Irish must have say in England’s debate

The World Cup qualifying groups may be over but the Premier League provides a mini World Cup of its own this weekend as internationals from around the globe re-convene on foreign soil; and the ever-intensifying debate over whether that is good for football should have resonance in Dublin as well as London.

Irish must have say in England’s debate

Inevitably the debate is being generated from Wembley, where the FA has set up a commission to look into whether too many overseas players in the top flight is the reason for its national team’s continuing lack of success.

Despite a midweek victory over Poland that sent England to Brazil, luminaries such as Glenn Hoddle, the former Tottenham midfielder, have called for clubs to be given quotas on the number of foreign players they can select, as they were before the Premier League in 1992.

But how much are overseas players to blame for a decline in international standards on both sides of the Irish Sea, given the Republic’s frustrating and ultimately doomed World Cup campaign?

Certainly juxtaposing 1992 and 2013 is an eye-opening exercise.

On the opening day of its very first season, for instance, only 13 players were regarded as ‘foreign’ in the Premier League; this year there are 359 out of a total of 516 registered — roughly 70% or an average of 18 per club.

From an Irish point of view it was a golden era back in the ’90s — midway through the Jack Charlton story that later took the Republic to the last 16 of the World Cup in America in 1994 — and it was also an age of significant Irish influence in the Premier League.

That year Andy Townsend, Terry Phelan and Mike Milligan were all captains (at Chelsea, Manchester City and Oldham), Paul McGrath was named Player of the Year, Roy Keane was third in the Young Player of the Year poll — and Denis Irwin ended the campaign with a championship medal for Manchester United.

The list continues because David O’Leary helped Arsenal lift the FA Cup and the League Cup.

There was also an Irish manager in the top flight — Joe Kinnear at Wimbledon — while David Kelly was the top scorer in Division One, earning Newcastle promotion, and every Premier League club saw the Republic as a key hunting ground for their scouting network.

This year?

There are no Irish players at Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool or Manchester City, while a recent BBC ‘State of the Game’ investigation showed the number of minutes played by Irish players in the top flight has now dropped from second in the table in 2007 to fourth this year (behind players from England, France and Spain).

It is of course worth mentioning there are still 26 Irish players plying their trade in the top flight, so there is certainly hope for the future; but it is also clear that with Premier League clubs recruiting from all over the world it will only get tougher for young Irish talent to get noticed.

For that reason, at the very least, it would be foolish of the FAI to think the influx of foreign stars is only an English problem — and even more dangerous to distance itself from the search for solutions.

If the campaign in England gathers momentum, for instance, where does it leave Irish players?

A quota could be prove to be equally as problematic as the current situation, even if only applied to the Football League where many Irishmen learn their trade.

Not that the answer is ever as simple as it sounds; because even ignoring EU law which makes it impossible to implement a ‘five foreigners’ rule that restricts the rights of EU workers in the UK, there is very little evidence that a quota would have any real impact on the quality of national teams.

Remember, that despite so much talent to select from in 1992 England failed to even qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

Even so, the difference between 1992 and 2013 is remarkable. Back in that debut season every single manager in the top flight came from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland; every captain was English, Scottish or Irish; 12 of the top 14 goalscorers were English — and only one manager all season, Ian Porterfield at Chelsea, suffered the sack.

This weekend, of course, the landscape in the Premier League looks very different as fans forget national allegiances to wait nervously for the return of Mesut Ozil from Germany, Robin van Persie from Holland, Luis Suarez from Uruguay; and while Arsenal face Norwich, as they did on the opening day of the 1992-3 campaign, they will do so with a very different mix of personnel.

John Jensen and Anders Limpar were the only exotic foreigners as the Gunners lost 4-2 at home on that occasion; but this time Arsene Wenger has four Germans, six Frenchmen and three Spaniards to choose from — plus a whole host of other characters from far flung climes.

Perhaps Irish eyes should instead be on Stoke (Jonathan Walters, Marc Wilson, Glenn Whelan and Stephen Ireland) v West Brom (Shane Long and Steven Reid) or focused on Goodison Park where James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman face Robbie Brady’s Hull (together with a supporting cast of Paul McShane, David Meyler, Conor Henderson and Stephen Quinn); a line-up that provides a ray of hope for whoever takes over the reins of the national team.

But the battle to regain the kind of influence on the Premier League — at the very top level — that made 1992-3 so special is still likely to be a tough one; and it isn’t only England that needs to find a solution.

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