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Nov 29, 2012

Buying best of British a recipe for disaster

Spain 5-4 England. Not, as might be supposed, a scoreline from the 1930s but a number generated by Sunday's stalemate between the European and English champions. When Rafa Benitez made his second substitution as Chelsea manager, there were five of his compatriots - starters Fernando Torres, Juan Mata and Cesar Azpilicueta, replacement Oriol Romeu and Manchester City's David Silva - on the pitch and a quartet of Brits: Ashley Cole, Joe Hart, James Milner and Gareth Barry.

It barely rated a mention. England's has long been the league of nations with statistics often produced indicating a lower percentage of locals than in its Spanish, Italian or German counterparts. Chelsea pioneered the all-foreign starting XI in 1999. Arsenal took it a step further in 2005 by neither naming an Englishman in the side or on the bench. As both can testify, complaints about domestic players being denied opportunities tend to follow.

And yet the elite clubs ought to have an eloquent rejoinder. The policy of buying British does not work for anyone with aspirations of a top-five finish. That is not the same as saying that homegrown individuals should not be signed - in Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and Nick Powell, Manchester United have acquired four in the past three summers; however, they have spread the net wider to recruit players such as Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa and David de Gea - but concentrating almost exclusively on the UK's native sons can only take a team so far. Furthermore, it tends to come at an excessive cost.

The death knell may have been sounded by Liverpool's £80 million investment in Andy Carroll, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson in 2011. While there was a unique element to the inflated prices paid and there are legitimate questions to be asked about Liverpool's scouting and planning, they encountered problems any other club adopting that approach would face.

The major difficulty is that there is a comparatively small group of high-class British footballers, the vast majority owned, and in many cases produced, by United, City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal, and thus effectively out of reach. The laws of supply and demand dictate that the smaller the talent pool, the larger the prices for the few available players can be.

Factor in the difficulty of signing other excellent Englishmen - for instance, Liverpool would struggle to sign from Everton, or vice versa - and it reduces the options still further. The isolated exceptions can be in demand and, as Young proved in preferring Old Trafford to Anfield, can opt for destinations with a guarantee of Champions League football.

But Liverpool's scheme of raiding sides lower in the league, thinking they could sweep up the best of the rest to take themselves higher, backfired. While their eventual finish of eighth represented underachievement their finer performers were either those bought by Rafa Benitez, identified by Roy Hodgson (Luis Suarez, as Kenny Dalglish graciously admitted) or developed within, in the case of Steven Gerrard.

So the most that the best of British have achieved in recent years are the three successive top-six finishes Martin O'Neill managed at Aston Villa. The Midlanders made sizeable profits on Young, Downing and Milner, his three biggest buys, but it nevertheless came at a cost: an eventual £80 million annual wage bill plus the large losses that either have been, or will be made, on Stephen Warnock, Steve Sidwell, Nigel Reo-Coker, Marlon Harewood, Nicky Shorey, Luke Young, Emile Heskey and Curtis Davies. Ultimately and understandably, buying British was a policy Randy Lerner decided Villa could not afford.

And it illustrates that the glass ceiling for sides based on Brits has been lowered. Though neither won a trophy, David O'Leary's Leeds reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2001 and Bobby Robson's Newcastle came fourth, third and fifth. However, foreigners were fewer a decade ago.

As Leeds and Newcastle went into decline, Tottenham took over the mantle. At a time when transfer fees were lower, they acquired Jermain Defoe, Paul Robinson, Michael Carrick, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon in two years, often raiding relegated clubs astutely. They formed the basis of a side who twice finished fifth.

Yet Spurs progressed because they diversified. Chairman Daniel Levy is famously fond of a good deal and, apart from Gareth Bale and Kyle Walker, few of his recent successes have been British. Much like a very different bargain hunter, David Moyes, Levy looks at foreigners ever more often, while North London's other economist, Arsene Wenger, always did. It is a sign the English tax, the cost of buying locals, has become ever more exorbitant.

And the fact is that, to varying degrees, Leeds, Newcastle, Villa and Liverpool all overstretched themselves financially by buying British. At clubs where money is less of an object, the difficulty is finding Brits good enough to feature; Milner is a useful, if overpriced, squad player for City and Joleon Lescott played a part in winning last season's title but Adam Johnson was marginalised before his sale and they may as well file missing persons' reports for Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair, so rarely have they been seen. Sinclair himself, Sidwell, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Wayne Bridge proved anonymous and unimpressive at Stamford Bridge while at Chelsea.

Even when a club accelerates from mid-table into the upper reaches of the league, as Newcastle did last season, it is usually by buying abroad and rarely by chasing high-profile, high-cost Brits.

It is partly because so few become available - next summer, potentially, with Cole, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Theo Walcott all out of contract could be an exception - but partly because the budget-conscious, the well-connected and the savvy, whether West Bromwich Albion or Everton, Newcastle, Swansea or Tottenham, have realised the model is outdated and ineffective while Chelsea, Arsenal and the Manchester clubs cannot find many available Englishmen who would strengthen their side.

While imported managers such as Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini have appreciated that a core of locals may be desirable, there are reasons they look abroad, just as those in search of value for money do. Because the increasingly discredited plan of buying British is a recipe for sixth place at best and expensive ruin at worst.

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