Two bits of business involving young English players were the subject of much conversation in the football world last week. One is a deal not yet officially completed, the transfer of Blackburn's Phil Jones to Manchester United for a fee in the region of £20 million. The other, a deal formally finalised on Thursday, was England international Jordan Henderson's move from Sunderland to Liverpool for £11 million plus Reds striker David N'Gog, estimated to be worth around £5 million. It is a significant outlay for the buying clubs as both players could still be said to have much to prove.
First up - Phil Jones, who has never failed to impress me any time I have watched him, and appears to be the better prospect of the two. Strong in the air and a decisive tackler, with mobility and a talent for reading the game, Jones has also shown himself to be a leader of men on the field at only 19 years of age. It is therefore of no surprise that Sir Alex Ferguson rates the player as highly as he does, as he seeks to build a partnership that can eventually succeed Rio Ferdinand and Nemaja Vidic. With Chris Smalling, a £12 million signing from Fulham last summer already in the frame, Jones would appear to be the missing piece of a strategic jigsaw. In the meantime, his ability to operate as a midfield ball-winner could also prove useful as the absence of such a player at Old Trafford since the retirement of Roy Keane has occasionally shown.
It is indeed rare that £20 million for an English player yet to be capped at full international level represents a wise investment, but I suspect that Sir Alex, always one for the long term, could once again have signed the most promising talent from these shores that was available on the market this summer. To that end, they were partially aided by a release clause in Jones' contract, said to include a trigger value of £16 million, which having watched the player would in my view have represented something of a bargain. It would appear that United have found an additional amount of money firstly to fend off the interest of Liverpool and others, and also as a means of placating Blackburn's owners the Venky's group, who were disputing the terms of any release clause. Naturally, they came to the conclusion that a drawn-out courtroom battle over the signing of a centre half would not have been good publicity for anyone concerned - so £20 million it is - still a very fair price for a very good player.
It was the £16 million paid by Liverpool for Henderson that raised many eyebrows, mine included. He caught the eye with a series of energetic and enterprising displays in the Sunderland midfield in the first half of last season, earning his first cap for England in the process and generally being seen as a player with great things ahead of him. However, that international debut, in a friendly defeat against France at Wembley, appeared to show up some limitations in Henderson's game. Played in the centre of midfield, he was energetic while lacking an end product while a lack of tactical awareness at the elite level was illuminated by the way in which the slick passing of the French routinely sliced through the midfield he was anchoring. In 2011, Henderson's form tailed off somewhat as the Black Cats nosedived down the Premier League table.
There is almost certainly some truth in the suggestion that Henderson was playing while carrying an injury, for the treatment room at the Stadium of Light was already full as it was while their makeshift line-up hobbled towards the finish line. However, the feeling was that this was by no means the finished article, an individual of some potential yes, but as of the end of last season, proven as no more than a good Premier League player. One of the issues is working out exactly which position best suits his strengths and playing style. Is Henderson a holding midfield player, a box-to-box lung-buster or a right-sided wideman?
Former Sunderland legend Michael Gray offered this analysis, "Jordan is the modern day player. He is enthusiastic, goes from box to box and is full of energy. He is steady, rarely gives the ball away and has an eye for a pass. He also wants to be a winner and that will fit right in with what Kenny wants at Liverpool". On the subject of his best position, Gray sees Henderson as a industrious right-sided player, "I think his best position is on the right side. He's got great delivery into the box and his dead ball skills are very strong. He has got the energy to play in front of a full-back who likes to get forward because he also has defensive awareness".
All of this is positive, and Gray is far from alone in praising the attitude of a player who makes a conscious attempt to avoid celebrity in order to focus on his career. But for £16 million on the back of one good season, you would perhaps want to be acquiring more than a grafter who does the basics well. It is indeed the case that at only 21 years of age, Henderson has a long way to develop and in all likelihood has not yet peaked as a footballer. Much of this outlay must therefore rest on potential believed to be much greater than that which has already been seen, and in that sense it represents a monumental gamble, a fee that can easily end up as dead money if the player does not scale previously foreseen heights.
Of course Dalglish also paid £35 million for Andy Carroll, another player touted as one with a very bright future ahead of him. Now there is no doubt that with his strength and aerial prowess, Carroll is a striker of immense potential who could well be the focal point of both Liverpool and England's attack in the coming years. Not only does he possess a frightening ability to regularly win the ball in the air, his awareness and penchant for directing flick-ons into the right areas is an impressive attribute for a player of only 22 years of age. However, was an impressive half season for Newcastle sufficient grounds to warrant a £35 million transfer fee or might Liverpool have paid over the odds?
Perhaps the sale of Fernando Torres for £50 million and therefore Newcastle's knowledge of the buying club's wealth drove up the price, but again this was a deal in which the fee could probably only be justified in maybe two or three years time. If Carroll can stay fit, end a cycle of niggling injuries and develop into a complete package in that timeframe, then the substantial outlay will start to look like a sensible piece of business. However, that's a wide range of variables and therefore a lot of scope for things not to work out. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that like Henderson, Carroll was wildly over-priced at the time at which he was purchased. That does not mean that either is not a good player, merely that one cannot realistically justify the fees paid for them on the basis of proven performance. It is worth examining why this happens as frequently as it does.
Paying over the odds for unproven English players is far from a new phenomenon. Like many, I'm critical not of the great foreign players who grace the Premier League, but of the merely good ones who at least theoretically could be replaced by young British talent. Kevin Keegan, never one afraid to wield a chequebook while managing Newcastle United, once told of how he'd signed Marc Hottiger, the Swiss international right back for £500,000 after attempting to buy an (unnamed) uncapped English player and being quoted £3 million for his services. Faced with that choice Hottiger, who had just appeared in the latter stages of the 1994 World Cup was a no-brainer and done deal. He was a reliable, if unspectacular performer, and the relatively low transfer fee freed up resources so that other areas of the team could be strengthened.
Many managers and coaches have stated that they all things being equal they would prefer to sign British players, but that the prices quoted to them are prohibitive to the point of driving their transfer budget overseas. Referring to this week's deals, one coach explained, "Clubs get criticised for not buying British but it’s hard when you look at the prices. If you want to take an English player these are the figures that you get quoted. And remember, this is money that you are paying for potential, for possibility. You are not buying the finished article". So Premier League managers are essentially faced with two choices - pay an inflated fee as a downpayment on future performance, or invest that money in possibly two ready-made players from overseas. It is not difficult to understand why so many take the latter option.
So what exactly are the causes of the premium that appears to exist on English footballers, particularly young ones? Analysis of this question tends to go off in a multitude of directions and it's worth as many of them as we can. Firstly, being an English-born performer in the richest league in the world is bound to inflate the transfer fee of any player. Looking at the prices paid by Chelsea and Manchester City for home-grown talent is demonstrable proof that awareness of the buyer's disposable wealth invariably drives up the selling price. When some of the biggest and most cash-rich clubs in Europe pursue one of the better players of a rival, one can not really blame the smaller fish in the bargain when they hold out for as much as they can.
The relatively new quota of eight home-grown players as a minimum requirement in Premier League squads is also an issue. Now the manner in which several Premier League clubs have imported youngsters into their academy at a very young age means that this term of 'home-grown' no longer means exactly what one might expect it to. However, signing a young English player is certainly one way of fulfilling the requirements of the rulebook, and if you're going to do this then why not sign the best around - players who will actually improve the team? Again, this drives up prices particularly if the selling club knows the buyer to be 1) in possession of a substantial transfer budget and 2) not exactly blessed with an abundance of players meeting the home-grown quota.
There's also the question of whether a top foreign player will acclimatise to new surroundings, the country they are moving to and the dynamics of the English game. For every Gianfranco Zola or Eric Cantona, there is a an Emerson or Albert Luque, who arrived in England with a proven track record, but never settled or felt comfortable either with Premier League football or England itself. In this regard British players are regarded as a safe bet, particularly those who have perfomed well at the same level previously, and the factor of a 'proven Premier League player' is something which can add value to the transfer fee being commanded by the selling club. Given that many foreign players regard England as one of many stops in their career, this tends to apply more to British players than anyone else.
However, the final reason for the over-pricing of English players in the transfer market relates to last week's piece regarding the fortunes of national team. When benefiting from the technical expertise of non-British team-mates in the Premier League, English players tend to look a lot better than they actually are. You can probably relate this to your own experience of playing 5-a-side or amateur football - if you're in possession, the better the player making the run in front of you, the higher the quality of your options will be. Your 'perfect pass' will actually make itself, but you then look a bloody fine player for having made it. Likewise, if you're the player moving into space, a team-mate with a great array of ball-playing skill will contrive to inflate the intelligence of your run by making the most of it. This of course presents you with a greater quality and quantity of oppotunities to create something.
Think of the players who have lit up the Premier League and left a meaningful legacy, and you'll find that the majority were not born in the Uk. This is hardly surprising since the same ratio could apply to Premier League players themselves, but it is beyond dispute that as a general rule, British players possess inferior technique and football intelligence to their continental counterparts. This is why England have rarely had difficulty producing world class defenders (of whom I believe Phil Jones could be the next of a long line), but suffer desparately in the search for ball-players, widemen with an end product and creative forwards. Frank Lampard has looked every inch a world class player when wearing a Chelsea shirt for the best part of a decade, but then how much of this was due to the likes of Makelele and Essien making his own role simpler to define?
Instances such as Lampard, who could best be described a very good player but by no means a great one, create an artificial inflation of the stock value of English players based on strong Premier League performance. This in turn ripples down to the burden of expectation placed on our national team, where without the benefit of technically superior foreign players, England have frequently looked one-dimensional and limited when it has mattered. Part of the enduring failure of the Three Lions owes itself to the changing demands of club football and the higher priority now given by players to European competition in particuar. However, a great deal of it is because those England players are physically and technically unable to match the levels that they reach when on club duty, deprived as they are of the complimentary talent that makes them possible.
Potential solutions are fairly clear, but it is difficult to see them materialising any time soon. The Premier League cannot remain the richest on earth forever, and some sort of financial crash is inevitable at an unknown point in the future. After all there are only so many oligarchs and wealthy sheikhs to go round, and they will surely move away from football ownership and onto some other hobby eventually? The quota on home-grown players is something that would appear to be here to stay, and though I naturally lean towards supporting the free movement of labour, it is hard to get wound up on a point of principle about it. There is immense appeal to the concept of teams with the 'British spine' that Daliglish is expensively assembling at Liverpool, and with the addition of a few stellar performers from overseas it can work quite nicely, at least in domestic competition.
Regarding the stock of English players generally, perhaps the moving on of the 'golden generation' would do no harm in tackling this issue. It has been the case ever since the late 1990s that England are perceived to be in possession of a plethora of world class performers, at least in the eyes of English people anyway. It's possible that the retirement of what remains of this set of players will trigger some sort of re-appraisal of what talent the country has at its disposal. Failing that, perhaps only a dismal failure to qualify for a few major tournaments can bring home the reality that with a few notable exceptions, English players are simply not worth as much as they or many of us think they are.