By Bill Thomas
It’s a telling irony that just at the moment when England boss Gareth Southgate is calling for the English game to break out of its insular mentality – a call we first heard around 1953 when the Hungarians won 6-3 at Wembley – the nation state is looking to roll back the clock to those early post-war years by departing from the European Union.
Leaving the politics of that aside, let’s think of the repercussions, notably in footballing terms. As things stand, it’s hard to tell exactly what the shop of the post-Brexit Britain will be, or whether it will be Britain at all or just a Little England rump instead with the Scots angling for independence, Northern Ireland wondering just what a “hard border” with the Republic will do for the peace process and Wales waiting in the wings to see what transpires elsewhere across the Union.
What does seem likely is that the untrammelled freedom of movement which we have enjoyed across Europe and which has been the bedrock of the rise of the Premier League over the last 25 years will soon be coming to an end. As it stands, any football club can employ any footballer, pretty much any age, from any fellow EU country without any need to fulfil work permit regulations etc. That looks set to end and fresh criteria will be brought in, similar to those which players from other countries around the world have to meet – international caps, clear proof that they provide something that cannot be found in the domestic market etc.
This obviously won’t impact on the cream, so if the likes of Lewandowski, Neuer, Bonucci or Ramos fancy a spell in England, not a problem. But the more prosaic talents, the kind who prop up many a lower league club, will most likely find it tough to make it across the Channel, as will younger players, the kind who populate the big academies up and down the land. And, let’s not forget, that might ultimately apply to Scottish players too should they become independent.
That could have a huge impact on the game in England, for better and for worse perhaps. It might be that the Premier League clubs have to look to homegrown footballers rather than going abroad all the time. This won’t necessarily apply to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City who can always just spend on the very best, but lesser lights in the bottom half might find it harder to bring in players in future. And those lower league teams would surely be required to field virtually all British sides if those more draconian rulings cane in.
While that might initially dilute the quality of some teams, in the longer term, it might offer an opportunity for a lot of the youngsters who do come through academies, only to bang their heads on the glass ceiling of foreign imports. We often bemoan the fact that they don’t get their chance, well they might just be about to. It could be that the English game returns to the way it was in the early ‘80s, a largely British affair with just a smattering of talent from distant climes.
The intriguing question is just how will this play out over the longer term? Will the world want to see a league that reflects a very narrow national identity in comparative terms? One of the reasons the Premier League has touched the world and become its favourite competition is that almost every nation on earth is represented there, so that you can get buy-in from foreign audiences. Without so many of those recognisable faces, will the Premier League be quite as appealing? And if its harder to bring in players from elsewhere, what will that do to the already insipid displays of English clubs in Europe?
Will it be a good thing for the national team though? If English youngsters get more opportunities, if more English players are competing at a higher level at bigger clubs, then the England manager should have more people to pick from. That should be a positive, but will that be counterbalanced by the flourishing of the very insularity that Southgate preaches against – if there are fewer foreign players and coaches, will the English game be conducted in an echo chamber, isolated from those external ideas that can refresh and enhance?
As in every corner of British life, it looks as if football is about to embark on a decade long experiment into the impact of unintended consequences. Nobody knows where we’re going, but it’s unlikely to look like this when we get there.