Stan Collymore was stirring the pot on Twitter recently, maintaining that foreign players hamper young English talent, pointing to Scott Sinclair at Manchester City as an example. His attitude is symptomatic of an outmoded way of thinking that benefits nobody...
I’ve got a lot of time for Stan Collymore these days. His campaigning for Depression Awareness is admirable and the extent to which he does it shows that he’s actually trying to use his high profile to make a difference, rather than just jump on a bandwagon. It’s good to see ex-footballers being conscientious about social issues, not afraid to stick their head about the parapet sometimes. His heart seems to be in the right place, and I appreciate that.
However, on Monday night he re-ignited that age old debate about the influx of foreign players, re-affirming the old notion that the more of them they are, the more they hamper young English players’ development. His argument was not that there are too many foreign players in the Premier League per se, but that there are too many mediocre foreign players starting for their clubs, pointing to Andre Santos’ recent woeful form for Arsenal as evidence of this – whilst simultaneously choosing to ignore the fact that Kieran Gibbs, who is Santos’ only meaningful competition for that spot, is currently injured.
Let me state the obvious for a second, a point with which everyone agrees: the Premier League would be a much worse place without foreign players. We wouldn’t have had Zola, we wouldn’t have had Bergkamp, we wouldn’t have had Cantona. They’re the big three that seem to be referred too, but let’s cast the net a little wider. What a Liverpool fan would give to see Sami Hyypia in their back line these days. What a model of consistency and professionalism Brad Friedel is. How inspiring must it be for young children in Benin to see Stephane Sessegnon at the Stadium Of Light week-in-week-out? The positives of having foreign players far outweigh the negatives, and I mean every foreign player who’s ever played in this league, from Cristiano Ronaldo to Igor Stepanovs.
Collymore’s attitude is symptomatic of an English insularity that is still ingrained in our national identity. Blame it on geographical isolation or simply a degree of protectiveness over a game we invented, but England has never liked to be told how to play the game. It was true in the 1950s when Hungary spanked England 6-3 at Wembley playing a game based on fluid passing and keeping hold of possession, and it was true last summer when English pundits lamented Spain’s “boring” play. It’s true whenever Match Of The Day descends into an inane and, frankly, ignorant debate about the pitfalls of zonal marking and it was true when Micah Richards criticised Roberto Mancini for daring to play 3 at the back. The attitude, it seems, is still predominantly this: it’s our game, we’ll play it our way, fuck you very much. It’s stubborn and it helps nothing, least of all the development of young English players and the English national team.
Let’s take Scott Sinclair as an example, a player Collymore cited as being negatively affected by foreign players, presumably owing to his not being an immediate first choice for the Premier League champions after his six-million move from Swansea. With all due respect to Nathan Dyer, Danny Graham, Leroy Lita and the coaching staff at Swansea who are clearly doing a lot of things right, if you were a young striker and were offered the chance to train alongside Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Mario Ballotelli and under Roberto Mancini and David Platt day-in-day-out, imagine what you could learn. Same with Jack Rodwell, a defensive midfielder who now gets to train with Yaya Toure, arguably one of the finest midfielders, if not the finest midfielder, in the world. Yes, they won’t play every game, but they’ll become better players, no doubt about it.
Let’s look at Claude Makelele by way of example. When he signed for Chelsea Claudio Ranieri made it clear that he would be an important player for them, and yet his arrival wasn’t greeted with the same fanfare as the likes of Hernan Crespo or even Joe Cole, strange as that may seem now. Yet, Makelele’s influence can still be seen in English football. Critics used to wax lyrical about the how important Makelele was to Chelsea, how he sat deep, broke up play and started attacks with a range of passes. It was like they’d never seen anything other than a 4-4-2 before. To my mind it’s absolutely no coincidence that Makelele’s arrival in the English game coinciding with increased responsibility being given to Owen Hargreaves in the national side, the only English player who could perform a similar role and, tellingly, the only one to have trained entirely overseas. Now that holding midfielder role is commonplace, nay, integral to the way many Premier League teams set up.
The point is, you can’t have it both ways as Stan Collymore seems to be suggesting by only singling out “mediocre” foreign players. In his version of modern football he seems to think that everytime a foreigner has a stinker, a young English player hangs up his boots for good, that the next Paul Gascoigne is chomping at the bit on the sidelines everytime Adel Taraabt goes missing on a rainy winter night in Stoke. It’s nonsense. English players will get better by learning from other cultures and other schools of thought. I’m not saying England should learn how to play like Spain, whose style of play incidentally could be seen as a direct evolution of Eastern European teams in the early part of the 20th century, including that famous Hungary team (though that’s not as soundbitey as “tiki-taka” I suppose). I’m saying that people will absorb what’s around them and use it to create something new and unique. It’s a world game now, and the Premier League is at the centre of it. If people like Stan Collymore started to extol the benefits of foreign players, then there’d be less of them in starting lineups, and more chance of England adding to that one star on their shirt.
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