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The perils of importing more than you export

How England’s quest for a golden generation could be inspired by the historical English golden age.

“The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours, but less talent was wasted”

– T.S. Eliot

Many historians often depict the Elizabethan era (1558-1603) as the ‘golden age’ of English history. It was an age of expansion with Great Britain blazing a trail of worldwide exploration. England’s finest talent – including Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins – were commissioned to circumnavigate the globe in search of the New World. Failure to do so would have left England trailing behind neighbours France and Spain in the search for new land and knowledge and – worse – susceptible to invasion.

You may be wondering what relevance this has to problems within English football: how does a country, which historically oversaw one of history’s largest empires through exploration and commerce, apply this historical experience to sport and football in particular?

For one, the perception of the Premier League being invaded by too many foreigners who stifle local talent echoes Elizabethan fears over vulnerability to invasion. Just as leaders at that time responded to this fear with overseas expansion, English football talent can excel by exporting local talent in response to the influx of foreign players.

Today however, English football barely engages in any global or, more importantly, continental trade. Based on data provided by CIES, within the big five European leagues in 2012-13 only five English players played for non-English clubs. These numbers are dwarfed compared to Spain’s 45 or France’s 106, and may partially be explained by the perception that English talent is technically inferior, echoed by former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola’s claim last year that while Jack Wilshere was a “top player,” he “had many players like him” in Barcelona’s B team. Though these comments were generally frowned upon in England, this perception still lingers.

Exporting young English talent offers several major benefits. First, it would provide young players a more well-rounded development by forcing them to adapt to different styles of football.  Second, English footballers who emerge as prospective stars at continental clubs would provide a more affordable option for English teams wanting to add more domestic players. Third, greater numbers of young English talent playing overseas would also gradually help change the widespread perception that English players are technically deficient.

There is, of course, a major challenge in that the most lucrative contracts available to English players in football are found at home. Why would British players want to go anywhere else? One recalls the recent decision by 22-year old winger Tom Ince to go to Hull City rather than Inter Milan.

This is an area however where players would be wise to balance long-term financial opportunities and career growth over a short-term windfall. Young English players should have a more grounded understanding of their value as an asset, one that could result in the opportunity to demand higher pay in their peak years with the added value of a wider playing experience and familiarity with different styles of football.

Thankfully other sports provide good models for this approach, not least the experience of Scottish tennis star Andy Murray. Murray’s Spanish youth coach described in detail the advantage he gained by relocating to Barcelona: “Anyone could see the effect in Andy’s Wimbledon final this year, because he has learnt to anticipate so well. He sees the opponent, can read his game, and that’s why he looks so fast. Working with us on the clay gave him the mental strength of knowing the point is never finished.”

Just as Murray developed better anticipation skills through playing on the clay courts, who is to say that a future [English] footballer is not equally as successful because they learnt to play better on the half turn through playing in a system abroad?

There are other factors that are inextricably linked to the betterment of developing English talent, including sending coaches and managers to work overseas. Exporting talent would certainly create a more cultured selection of personnel, undoubtedly creating a better balance within the team with players who are able to adapt to varying styles of football.

21st Club spoke to David Sheepshanks CBE – Chairman of St George’s Park, who confirmed that “…one of our success measures for St George’s Park over the coming years is to see more of our coaches and English players being targeted and recruited by the top European leagues”. Indeed, the tide may already be turning. By the end of transfer deadline day, the 23 year old Tottenham midfielder Lewis Holtby had gone on loan to Hamburg, a move mirrored by Micah Richards’ season long loan deal from Man City to Fiorentina.


Micah+Richards Manchester City and England defender Micah Richards has joined Fiorentina on a season-long loan deal

So while traditionalists will maintain that “England is the home of football” and therefore the idea of exporting talent is an admission of failure, the outlook is changing. If foreign clubs became interested in young English talent, the English football market as we know it would be radically transformed. Most savvy business people know only too well the perils of importing more than you export, but English football tends to forget these fundamental trading principles. Much as England followed Spain and Portugal’s lead in striking out across the globe in the 15th and 16th centuries, so too must English football model its adversaries and overcome its domestic insularity and seek new horizons across the globe.


Thanks to Richard Whittall for editing the article.

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