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Homegrown key to Prem future

All week long, ESPN FC explores England's dwindling number of homegrown stars in the Premier League with a series of features that explain the problem, the current climate and the way forward.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth is a biennial event. England have just crashed out of an international tournament -- usually on penalties -- and it's time to play the blame game. At such times, low-hanging fruit is reached for. "Too many foreigners" leads the charge.

A prevalent line of thinking is that the Premier League, for all its riches, and the entertainment it offers, is a fallow bedding ground for homegrown talent. A victim of the Premier League's international success has been international success for the national team. Meanwhile, foreign owners have no reason to care about the fortunes of the England team

Those at the Premier League would disagree. Director of Communications Dan Johnson is keen to state the importance of homegrown players to the Premier League.

"Having a strong and successful England team playing well and qualifying for tournaments is good for English football and good for the Premier League," he says. "It helps shine a light. A strong German team is good for the Bundesliga, a strong Spanish team is good for La Liga and probably helps to cover up some of the inequalities that are manifest in La Liga."

On its 1992 formation, one of the publicly stated central tenets of the breakaway league was to further the interests of the England national team. The game was in revival after the doldrums of the 1980s, and that was thanks in great part to Bobby Robson's team reaching the semifinals of Italia '90. Back in 1991, the breakaway clubs enticed the Football Association with a Premier League of 18 clubs that could alleviate fixture congestion and would thus give the national team more time to prepare. It never materialised. Back then, the First Division was made of 22 teams. It remains at 20, after UEFA regulations forced a reduction in the summer of 1995.

Aside from Euro '96, where hosts England perished in the semis, the national team has constantly banged its head on a ceiling of quarterfinals -- at best. Expectations grow lower as each tournament comes around. At present, the nation merely hopes to see its team in Brazil. The Premier League, however, is not for shouldering all of the blame.

"Nobody knows what the England team would have achieved had it not been for the formation of the Premier League," argues Johnson. "You can say that England have had a comparatively successful period during the time of the Premier League. They have qualified for the majority of tournaments and reached quarterfinals."

Chief executive Richard Scudamore recently argued that the 1970s saw England miss out on two World Cups, while England have only failed to qualify once -- for USA '94 -- in the two decades of the Premier League.

Johnson rejects arguments against the self-interest of foreign owners and clubs buying quick-fix foreign players, and believes the answer to improving the national team's fortunes lies in a shiny new development programme -- the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) -- a joint venture between the Premier League, Football League and FA. The previous system saw fewer and fewer clubs looking to invest in player development because of the problems of compensation payments for young English players. Instead, to buck the system, young players from EU countries and beyond were being recruited.

The intention of EPPP is to free up movement of young players by the establishment of a hierarchy to fix transfer fees between academies. Increasing the amount of quality homegrown professionals leads the project's core principles.

"It's reductive to say that there are too many foreigners," argues Johnson. "It's better to ask whether there are enough homegrown players of the requisite quality. There is no point doubling the number of English players if they are not good enough, either via the means of a quota or by trying to economically reward clubs for playing English players. All you end up with is a larger group of mediocre players to choose from."

Over three years, an investment of £340 million across all 92 league clubs will be plunged into EPPP, which completed its first season in the summer.

"Last season, the first year, the figures of investment doubled among our clubs. The average spend was £40 million but last year it was £80 million a season," says Johnson. "The cultural and intellectual shift is being backed up by investment.

"Our academy system had fallen behind the standards in other countries, most notably Germany. Seven or eight years ago, we started discussions on how that might be remedied. In 2010 we and the FA have agreed areas of responsibility. The responsibility of coaches and coaching lies with the FA, player development with the Premier League."

The prevarication of foreign owners largely buy into the ambitions of the project, suggests Johnson. "I think the whole foreign owners thing is a real red herring," he adds. "The work that has been done with EPPP, you cannot front it up to them as 'You must have more English players.'

"Instead, you say to them that they are already investing heavily in the academy process. They know it makes more sense from a sporting perspective; it makes sense from a business perspective to create your own players. It's enlightened self-interest, it's mutual self interest that means we will be producing more and better homegrown players.

"By dint of the numbers coming through, at under-16 level they are 95 percent English, at under-18 they are 86 percent English, even at under-21 it is 75 percent English.

"The benefits flow from the club and then onto the national side as well. If you are telling me that Liverpool owner John W. Henry doesn't recognise the value of a Steven Gerrard or a Jamie Carragher then I think you are wrong. They recognise the sporting and commercial value of having players of that ilk -- what it means to the fanbase, sponsors and internationally to say 'We have an England international brought up through the system'."

Germany and Spain are currently used as benchmarks, but Johnson says Germany's example is within easy reach. The Premier League's current rate is 38 percent Englishmen.

"In Germany it's 48 percent and 52 percent of homegrown to foreigners," he says. "Because the Bundesliga is an 18-team league, in actual real numbers there's only a difference of 20 players.

"That difference is not going to make a great difference. It could be 20 worse players. If we maintain the current rate that we have and the players we have available are all world-class then we would potentially have a strong England team."

The aim, ultimately, is to have a Premier League containing a glut of high-quality English players, and from there, a national side competing to be the world's best. That eventuality can only benefit everybody, as Johnson explains: "Our research shows that a lot of people's first taste of football is watching a World Cup. If you have an England team performing well in a World Cup, it's a positive thing for us, too."


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