As the team line-ups for the FA Cup match flashed up on the pub’s screen, the group of friends hollered. The benches were primarily made up of young players they’d never heard of: Macey, Robertson, Aluko? There was no point in even remembering their names, as they would surely be discarded for flashier foreign talent in the months and years to come. This is English football after all, right?
This coming June, however, may well change football in the UK in a big way. As Cameron hurriedly sealed his deal in Brussels, ensuring in the process that “references to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom”, the European Union referendum date has been set and the battle for votes has already long started. With campaigns on both sides vying desperately to convince the public, it is unsurprising to see lead figures within the debate begin to bring out the big guns. In other words, hone in on what would really rile up the average Briton. And the answer seems clear: Football.
This is a key question that Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham United and board member of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, was quick to seize upon. At the end of January, Lady Brady warned that a Brexit would have a “devastating” effect on British football clubs. In a letter addressed to the chairmen of all British teams, she outlined her fears about the impact that leaving the EU could have. Her main concern seemed to revolve around the fact that independent research showed that two-thirds of European players in England “would not meet automatic non-EU visa criteria”.
Indeed, as of the start of the current Premier League season, there were 161 foreign players plying their trade. This is a league that has slowly made use of the influx of foreign talent, choosing time and again to bring in players of all levels of experience from overseas rather than rely on club academies.
It is therefore unsurprising to hear that the Premier League, and perhaps clubs throughout the English leagues, would find itself depleted if a Brexit were to occur, due to all foreign players being subjected to strict visa regulations that rely on their playing experience. In the Premier League alone, 111 players out of 161 would be affected.
It is understandable that Lady Brady would flag this up as a potential concern. Who would want the Premier League to lose its talented players? How could British clubs continue to compete in European competitions without top foreign talent?
There is a problem in this thinking however, as the current chairman of the FA, Greg Dyke, has fervently been campaigning for just this scenario: a chance for young, homegrown players to take a shot at the big leagues. The issue of foreign players taking over English football has long been a contentious one. It was revealed that the opening weekend of the current Premier League season saw just 73 English players take the field out of a total 220. That is an incredible 33.2 per cent, the lowest percentage England’s top league has ever seen. It makes the 1992-1993 season, when 69 per cent of players were homegrown, seem like nothing but a distant memory.
Many anti-EU campaigners feel that a Brexit would allow British youth players to finally prove their worth, something which would then directly affect England’s national team. In a tongue-in-cheek article in its “Euro Guido” section, the political satirical blog Guido Fawkes mocked Lady Brady’s assertions about the visa regulations, musing that in “Lady Brady’s post-Brexit scenario, it’s not too far-fetched to see how a revitalised England could win the World Cup”. This is of course meant to be taken with a pinch of salt, yet there is within the blogpost a certain truth that resonates with anti-EU campaigns.
Brian Monteith, Head of Press for the Leave.eu grassroots campaign, strongly disagrees with Lady Brady’s assessment of the repercussions a Brexit would have. As the father of two boys who were previously in Livingston FC’s youth squad, as well as an SFA coaching certificate holder, Monteith is keen to emphasise that the UK would benefit from being outside the automatic freedom of movement of labour.
“The lower leagues are now full of EU journeymen that bring immediate experience to a team and a sense of glamour. Our youths struggle to break in and get enough games to build up experience and flourish.” Monteith’s argument rests on the fact that the majority of foreign players who come to Britain are there not because of their superior abilities or talent, but for the glitz and excitement that a foreign recruit can bring. This leads to young British talent going unappreciated: “Nowadays they are discarded very young because managers can just play safe and go for a journeyman.”
It is this image of the journeyman that troubles Monteith the most. He points to being in the EU as making the pool too big for managers to freely choose from which “limits opportunities for our own youth”. The journeyman is a safe option because more often than not he costs less, he plays in a completely different style and he doesn’t require years of training, it has already been done in his home country. Monteith is adamant that this is killing the future of British football, and those of the national sides. “The fact that Karren Brady does not ‘get it’ shows how little she actually understands how football works.”
It is impossible to know the extent of the impact a Brexit would have on British football, but perhaps the Maceys and the Robertsons that were jeered and chastised in today’s pub will have a better shot at moulding their future in tomorrow’s.
Subeditor: Katy Scott