One of the most clichéd and bogus arguments in football in recent years – perpetuated by the likes of Howard Wilkinson at the League Managers Association – is that English football and by extension, the English national team, is suffering due to the heavy influx of foreigners.
Ignoring the principle of meritocracy, which is the essence of all sport, Wilkinson and his sympathisers claim that foreign imports are preventing young Englishmen from playing and thereby stunting the national team.
Never mind that in the early 1990’s when there were no foreigners, the likes of Carlton Palmer were in the national side, never mind the development of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and several other world class players, and never mind that the Premier League is the most watched competition in the world, no, for Howard Wilkinson and his retrograde cronies, active discrimination is the way forward.
Let us not however, dwell on and lament the cavils of the bad, but chant the beauty of the good. Yes it’s harder for English players to gain exposure in the Premier League, but if and when they do, they do so in the toughest possible environment, against burgeoning and affirmed world stars, and are shaped like rough diamonds in amongst the hard earth.
At the elite clubs, many youngsters go out on loan before fully breaking into the first team – look at the likes of Darren Fletcher – because playing time is important in their education, but, without the standard to aspire to and the world stars to emulate, the practice would be insufficient.
Now the cohesion and success – or lack thereof – of the national side is a different matter entirely, but casting an eye over the U-21 squad released yesterday, I found several reasons to be cheerful.
1. Fabian Delph. Delph was signed by Martin O’Neill in the summer after a startling season with Leeds in League One. Aside from a couple of early season appearances in the Villa side, he has spent a large amount of his time on the bench, only to recently feature, and feature prominently, in the FA Cup and against Manchester United in the league.
Delph, despite his diminutive size for a central midfielder, has excellent technique, is extremely tenacious, has the stamina to go box to box, and is a very good finisher; be that from distance or up close. His passing is sound and usually progressive, and Martin O’Neill always speaks in glowing terms about a man who, he claims, ‘will be a proper player for us.’ Moreover, according to O’Neill, Delph is a perfectionist who pushes himself extremely hard.
2. Daniel Sturridge. In an interview recently, Fabian Delph claimed the best player had had played with so far at youth level was Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge scored goals in the Premier League last year with Manchester City and has impressed new boss Carlo Ancelotti with his talent, which is considerable. He is an excellent dribbler, has a lot of pace, is two-footed, and has an eye for goal. His finishing seems to rely more on brawn than finesse at the moment, but that will surely progress. Training day in and day out with Didier Drogba can only be good for him.
3. Jack Wilshere. Arsene Wenger has produced few English players during his time at Arsenal, as many have failed to make the grade within a clearly defined philosophy based heavily on possession and aesthetic beauty. So when an English player finally does come through the ranks, it’s noteworthy. Wilshire, although small, has excellent technique, is two-footed, can change direction in the blink of an eye, and has a spectacular eye for the through ball. He has played out wide so far, but his future may lie between the lines of midfield and attack.
4. Victor Moses. Despite limited appearances for Wigan since signing in January, Moses has been called up by the U-21’s to ward off interest from Nigeria, where he was born. His performances at Crystal Palace reportedly garnered interest from Spanish giants Barcelona. It’s testament to Moses that this story doesn’t sound as absurd as it should, given that he has the pace, power, skill and flair to score remarkable goals. It will be interesting to see how he fares in the Premier League.
5. Danny Welbeck. At the start of the year Sir Alex Ferguson tipped Welbeck to gatecrash the England squad following some excellent performances for Manchester United last year. The likelihood of this has receded after Fergie sent him out on loan following a couple of poor performances in the Carling Cup, but Welbeck’s talent is undeniable. His physique and style are reminiscent of a young Samuel Etoo, and if he becomes anything like as good as the Cameroonian, England will have a spectacular player on their hands.
6. Nathan Delfouneso. Delfouneso has just earned his first all up to the U-21 side with manager Stuart Pearce lauding his pace. He has an excellent youth record, and in his limited appearances for Aston Villa, in Europe and the cup competitions, Delfouneso has taken to his surroundings with ease and scored goals. O’Neill speaks of him as highly as Fabian Delph, and he may well be the reason the Ulsterman has seemed reluctant to buy another strike partner for Gabriel Agbonlahor.
7. Chris Smalling. Signed by Manchester United in the January transfer window after a wrangle with Arsenal, Smalling has had a nigh on meteoric rise to the top echelon of English football after plying his trade with Maidstone as recently as early 2008. Athletic, with good positional awareness, and confident on the ball he looks an excellent prospect, but it‘ll likely take a bit of time before he becomes a permanent fixture in the Manchester United team – although that could hinge on the future of Nemanja Vidic.