Taylor calls for tighter homegrown rule
ESPN FC Extra: State of England
Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor has called on the game's authorities to implement changes that would enforce clubs to play a set number of homegrown players in their starting line-ups, in proposals that would revolutionise the game.
In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN, Taylor has outlined his vision for a fresh future at all levels of the sport and is convinced his suggestion that clubs should be compelled to start the game with a minimum number of homegrown players, regardless of nationality, who have been in the development programme for at least three years between the ages of 16 to 21 would be supported by employment lawyers.
The current Premier League regulations stipulate that clubs must include no more than 17 overseas players in a 25-man squad, but they allow any number of Under-21s of any nationality and Taylor suggests these measures have not produced the kind of results they were designed to promote, with the absence of homegrown talent in first teams more of an issue this year than at any point in recent history.
With this in mind, the influential PFA chief is advocating amendments that would force clubs to give their nationally produced players a chance, and not just include a handful of graduates in their squad lists.
"I would like to see a rule introduced where three or four players in a starting line-up for each club need to have come through a youth development system in whichever country they are playing in, regardless of nationality," begins Taylor. "We need to keep the aspiration alive for youngsters that they can reach the top of the game. This is not an anti-foreigner proposal in any way, just a bid to encourage the development of homegrown talent.
"There will be those who will instantly suggest this kind of proposal could be challenged legally by the clubs, but I am confident that employment lawyers would support it as it would be viewed as encouraging an educational and youth development programme. Clubs know that this could be enforced and that's why they agreed to the laws on quotas in squad lists that are in place now.
"Of course, this kind of proposal would need to be introduced on a worldwide basis, so we would need to convince UEFA and FIFA to endorse it, but I feel we have reached a point where it is something we need to look at to safeguard the future fabric of our game.
"We at the PFA have been raising the issue of the lack of homegrown players in Premier League squads for many years and while the product that is the English top division remains wonderfully successful both commercially and in terms of entertainment, you only need to glance at the teamsheets each week to appreciate that more players not qualified for England are filling the major positions in the top teams.
"After speaking to the new FA chairman Greg Dyke in the last few weeks, I think there is an appreciation that the moment has come to try and bring the game back to its roots, and give the next generation of footballers a chance to succeed."
Taylor and his players' union have long campaigned against the dereliction of grassroots football in England and Wales, with their "Meltdown" publication of 2007 designed to shock its readers into appreciating what it described as 'a crisis at the heart of the English game'.
The PFA document featured an introduction from Italian Gianluca Vialli, who admitted he could not have any emotions for the country he was working in when he became the first manager in Premier League history to field a starting XI made up entirely of foreign players during his time as Chelsea manager in 1999.
However, the PFA chief suggested the warning signs for the current dearth of technically gifted homegrown players dates back almost two decades.
"It was back in 1994, when none of the home nations qualified for the World Cup finals in America, that I felt we had reached a moment when a rethink was required at a variety of levels of the game," states Taylor, whose own playing career took in spells with Bolton, Birmingham, Blackburn and Bury, before he went on to devote more than 30 years of ongoing service to the PFA. "We produced a report at the time entitled 'A Kick in The Right Direction' to highlight where the grassroots game was headed and the 'Meltdown' report 13 years later confirmed many of the fears that we initially aired had come to pass.
"We are a country with the highest football attendances in the world, the most fulltime clubs and most fulltime players and success at international level can be achieved along with the success of our club football. We at the PFA want to see the England team doing well and for that to happen, we need to promote the development of homegrown players and ensure they have a chance to play in Premier League and Championship teams.
"I was present at Wembley in 1966 when England won the World Cup and the lift it gave the nation could not be overestimated. We have seen similarly uplifting moments in recent months such as the London Olympics, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, the success of our cricketers, golfers and rugby players and those moments where we unite together for a common sporting cause are what sport at the highest level should be all about.
"Football has no divine right to be the most popular sport in this country moving forward and to safeguard the privileged position we have been in for generations, we need to look at how the game is organised at all levels."
Taylor's claim that "500 out of every 600 youngsters playing the game at 16 are out of the game by the time they are 21" is a statistic that suggests a glut of talented youngsters are failing to mature as many would hope in the academy system. One possible solution to the crisis being considered is the controversial evolution of "feeder clubs" in English football.
"I believe Premier League clubs will begin to establish stronger links with clubs in the bottom two divisions of the Football League," continues Taylor. "We have seen clubs like Chelsea use the loan system heavily in recent years and that is bound to escalate.
"So many clubs in League One and League Two are working in a difficult financial climate and at Premier League clubs, we have a large collection of young players who hit a glass ceiling and cannot make any further progress at their parent club when they reach the age of 21. Those two predicaments may well find a middle ground at some point.
"I remember talking to Rafa Benitez about the idea of nursery clubs during his time as Liverpool manager back in 2007. Liverpool had a set of players that had won the FA Youth Cup two years in succession, but Rafa felt the players in that team were not ready to jump straight into his Premier League starting line-up. He wanted to know why the nursery club system that is commonplace in his homeland of Spain, was not available in England.
"The reason there is hesitancy on this issue in England is so many of our lower league clubs have fought so hard to retain their independence and their identities despite the financial difficulties they are facing. They don't like the idea of becoming a nursery club, but I feel that eventually, in an era when most finances in the game are being focused on the top two divisions, we may conclude that a controlled version could benefit all concerned."
Taylor's views on the coaching at schools and professional club academies are delivered with equally passionate vigour, as he remains convinced England's current talent sources can be improved if the right coaching structure is put in place.
"The biggest department we have at the PFA now is our coaching set-up and that has helped many of our top players at top clubs to make progress in gaining their coaching qualifications, but it is not just at the top end that we need to bolster our coaching depth," he added at a time when the likes of Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs, Ledley King, Scott Parker and Brad Friedel are attending PFA coaching courses.
"England has just over 1,000 coaches with a UEFA 'A' level qualification compared with more than 12,000 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany and while we need to encourage the government to ensure sport is a key part of the education curriculum, we need to focus on developing an identity for the England team moving forward and the coaching of our youngsters has to be the priority.
"If we have top quality coaches filtering down the system as they do in Spain and Germany, the results will come from that. Let's not forget that Spain took a long time to develop a style of play that is used by all their young teams from 15-years upwards and we need to look at how they have gone about that process and the success it has brought. Holland, Italy and France have done it in the past and now Spain and Germany are leading the way and there is no reason why we cannot follow.
"What we need to do in England is improve the technique of our young players and passing skills whilst also retaining the qualities that remain as our strong points. The passion and hard work of our players is a crucial quality we need to retain. Changes are needed, but they need to incorporate the trademarks of English football that have always been there."
Oozing with ideas despite his evident concern about the current plight of the grassroots game in England, Taylor looks set to be a useful soul mate for Dyke. If the quota system he suggests for homegrown players in starting line-ups is eventually introduced, the fundamental change that all involved in the game are calling for may have arrived.