On the day that England will play the USA in an international friendly at Wembley, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the national game after a BBC report showed that the number of English players starting Premier League matches is at an all time low.
Of the 498 players who started at least one Premier League fixture last season only 170, or 34.1% were English.
Arsenal had the lowest number of English starters, averaging 0.34 per match, while West Ham had the highest number, with 6.61.
The Hammers and Aston Villa (6.42) were the only two clubs in the Premier League to average more than six English starters last term, while the big four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, averaged just 2.64 per game.
The final round of fixtures in Italy – the home of the current world champions – saw 7.3 Italians start per Serie A team. In Spain it was 6.9 Spaniards per La Liga side, and in Germany it was 4.9 Germans in each Bundesliga XI.
Those three nations all qualified for Euro 2008 and are once again among the bookmakers’ favourites to claim success when the final is played in Vienna on 29 June.
Sepp Blatter, the president of world football’s governing body Fifa, is convinced he knows the answer to England’s problems: restricting the number of foreign starters each club is allowed to five.
Despite widespread concern his plan is incompatible with European Union employment law (and robust opposition from the Premier League on principle), Blatter is determined to press on with his “six plus five” scheme.
But the question is, will it make any difference. Surely this is not just a question of quantity; it’s a question of quality.
Spin back 20 or 30 years when nearly every player plying their trade in the top flight was British and the vast majority English. As the Premier League pointed out recently, England routinely struggled to qualify for tournaments at that time let alone perform well in them.
Bringing the argument bang up to date, 10 of the 22 starters in the Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea were English. Nearly half, and that in Europe’s premier club competition.
No, the simple use of numbers proves nothing. It can just as easily be spun completely differently.
Consider this. If Premier League clubs can go and buy who they please, money commonly being no object, then the 170 home grown players must be performing at a high enough level to keep their places at the expense of the foreign hordes. And surely from these 170, we can find 22, or 11 at a push, who can represent England against the best on the world stage?
Sadly, as we saw from the dismal Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, we can’t.
The number crunching drones at the BBC have missed the point. It matters not a jot if there are 170 English players in the Premier League or 370. Nothing will change until the way those players are taught at junior level is radically overhauled.
Why is it that Croatia, Turkey, Poland, Romania, Greece and Sweden have all made it to the finals and England haven’t? How many players have those teams got turning out in regular, high pressure European club matches – group games aside? The answer is not many. Certainly not as many as England do.
They qualify, and here’s the brutal truth, because their players are technically superior. The FA have known it for years, or at least should have done, but seem to have done very little to combat it.
Blood, sweat and 100% effort used to be enough for England, but they’ve been worked out by their opponents and now they are floundering in the wake of so called lesser nations.
They may have got a top notch manager in Fabio Capello with the senior team, but it’s the guys teaching the under 7’s and under 8’s in the school play grounds and local parks who will have a far more lasting impression on English football than the Italian maestro.