When West Ham took the field in the EFL Cup Tie against Accrington Stanley there were no British players in the starting eleven. By the end of the game a total of 14 players had been used of whom only Michail Antonio was British. I have to admit that I am not sure whether West Ham have started with an all non-British line-up in the past but it seems unlikely. However, as long ago as 1999 Chelsea had become the first English side to field an all foreign starting eleven.
I was also surprised a few weeks ago when I happened to come across the line-ups for the Championship fixture between Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest to discover that only 8 of the 27 players featuring in the game were English. It has become accepted that Premier League squads were dominated by overseas players but it hadn’t occurred to me that the same was the case in the second tier. So I decided to take a closer look.
There had been the occasional foreign player appearing up in English football ever since Max Seeburg from Germany turned out for Tottenham in 1908. After a spat with Arsenal over the signing of foreigners and obviously worried by a growing trend the FA introduced a 2 year residency rule in 1931 which served to stem the onrushing tide at the time. Even so, foreign players appeared in each of the FA Cup finals between 1951 and 1956 with one of these, Bert Trautmann becoming Footballer of the Year in 1956.
In 1978 a European Community ruling declared that football associations could not deny access to players based solely on nationality and, as a result, the effective 47 year ban in England was lifted. The arrival of players such as Ardiles and Villa at Tottenham spearheaded the new foreign invasion. At the time various quotas on non-British players applied but these have long since disappeared. When Arsenal won the league in 1989 they were the last team not to use a single foreign player (for the picky, yes the squad did include David O’Leary and Niall Quinn; both from the Republic of Ireland).
As far as I know, the first foreign player to play for West Ham was Clyde Best who I assume qualified to play under the two year residency rule before getting a first start in 1968. An attempt to sign Israel skipper Mordecai Spiegler after the 1970 World Cup was thwarted by the red tape still in play at the time. After the 1978 ruling West Ham were relatively slow on the uptake with the first overseas player, Francois Van der Elst, not clearing customs until January 1982. By then everyone was in on the act and even second division Charlton had signed former European footballer of the year Allan Simonsen from Barcelona. In 2013, West Ham had become the first English club to have fielded players of 50 nationalities; the majority of whom, it has to be said, barely made an impression.
I spent some time going through squad lists to see how teams in the Premier League and Championship currently shape up with regard to foreign players. For the purposes of the analysis I have used the squads listed on Wikipedia. Players are categorised on their FIFA registration and I have treated players from the Republic of Ireland as foreigners (possibly harsh seeing as any English player who has seen Riverdance more than once is probably eligible to represent the Republic).
In the Premier League, 60% of players are foreign. Watford are top recruiter with 84% of their squad hailing from overseas. At the other end of the spectrum, Hull and West Brom have only 25% foreign representatives. The top 6 clubs for foreign players are Watford (84%), Manchester City (81%), Chelsea (76%), Arsenal (72%), West Ham (70%) and Sunderland (69%). If you were to exclude players fro the other Home nations the percentage of English players overall drops to 35%. The top 6 origins of Premier League players are England, Spain, France, Belgium, Republic of Ireland and Netherlands.
In the Championship, 40% of players are foreign. Newcastle and Reading are joint top with 62% followed by Brighton (54%), Fulham (54%), Brentford (52%) and Nottingham Forest (51%). Two more teams have at least 50% of overseas players. Rotherham brings up the rear with a mere 16% foreign contingent.
There has been a long running debate about the impact of the foreign invasion on the fortunes of the national side. In that we have just the single 1966 tournament victory to show for a period both before and after the invasion then you could make a case that it is neutral. However, it does raise the question of what happens to all the kids who dream of becoming a professional footballer. Many of us had that dream at one time living out the fantasy over the park, even without the lure of the vast financial rewards of today, but at least for some the dream came true making it into teams that were largely home grown. Sure squads are much larger now but my instinct is that if we looked at game time the proportion for foreign players will be even higher (in the 6 Premier League games to date 78% of West Ham starters have been foreign players) than that for the squad as a whole. I will delve deeper into this at another time.
With all the recent revelations about shady deals between managers and agents let’s hope this is not a contributing factor to the skewed make up of English club squads. Was there some truth to Ravel Morrison’s claim as to why he was banished to the reserves at West Ham?
The Premier League is a worldwide phenomenon which has been enriched by foreign players; there is no getting away from the fact that the most exciting and flair players are from overseas. The multi-million dollar question is why this is the case? Are the local lads not up to the challenge? Would they rather chase Pokemon than a football? Have we not sorted out grass roots youth development despite Sir Trev’s best efforts? On those occasions that I have seen kids football they all seem to have mastered the Cruyf turn and the Rabana but not the basics. For now, the mystery of the disappearing English footballer deepens.