Foreign players Benefit English Football

Let us not beat around the bush any longer. Two studies preempted the current foreign players in England debate and gave evidence that actually, these players are of exceptional importance to English clubs, youth academies and the national team.

This may be wishful thinking but I think our Dyke Commission bashing may be almost over. And we need to thank two people – Branko Milanovic and Dr Richard Elliott. In our previous pieces about foreign influence on the English game we have talked about the idea of competition and how foreign players may spur English players on to increase their skill set. Milanovic and Elliot have given the ammunition needed to drive this point home.

A favour. If you are interested in reading this piece, first have a look at the infographic linked just below. This explains how placing foreign players in other countries has narrowed the gap of inequality between national teams, it looks a bit complicated but stick with it. Then come back over here to the words and we shall have look at Elliott’s study of foreign players in English youth academies….

Okay, welcome back. Did you look at the pretty picture?  If so, you should have seen that by placing the World’s best players into foreign clubs it has been observed that  the quality gap between national teams has reduced from 1950 to 2002. This is because of skill sharing between players from different football backgrounds. It has to be admitted that the study is some nine years old now and so perhaps a more recent argument is needed. This is where Richard Elliot’s study, “Feet-Drain or Feet-Exchange?: The Effects of Foreign Player Involvement in the Premier Academy League”, comes in.

In 2008, when Elliott took published his study, England failed to qualify for the European Chamionships and the idea of ‘feet-drain’ started to get some traction. ‘Feet-drain’ in the context of football is the argument that foreign players can stifle the development of players indigenous players to the host nation. Elliott was skeptical of this actually happening and decided to look at the potential of the inverse reaction actually occurring – ‘feet exchange’. In this circumstance, the involvement of foreign players actually benefits the indigenous players because they are able to learn on a daily basis skills and knowledge from people with a different view on how football is played

Elliott wished to test for the potential of feet-exchange within English youth academies. In order to do so he held interviews with senior figures from the Premier League, Academy directors and youth team coaching.

Raising the Bar
A senior member of the Premier League underlined the focus of Youth Academies to develop indigenous talent:

“There are some clubs who are trying to be very focussed on their own town from the chairman down, and to take a philosophical view that they will try to get the maximum out of their own environment before they even consider anywhere else”

However, the EPL member also reiterated the importance on recruiting foreign players:

“Academy Directors have a natural inclination to take the best players from their own environment. But, if they’re not available in your own environment, you have to look further-a-field . . . In order to produce the best player, he’s got to be surrounded by the best available other players, and if he’s only surrounded by players of average ability then he’s unlikely to succeed . . . By surrounding players with the best players they effectively develop themselves”

On this opinion, Elliott suggests that indigenous players, by working on a daily basis with foreign players of similar or greater ability, will improve in the standard of their performance. This was a supposition confirmed by many of those Elliott interviewed, one Academy Director confirmed that:

“Foreign players generally raise the overall standard of performance in training and in matches . . . we feel as if by them being here somehow they’ve had an influence on some of the British and English based boys to improve their general levels and give them opportunities”

Elliott’s respondents seemed to agree with the importance of the involvement of foreign players within the academies as regards indigenous player development and further questioning exposed trends in why this was so.

Who Wants it More?
In interviews with Premier League officials, it was briefly suggested that it was important that the English lads were being exposed to different habits, cultures and perspectives and mentalities on football. The youth academy coaches were then able to clarify how these elements manifested themselves, one coach said:

“The types of [foreign] boys that we bring here have a stronger and harder work ethic, they come from less privileged backgrounds than some of the boys that we have from more middle-class backgrounds. So in terms of the work ethic side, they certainly bring a lot to the table”.

Elliott suggests that this stronger work ethic of the foreign players improves the levels of competition within the academies. The overall standards of performance by the English players was challenged by harder working foreign players creating a need to improve effort in order to match their skill level. All of Elliott’s respondents agreed that this was happening and identified how the integration of foreign and indigenous players was advantageous.

Feet-exchange in action
Many of Elliott’s respondents were able to establish that a transfer of skills between the foreign and indigenous players was taking place especially as regards the specific playing attributes possessed by the two sets of youngsters. One Acadmey Director said:

“When they arrive here, the foreign boys, generally, are technically better than our boys. The reason for that is that they are trained four or five times a week”.

And, giving a sense of the two-way process of feet-exchange, one of the academy coaches interviewed said:

“Our game is not given the credit for the technicality involved. A skill is a technique performed in a match situation the faster, the more intense it becomes, the more difficult it is to be skilful. So you get some very good technicians who come from abroad and technically they fall apart”

This line of inquiry did lead to a form of consensus amongst those interviewed. There was suggestion that a definite transfer of skills was occurring in the academies. Predominantly this involved the English players learning how to develop the technical aspects of the game that the foreign players displayed. And, in return, the foreign players learned how to adapt to the power and pace of the English game. One coach summed it up:

“There’s a transfer, there’s an obvious transfer, because they [foreign players] will come and people will put them on a pedestal and say that they are technically more gifted . . . but they have to come in and get up to the speed of our game and learn to do everything that they do at our intensity, our tempo. But we have the transfer the other way of their calmness on the ball, the creation of space, that first touch, their decision making . . . it works both ways, and to simplify it, I think it’s a physicality one way, and a technicality the other way”.

These interviews lead Elliott to conclude that indeed feet-exchange was occurring at youth academies in England. And it’s occurrence was beneficial to both the English and Foreign players in the sense that their integration leads to the evolution of a theoretically complete footballer who has to constantly perform at the highest level to stand out. Combine these findings with those of Milanovic and it can be argued that, far from being a source of disadvantage, the involvement of foreign talent (even n their current numbers) at all levels of English football may actually be the instigator of an evolution of our game towards a more competitive, globally relevant version.

Of course we don’t suggest that these two studies give all the pertinent answers to the apparent afflictions of the English game. But they do show that there are alternative opinions about how English football operates and how it should move forward that may not be on the radar of the FA Commission and other people who have a larger say in these matters. We recommend that all those who love English football keep their minds open.

Brank Milanovic is the Head Economist in the Research Department of the World Bank and author of “The Have and the Have-Nots”. His paper we used can be downloaded here .

Dr Richard Elliott is an Associate Professor at the Southampton Solent University and author of “Football and Migration: Perspectives, Places, Players” to be published in 2014 . His paper we used can be found in the Birbeck Research Paper Series which can be found here .

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