out so rosily had injuries not befallen United and them chucking an untried and untested 18-year-old – who had only just made his debut for the U21s – in to the first XI. Rashford was given a sink or swim ultimatum and he performed a beautiful backstroke.
Much the same can be said about fellow England international youngsters John Stones and Dele Alli. Both were transferred into the premier league from clubs in lower divisions, yet both have flourished when thrust straight in to the big time. Whilst both still very young, both have established themselves as household premier league names. Indeed, already in their short professional careers. they have achieved a lot; Alli won the Young Player of the Year award for the 2015/16 season and also scooped Match of the Day’s Goal of the Season award, whilst Stones has recently become the 2nd most expensive defender of all time at £47m.
The question posed then is, should premier league clubs be throwing youngsters in at the deep end more often?
In a world of money and results, situations like the class of ’92 – where five or six youngsters can be thrust into the first team squad and be given time – is much less frequent than rare. Speculation about a manager’s dismissal begin to surface if they so much as draw against the wrong team these days, creating a “win at all costs” environment in the process. This is not an environment that managers can afford/would want to introduce their young players into. But this is modern football now. The luxury of bringing on a youngster when 4-0 up with 10 minutes to go is one that is not afforded these days. Hordes of talented young players are sitting in age-group squads itching to get a go in the first team, but are being denied that opportunity because of fear from their clubs. They will never reach their maximum level by staying in these squads, they need to be chucked in at the deep end – as Rashford was – with more the experienced players guiding them.
This is a process employed by many other top division European clubs and it is high time that those in England follow suit. Only by blooding these youngsters will we truly know how good the talent in England really is. England captain Wayne Rooney was causing absolute havoc at only 16 years of age and, whilst I don’t think we should start playing every youth player we have on the books (*cough cough* LvG *cough*), it is a strategy we should be experimenting with more if we have any aspirations of returning to our former glory.