I was watching a programme about Italia 90 yesterday and like an old fart, the first thing I thought was ‘twenty years!! Where does the time go?’ The second thought that struck me was ‘what happened to England?’
True to form I sat there telling my son ‘that was when football was football’, reminiscing about how much I’d enjoyed Italia 90 (and to an extent Euro 96) and when his sullen teenage response was “great! England’s decent football happened before I was born!” I had to agree that for once, he was right.
I think for many years, I’d always argued against the Premier League ruining the game in this country. From the birth of Sky Sports and the emergence of the Premier League a couple of years later, it fed us a diet of football for breakfast, dinner and tea. What more could anyone possibly want? The greatest game in the world available to every man, woman and child whether they were in a position to get to games or not.
More than that though, it shoved English football in the faces of everyone across Europe. The money from television rights would help promote the Premier League as ‘The Greatest Show On Earth” and as it gathered momentum, the country was loving it. We’d arrived and were about to compete with the big boys to bring in the sort of players our clubs wouldn’t have dreamed of. Whilst at the inception of the Premier League, just 11 players named in the starting line-ups for the first round of matches were ‘foreign’ that was set to change.
I remember the excitement at Chelsea when we secured the services of Ruud Gullit in 1995, followed in 1996 by Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli and we were by no means alone. By the 2000/01 season 36% of players in the Premier League were foreign, rising to 45% by 2004/05, with Arsenal naming a completely foreign 16-man squad.
Of course the other knock-on effect has been the emergence of the ‘Big Four’ in English football. Since Blackburn lifted the Premier League trophy in 1994/95, only Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have won it as year upon year, it’s more or less the same clubs finishing in the Champions League places.
So, obviously what the Premier League has done is make it a much tougher League for English players to compete in. And in terms of what that’s done for the national side, former Chelsea midfielder Joe Cole says “Is there English talent coming through? To be honest, I don’t know. When I came through at West Ham, our league was the fifth best league in the world. A group of us came through at the same time and we were able to do that because of how things were in England then. Now, though, the Premier League is the best league in the world. That means it is much tougher for kids to break through and play regularly. Maybe we’re paying the price for having the best league in the world. It is such a tough league. You are either fighting for the title, fighting for Europe or fighting against relegation. That means clubs go out to buy players who are already the finished article. There’s very little room for development. Our [England] under-17s won the European Championship a few weeks ago and we’ve got a few of the lads at Chelsea. They are good kids, but they now need to start playing first-team football and it is so tough to break into any team now, but especially at Chelsea.”
Can you imagine England being talked about with such respectful and admirable terms as “A semi-final shoot-out defeat by West Germany killed a dream but the English public came away feeling better about their national game than they had done for years”? Seems a bit surreal now doesn’t it? And yet it captures the feeling of the nation back then perfectly.
Then, 23 year old Paul Gascoigne caught the nation’s attention – and even their emotions – and who will ever forget Gary Lineker motioning to the bench to “have a word”? That was a team who cared about each other, a team driven by unity and a desire to win rather than money. According to John Barnes, it was a team prone to “headbutting the walls and stuff” out of sheer frustration, and we know all about the tears over missed penalties. These days they wouldn’t dream of creasing their brows in case the cameras shot them in a pose not fit for ‘Hello’ magazine.
Back then, even after going out at the semi-final stage, England were welcomed back as heroes. They’d given it their all, epitomising what it meant to get out there and be proud to play for your country. This summer, the only welcome was from the press, ready to devour pictures of players laughing – ready to use them against them whether they’d made an effort in the World Cup or not.
Of course, England weren’t good enough in South Africa, a point Joe Cole agrees with, stating “Listen, no one pulls the England shirt on with more pride than me, but we’ve got to face up to the reality of it all – we’re just not good enough. People will talk about the decision not to allow Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany, but it was plain and simple to see that we just weren’t good enough. It wasn’t just the Germany game. Over the course of the tournament we looked a long way behind the other top nations and when it came to the crunch the best side won. We seem to abandon good technique because we are obsessed with getting the ball from back to front as quickly as possible. That doesn’t work against top teams. It’s obvious we lack the kind of qualities you need to be successful at international level.”
And he’s right, we do fall way behind other sides out there but when you look back at where it all started to go wrong – and continues to go wrong – as much as the press and the anti-England brigade want to level accusations at individual players, the problem is much wider than that. The Premier League, for everything it’s given us since its conception, has come with a much higher price than the ridiculous wages its clubs are prepared to shell out.
The Premier League has stunted the development of young English talent, covering every available blade of grass with marquee signings until there is no room left for future internationals to grow.
Oh for the days of the Football League eh?