Foreign ownerships effects on the English Premier League (Part 3)

This is the 3rd part of the article on the effects of Foreign ownership. If you haven’t read part 1 or part 2 yet than I’d advise you to read it before you jump into the this part. Part 1 can be found here! Part 2 can be found here!

3. Foreign ownerships effects – The pride of a nation

The National team is often the pride of a nation. In times of economic crisis people often look to their nation’s football team as a means to take their mind of the horrid reality of austerity. National games are the only time when fans of fierce rivals can put their rivalry apart and cheer for each others players. For a national team to be successful though, the league needs to supply quality youth that can elevate the national team to new heights. In this part the emphasis will be on the national team and youth and how foreign ownership effects both. It is inevitable to look at the FA’s 25-man squad rule introduced in 2010 and therefore the part on youth will focus on how effective the rule can be.

3.1 Effects on the National team – The loins of the lions

The national team is one of the things foreign ownership affects indirectly. Of course its not the aim of the owners to diminish the talent pool of the national team but it is something that occurs as a consequence. Often people claim that the failure of England to qualify for the Euro 2008 was down to the exuberant transfer made by clubs with foreign owners (Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 and Sinawatra bought Machester City in 2007). From the inception of the EPL in the 1992/1993 season until the time of Taylors (2007) study (2006-2007 season) the percentage of English players that start a match have dropped 47 percent. But can this drop be attributed to foreign ownership alone?

Figure taken from Walter et al., 2009

The important thing to note is that in the above graph the flurry of signings by Manchester City from 2008 onwards is not represented therefore it is hard to make a decisive conclusion. Nevertheless from the above graph we can see that since the inception of the EPL in 1992/1993 the percentage of English players in the league has decreased dramatically. In fact, in 1992 there were only 11 foreign players (foreign player here meaning players that are neither British nor Irish) playing in the entire league (Wikipedia, 2012). By 2009 this has changed dramatically: the average foreign player per team was 13 (Williams, 2009). In 1999 Chelsea were the first ever club to have a starting line up which had no British players (Inge et al., 2001) and in 2005 Arsenal was the first ever EPL club to have their team sheet of 16 players be made up of only foreign players (BBC Sport, 2005). Ironically it seems it wasn’t just foreign players who displaced their English counterparts in the EPL but the club owners as well.

According to Taylor (2007) the failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was due to the lack of English footballers in English football. He also argued that foreign ownership just compounds this effect and that it would lead to foreign management methods and increase the amount of foreign players entering the EPL. However, I respectfully disagree with this claim. First of all from the figure above it is evident that foreign players have started displacing English players before “project” type foreign owners were even in the league. Furthermore the Chelsea of 1999 and the Arsenal of 2005 were not in the hands of foreign owners. We should not however dismiss the figure above completely as it points towards a double edged sword when it comes to foreign players and management. In part 2. I have demonstrated how these players, owners, and managers enrich the EPL and make it more marketable. What the above figure shows is that it was the English players who have paid the costs of the financial success of the league. And thus the national team is also victim of this. Dobson et al. (2001) argue that the theories of the economic positives on the EPL of foreign influence outweigh the negative effects on the English national team. Whether or not this is true is politically debatable however it points to something Taylor (2007) implicitly conveyed: the incentives and interests of foreign owners are to enrich the club and the club only. This attitude could potentially hurt the national team, but it should be in the FA’s interest to curb the incentives of these owners in a manner that benefits the English National team.

Even before the FA took direct action by introducing the ’25-player’ rule there was an essence of caution about the number of foreign players in the EPL. In 1999 the department that controls immigration in England, made the rules tougher to slow down the pace of foreign players being introduced in the EPL. It has to be noted that these attempts were not too successful as they could be only applied to non-EU citizens since EU law as outlined by the Maastricht treaty (1991) is about promoting freedom of labour movements and thus a work permit to play football in England is automatically given to all EU footballers. However the intent is clear that it was in response to the concern that English footballers were overlooked by clubs.

In 2010 the FA took direct action against the trend of foreign players displacing English ones by introducing the 25-man rule. The 25 man rule basically states that the 25-man squad of an EPL side must be compromised of, a minimum of eight ‘home grown’ players where a “home grown player is defined as one who, irrespective of his nationality or age, has been registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Welsh Football Association for a period, continuous or not, of 3 entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21)”  (English Premier League, 2012).

3.2 The 25-man rule and youth development – problem solver or problem creator?

The 25-man rule could be looked at as a way by which the FA wanted to promote investment in youth by the teams. It was an effort made by the FA after England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008. The reason this article has to look at this rule in detail is to determine whether or not the 25-man rule was able to curb the investments of foreign owned clubs in a manner that they invest in youth development.

The first issue with the 25-man squad rule is the arbitrary number of 25. The reasoning behind this is that with such a limit, as the season progresses and injuries are piled up the managers will have to dip into their academy as they could have an unlimited number of Under-21 names on their team sheet. Thus youth will be used more by the managers. The fault with this reasoning is that it means that the most talented U21s who are 1 or 2 seasons away from being introduced to the team won’t be sent on full season loans if any loans at all as the managers will want to play it safe and keep them at home. However injuries in some areas might not occur and some of these young players will lose a year of footballing experience and might eventually miss out on the first team completely if they don’t get any first team football. Therefore this rule might actually affect the most promising youth in an adverse way instead of benefiting them due to the nature of injuries and suspensions being unpredictable.

The other issue is that the teams with money will have the possibility to go and buy players in the January transfer window: The teams with a lot of liquidity behind them can afford to buy someone in the January transfer window when injuries are piling up. However the team has to make sure they have a free spot on their 25-man squad unless they buy a player who is British. This leads me to my main gripe with the rule: it inflates home-grown players prices. One just needs to look at the recent price tags of the English/British players to see this: Andy Carroll (£35million); Jordan Henderson (£15,8 million); Joe Allen (£ 16,7 million); Stewart Downing (£20 million)

Home grown players are a double edged sword when it comes to promoting the national squad. Players such as Cesc Fábregas and Nicklas Bendtner counted as home grown players despite the fact they are not playing for the England national squad. However their presence in the youth academy definitely had a positive effect on other youth prospects. As one coach from the Premier Academy League put it: “There‟s a transfer, there‟s an obvious transfer, because they [foreign players] will come and people will put them on a pedestal and say that they are technically more gifted . . . but they have to come in and get up to the speed of our game and learn to do everything that they do at our intensity, our tempo. But we have the transfer the other way of their calmness on the ball, the creation of space, that first touch, their decision making . . . it works both ways, and to simplify it, I think it‟s a physicality one way, and a technicality the other way” (Elliot, 2009). This exchange is often termed ‘feet exchange’. Long story short: the presence of foreign youth players in the academy raise the bar for indigenous players as well and thus has an overall positive effect. This doesn’t mean all English players who were training with Spanish young midfielders will come through the system, it merely means that the players who have the right mix of physicality and technicality will rise among the ranks.

What I think the FA was hoping to achieve with increasing the pool of home grown players is naturalisation of top footballers. Naturalisation occurs when a player is eligible to play for a different national team but instead chooses to play for England. This is essentially what happened with Carl Jenkinson. Arsenal bought Jenkinson because they needed a young Right Back who could take over from Bacary Sagna in the long run and not be counted as a foreigner in the 25 man squad. This allowed Jenkinson to raise the eyebrows of Roy Hodgson after some good performances on the pitch and the FA naturalised Jenkinson snatching him from the Finnish FA. (Wilfred Zaha of Crystal Palace was also naturalised) So its a win-win for the club and the FA. The FA gets a new English player and the club gets a free spot on their 25-man squad sheet. Now the problem with this is that the players who are willing to naturalise for England are the ones whose nations football team is even worse. Arteta has been in England and not featured for Spain yet but he has stated he would not want to play for England. What I am trying to convey is that naturalisation has its limits as well.

Ever since the 25-man rule has been in place the academies of the big clubs suddenly began to grow. On the surface this seems like a success of the 25-man rule and to some extent it is the case; however it polarised the league even more. Club managers are not stupid and they soon realised that the best way to fool the current rules is to start signing players when they are 16 years old rather than scout them and then only sign them when they turn 20 if they are good enough. If these players are not good they could be sold anyway. Now this all costs money which means the teams with the most resources will have the largest youth squad. Chelseas youth academy has increased dramatically over the past couple of years (but this did not stop them from investing large amounts of cash into their senior squad). Therefore with the help of the 25-man rule the effects of foreign ownership started to creep into the youth system. Now for the England national team this might be a good thing; however it came at the cost of essentially creating a carbon copy of the EPL at a youth level, where financial background is starting to be an increasingly dominant factor.

So while it would appear that the FA and the English Premier League in general are aware of all these recent impacting factors and both the positive and negative effects that foreign ownership’s are having on the league, the key question at the end of this saga is: What realistically can be done about it and where are these choices inevitably leading us? What future consequences do these outside influences hold for the England national team and the mid-level teams of the Premier league that are the very ‘essence’ of the game? While these questions will be answered in time, for now at least it seems that money really does talk in the football world and sadly a lot of the smaller teams that have made this league so fiercely competitive over the past decade may find the road ahead much tougher to travel without healthy financial backing, while a few less fortunate teams may find themselves fading into obscurity as transfer fees continue to rise and it becomes harder and harder for the average team in England’s famous league to attract quality players.

And we are through! All 3 parts are online for you guys to read. If you missed Part 1 where I looked at the different types of foreign ownerships than click here! If you want to give Part 2 a read again (which focused on transfer prices and wages and how foreign ownership affected it) then click here!

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