It has been a short summer. It seems like just yesterday that four teams from these islands (sorry Scotland) were heading off to France for the Euros. Everybody had high hopes.
And it seems like just the day before yesterday when Brexit hit and the rest of Europe woke up to the news that the UK had taken its ball and gone home.
And now the Premiership is in full swing, the transfer deadline day has passed, the World Cup qualifiers have started up. It’s business as usual and nothing much has changed apart from the fact that Sam Allardyce now has the England job.
I was relieved for Sam when Adam Lallana poked the winner through the legs of the unfortunate Slovakian keeper Matus Kozacik yesterday with the last kick of the game. There were only ten Slovakians left on the field and in the press box the hatchets were already being sharpened.
Sam deserves better. Whatever was wrong with English football during the Euros is still going to be wrong this week, next week and in a few years’ time. Sam’s job is to do what he is good at, getting results with the resources he has. Whether those results look pretty or feel ugly doesn’t matter. Improving the resources that Sam has is somebody else’s job.
In an ideal world Sam Allardyce’s entire squad would be made up mostly from the top four premiership clubs. He’d have a few dozen players just underneath that level knocking loudly on the door, one or two plying their trade at top Spanish or German clubs too.
Why that isn’t the case is a bigger problem than one manager can deal with. Sam’s first game as manager came in the week of transfer deadline day. Nearly all the big stories emerging out of the annual madness concerned foreign players coming to the Premiership. From Sam’s point of view Joe Hart went to Torino and Jack Wilshere decided he’d enjoy Bournemouth a little bit more than he would enjoy Rome.
When the dust settled seventy foreign players had just arrived in Premier League. About half that number had left but most of the lads packing their bags were lads who didn’t quite make it. Hardly any ripples were made by players from the UK or Ireland.
Times have changed at the top. Sadly beneath the surface our football culture hasn’t moved on. We are too insular.
Back when the Premier League started in 1992/93 there were thirty six foreign players in the league and about eleven of those were starters. Now the league is global. Players from 105 different nations have played Premiership football.
The situation facing the England side (and the rest of us on these islands) isn’t going to change from the top downwards. The big clubs and the people who run them don’t feel responsible for the English team. Their job is to get the best talent available and to get it now.
Every now and then (bad result to Iceland etc) fans moan about the lack of English players in the league but it’s like tourism to places of natural beauty. We all feel that we have the right to be there but that maybe they should ban all other tourists in case the place gets spoiled. Most fans think there are too many foreign players here but at ten o clock in the evening on transfer deadline day when your team needs a striker you don’t care if he comes from Tyneside or Timbuktu. Just sign him.
As an outsider looking in it seems to me that the problem is so ingrained in football culture that it will take years to solve. As a kid at Arsenal I came through to the first team with about seven other lads I had played with in the youth side. We all went on to have decent careers. Fergie did something similar at United with the Class of 92. It will be a long time before anything like that happens again. It won’t happen just by wishing for it to happen.
Arsenal are an interesting example. My friend, Google, tells me that in 1930 Arsenal bought a Dutch player called Gerry Keizer. The FA said tut tut and brought in a crude anti-foreigner policy. That policy lasted until 1978.
In 1989 Arsenal became the last team to win the league title with no foreign players in their squad. In 2005 Arsenal became the first club to put out a team made up entirely of foreign players.
That’s history through just one top club. Top clubs will always want the top talent. We have known that since 1930, at least, but we still haven’t adapted properly.
When foreign players began coming into the league they were a novelty and there were no foreign managers or foreign owners. I was at Manchester City by the time I played with a foreign player. After experimenting with a couple of Dutch and German players the club signed Georgi Kinkladze.
City didn’t know what to do with Georgi. He had immense talent and fans loved him. But he was homesick and his mother and sister had to move to Manchester. He didn’t do tracking back so when he’d make a run out wide I would be told to go and pick up the opposing full back. I vividly remember one day against Leeds and every time Georgi lost the ball my job was to chase after their galloping full back Gary Kelly. City got relegated twice in three years. Joe Royle who was in charge for the second relegation said: “To the supporters he was the only positive in all that time. To me he was a big negative.”
English football never really bridged that cultural gap. Now the top clubs are foreign owned and have foreign managers who bring in their own foreign coaching staff and pack their academies with young foreign players. Who can blame them?
The English game is a long way behind the big European powers in terms of the numbers of A and B qualified coaches we produce. So not enough kids at pre-academy level are getting the best coaching and not enough young coaches have a pathway to the top of the game.
The reality is harsh. If a club invests money in bringing a young payer and his family from abroad they have an interest in that kid succeeding. When it comes to cutting the numbers it’s easier to get rid of a local kid unless he is truly exceptional.
Sadly our homegrown players aren’t seen as a trustworthy commodity in foreign leagues. Joe Hart travelled against heavy traffic last week. While English clubs scout the world for players you don’t find scouts from Juventus or Bayern or Barca turning up at muddy pitches watching kids in the UK or Ireland. There aren’t a dozen or so players from these islands getting Champions League experience with foreign clubs.
So we have the greatest, most exciting and diverse league in the world but there is a price. The solution lies in the broader culture.
There is no quick fix. No point in saying we hope to have 45% domestic players by the year 2020 or whenever or hoping that Brexit might be a help in some way. The game needs to open up, accept that there is a ten year job to be done below the surface and start looking to Europe instead of hoping to shut it out. The Premier League is a juggernaut. It is not going to be stopped by a lollipop lady.
In the meanwhile blaming Sam Allardyce for anything that goes wrong, if it does go wrong, is exactly the sort of short term, knee-jerk thinking that got the game to this point.
Sam got the job done yesterday. Other people have an even bigger job to do.
TRIPS WITH TIPP.
I was rasied as a Dub with Tipperary blood in my veins. I’m the son of Billy Quinn, a hurler from Rahealty. We lost him in January of this year and in Croke Park yesterday he was hardly out of my thoughts.
It was an emotional day but a good one. Myself and Dad saw many bad days so this was one to be enjoyed. I can safely say that I was at every Tipperary championship through the seventies and eighties. It’s not a great boast. Most years it was one game and the year was done.
Tipp won an All Ireland in 1971 and it was 1987 before Pat Stakelum lifted the Munster trophy and officially announced that the famine was over. That was a great day but the afternoon that sticks in my mind is the Munster final of 1984 in Semple Stadium.
I think I’m right in saying that Tipp had only one player on the field that day who had even played in a Munster final before. Yet with five minutes left they were four points ahead of Cork.
My Dad always liked to make an early exit from big matches. We always had a train to catch, or traffic to beat or a quick drink to be had. This was history though and there was going to be no quick exit.
Tipp fans won’t need to be reminded of what happened next. A John Fenton free. Three points. Then poor John Sheedy in the Tipp goal made a great save and Tony O’Sullivan put the rebound away. Level. Tipp had a goal chance. Possession got turned over though. John Sheedy batted down an attempt at a point and Seanie O’Leary nipped in and whipped the ball into the net. I think Cork ended up winning by four. It was the cruelest defeat of all those bad years of losing.
The place was shellshocked, nobody hurt more than Billy Quinn. I remember him just sitting there for about twenty minutes not able to speak. There was nothing I could say to him so we sat there in silence. Would the bad times ever end.
Yesterday early in the second half I thought to myself, Billy you’d be loving this. Then Kilkenny got a goal and I made my excuses to him and said maybe the ghosts of 1984 were getting tangled up in what was happening. I kept Dad out of my mind till the final whistle blew.
I never see a hurling game without thinking how lucky we are to have this game at the centre of our culture. Going into Croke Park I met an American called Matt Young. It turned out that he had been a major league baseball pitcher for eleven seasons with teams like the LA Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox. He was seeing his first hurling game.
He was enthralled. He had never seen anything quite like what he witnessed in Croke Park. I love the idea of him going back to California and telling people about the experience he had. This incredible game and the players on the field creating all that intensity to bring something home to the place they come form, the place that their fans all come from. It is special.
How can a man go home to America and describe the magnificence of Seamus Callanan yesterday. Even watching hurling for the first time it was clear that something special was happening.
If you saw Maradona or Cruyff or Messi in their heyday everything they did looked easy. Yesterday everything looked easy for Seamus Callahan. Tipp had a lot of heroes but you could see the dog in them fighting for everything. Nothing Callahan did was easy but he made it look that way.
I was lucky growing up as a footballer. I look at footballers these days and they are posting up Instagram snaps of themselves out with rappers and MMA fighters. My buddies included a couple of real heroes of mine, Nicky English and Joe Hayes of Tipp. If you know Joe you don’t need to know any rappers or MMA fighters. He has it all.
The lads worked as hard at their game as I ever did at football in England and I never forgot that at the end of the week I was well paid for doing what I loved but Nicky and Joe had jobs and mortgages and all the worries of the real world to carry along with their hurling careers. I’ll always be grateful to them for what they gave me in perspective and friendship. I know too well what yesterday meant for them.
I’m working in London tonight so I won’t be making the trip to Tipp I didn’t make it six years’ ago either. Instead we stopped at Urlingford right on the Kilkenny-Tipp border and set up camp. It was one of the great nights. Joe was there. The whole gang of pals from Tipp. They sowed it into the Kilkenny people. They knew they’d caused enough pain down the years, that they couldn’t complain. They knew they’d be back too.
The same will apply tonight. Kilkenny were great champions and they lost yesterday like great champions. They’ll just have to put up with the noisy neighbours for a while. I’ll be thinking of Urlingford and of Billy Quinn all evening. Good times.