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The Cost Of Money

Has the Premier League irrevocably damaged the England team?

He might run out of players
He might run out of players

In the late 1980's, the leaders of the "Big Five" clubs in England - Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton - looked into the future. They saw a whole lot of TV money; in 1988, the Football League had signed a TV deal worth £44 million a year, and they knew that sum would increase with every subsequent deal. As savvy businessmen (and at the time, they were indeed all men), they all thought "More money! Great! How do we not share this with the Wrexhams and the Aldershots of the world?"

Thus, fans, was the idea for the Premier League hatched. After the 1991 season, the aforementioned Big Five clubs drafted and signed the Founder Members Agreement, which laid out the terms of a Premier League that would start with the 1992-93 season - chief among those terms being commercial independence from the rest of the English pyramid system. This meant that the 22 clubs in the top flight (there were 22 teams in the first few years of the Premiership, reduced to 20 for the 1995-96 season) were free to negotiate their own sponsorship, marketing, and TV deals, leaving the Second through Fourth divisions to fend for themselves.

At the time, the Football League and the FA did not really get along; the two bodies always have and always will have different agendas. The FA's position was that the League should be primarily focused on developing English players, both for the England team and for the betterment of the game; the League's focus was on becoming a major European player again after the hooligan-based bans of English club teams from European competitions in the 1980's.

So, when presented with this "Premier League" idea, the FA thought "Sure!" Their (grievous mis)calculation was that a Premier League would dilute the quality of the English league system to such an extent that the Premier League leaders would realize they'd made a horrible mistake and then, a few years later, allow the Premier League to become a commercial part of the FA again. What the FA didn't realize is that the Premier League didn't (and doesn't) care about the quality of the English league pyramid; they were formed, and to this day they exist, to enrich their member clubs and to compete in Europe.

The early 90's saw the Premier League explode in popularity; more people were watching, coffers were fattening, and the "Golden Generation" of Beckham, Giggs, Owen, Gerrard, the Neville brothers (not those ones, the other ones), etc were starting to make English people believe that England would become dominant on the world soccer stage again. This was not without reason; most of the bright young talent playing on English clubs was English, and despite not qualifying for USA 94, England seemed well on its way to claiming its place with the elites of international soccer by the end of the decade.

All of which would have been fine except for one thing. In 1995, the Bosman ruling effectively ushered in an era of free agency in European soccer; previously, players were not free to move unless their clubs granted permission, which they almost never did. Now, though, a player could determine his own destiny, and as most athletes did and do (and I don't blame them), those players determined their destiny in large part based on money.

Suddenly, Premier League clubs had no need to depend on, or encourage the development of, English players. They could cast their nets far and wide, and bring to England talents from all over the world in order to win the Premier League, or at the very least to finish in a high enough position to earn a place in a lucrative European tournament. And it wasn't just elite talent, either - clubs brought in the best, but they also brought in a slew of talented, inexpensive international youth to fill up their rosters and have a pipeline of talent available for cup competitions, as injury cover, etc.

Arsenal were of course one of the most high-profile of the Premier League clubs to do this, once Wenger took over, but they were by no means the only one - Liverpool and Newcastle were also early drinkers from the foreign-talent firehose. As with anything, once a few teams started to have success with it, most other teams that had the means did the same thing, until the Premier League became what it is today - a high-paying sponge for talent from all over the continent (and the world). It should be noted that I don't think that's a bad thing at all - it's just the way these things inevitably go.

But today, a Guardian article started to wrap its metaphorical head around the costs of this way of doing business. The number of English players playing at the top level of the English game is shockingly low. According to the Guardian:

- Only 189 English players featured in Premier League games last season
- 40 of that 189 failed to make five appearances
- The top four clubs combined only used 29 English players

That 189 English player figure is also the lowest domestic-player figure in any of the five major European leagues.

What this ends up meaning is that Roy Hodgson, or whoever the England manager is at any given time, has a very, very small pool of players from which to construct a national team. Now, if you're a club-over-country person, like I am, your first thought might be that this doesn't matter; you might be right. But there are many, many people that do care about national teams, and this...way of doing business (it can't be called a trend, it's been going on for so long) is crippling England's chances of winning a World Cup or a European Championship.

So how does this get fixed?

Clubs are already starting to pay at least some lip service to the idea of promoting English player development - Arsenal re-signed their entire English youth cadre, most top clubs have academies now, and the FA just opened St. George's Park, an academy of its own. But until those efforts mature, the fundamental problem remains - with elite European talent taking the majority of places at most Premier League teams, as it currently stands, English players get left behind.

The Guardian mentions a few ideas on how to fix this imbalance - initiatives such as setting up "feeder clubs" (like minor league baseball), and creating a scheme called the Elite Player Performance Plan. The downfall of these things, though, is compensation - if a club develops a player in its academy, and that player gets plucked by a big club, the development club does not get much in the way of compensation.

The Guardian article mentions the Dan Crowley transfer, where Arsenal paid Villa £209K for a player Villa spent several years developing. The economics of that don't pencil out when Villa can go to a foreign country and get a kid for next to nothing; until that's fixed, any scheme to develop English youth will struggle to pay off.

As Bryan Jones, Villa's academy director, puts it:

"My job is to produce players for Aston Villa, not for Arsenal to pinch them. What is the point in developing players for eight or nine years only to then lose them cheaply? That will kill the game and it will kill development."

England has developed a problem developing English players, and it's a problem of money - clubs have been spoiled by it, they want too much, and they want it quickly, no matter what the long-term cost. Until they solve this problem, England fans will never have to learn a chant to replace 'TWO WORLD WARS AND ONE WORLD CUP', because it won't be an issue.