Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Is the 'English premium' worth paying?

Big money moves for Henderson and Jones have reignited the 'English premium' debate

After a quiet start, the Premier League summer transfer window has suddenly exploded into life, with Liverpool swooping for Sunderland midfield starlet Jordan Henderson and Manchester United splashing out on Blackburn Rovers defensive wonderkid Phil Jones.

The deals, which could both rise to £20million depending on the youngsters’ eventual level of achievement, signify the ongoing commitment of both clubs towards securing the best young English talent regardless of the cost,  following on from the signings of Chris Smalling and Andy Carroll earlier in the season.

This shared commitment is undoubtedly admirable, but is it wise? After all, the two Premier League giants have now committed to shelling out a combined estimate of £82million on four players who boast just three England caps between them.

It goes without saying that the figures quoted in connection with the names above are, by any normal market standards, ridiculous. They are inflated, disproportionate to the players’ current abilities and unduly distorted by the tantalizing possibility of what they may go on to become.

They are, in short, examples of what’s become known in domestic football circles in recent times as the ‘English premium’ – the somewhat bizarre and often spectacular phenomenon which dictates that top young English footballers command much higher fees on the transfer market than foreign talent of equivalent, or sometimes even superior, skill and experience.

Sounds strange? That’s because it is. But it’s also true.

Jordan Henderson, a promising but relatively unproven young midfielder, has cost Liverpool an initial fee of £16million – the same price that Tottenham Hotspur paid to bring Luka Modric, at the time rated as one of the most gifted young playmakers in Europe, to White Hart Lane three years ago.

Phil Jones has already cost Manchester United more than double what Nemanja Vidic did in 2006, although admittedly the Serbian was an absolute snip at £7million.

And at £35million, Liverpool have paid around £10million more for a 21-year-old Andy Carroll than they did for a 23-year-old Fernando Torres – a player who, even then, boasted a far more extensive and impressive resume – back in 2007.

"Andy who?!? How much?!?"

Of course, player acquisition in football has never been, and never will be, an exact science. 

But even if we assume the likes of Modric, Vidic and Torres were unusually good value for money, the fact remains that, purely in terms of initial transfer outlay, a policy of pursuing foreign talent appears to represent both a far smaller risk of failure and far greater chance of reward.

So why do top Premier League clubs still consider the ‘English premium’ to be worth paying?

There are several reasons, the first of which constitutes the stick which is repeatedly used to beat football in this country. It is this: young English players with elite potential are a rare commodity.

Moreover, when you subtract the likes of John Terry, Jack Wilshere, Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard, who were fortunate to come through the youth ranks already at one of the Premier League giants, the number of feasible and worthwhile young English transfer targets shrinks even further.

All this means when an English ‘wonderkid’ surfaces at a middling top flight club, the Premier League giants are more inclined to consider an inflated transfer fee a risk worth taking.

Wayne Rooney has amply repaid the £30m Manchester United paid for him in 2004

Manchester United raised a few eyebrows when they made 18-year-old Wayne Rooney the most expensive teenager in football history by paying Everton up to £30million for him in 2004, but they gambled they were signing the best English talent of his generation. So it has proved.

Theo Walcott, who cost Arsenal £9million to prise from Southampton at just 16, has not proved such an emphatic success, but time remains on the side of him and his club.

That’s all very well, you might say, but one question inevitably now comes to mind: Why are English clubs so bothered about signing young English players in particular?

The cynic might argue it’s because of the Uefa Home-Grown Rules implemented at the start of this season by the Premier League, which require at least eight members of each club’s squad to have been trained for at least three years below the age of 21 in the English or Welsh professional system.

However, while this may factor in the thinking of Premier League clubs now, the ‘English premium’ has been around considerably longer than any home-grown restrictions.

Ultimately, the main reason why top Premier League clubs are consistently willing to pay marquee prices for top young English players is because they consider them a more fundamentally worthwhile investment than their foreign counterparts. 

And when you look at the evidence they can summon to back up their case, it becomes hard to argue.

This may seem counter-intuitive given the England national team’s dismal record at major international tournaments over the past decade, but whether youth team products or big money arrivals, the country’s finest footballers have been hugely successful assets for their clubs.

John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney have all been integral as Manchester United and Chelsea have shared the last seven Premier League titles between them, while Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher both played key roles in Liverpool’s sensational Champions League triumph in Istanbul in 2005.

Steven Gerrard inspired Liverpool to an astonishing comeback in 2005

The best young English footballers invariably mature not just to make up the numbers at top Premier League clubs, but to help form the spine of successful teams.

Their native knowledge of the English footballing culture and style of the Premier League, combined with their superb ability, means they can provide the sort of leadership which, even in the most illustrious of dressing rooms, may otherwise have been lacking.

Another reason why the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds of this world consider the ‘English premium’ to be worth paying is the greater longevity of service top English players tend to provide.

There are many disadvantages to the Premier League being the all-consuming monster that it is, but one of the biggest plus points of having such a strong domestic club game is that, with the odd exception (I’m looking at you, Mr Beckham), English youngsters tend to grow up wanting to play for Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United, rather than Real Madrid, Barcelona or AC Milan.

What’s more, having this added familiarity with the environment they are in means top English players are far less likely to become unsettled and want to leave for non-footballing reasons. Even domestic transfers of high-profile English players between the country’s top clubs have been extremely rare in the Premier League era.

When top young English players sign for Liverpool and Manchester United and succeed, they invariably stay. This inevitably has a massive bearing on the sort of prices the clubs are willing to pay for them in the first place.

Kenny Dalglish will have far fewer objections to spending over £50million on Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson knowing that the fee is being paid with a view to the pair seeing out their careers at Anfield, rather than spending a couple of seasons on Merseyside before wanting a new challenge. The same applies to Sir Alex Ferguson and Phil Jones.

That said, there is no denying the risk inherent in paying the ‘English premium’.

Having committed a huge amount of money towards the procurement of some of the country’s finest young talents, both Manchester United and Liverpool can now ill afford to fail to bring the best out of them.

But it is equally clear that United and Liverpool have made their investments with their eyes wide open.

They will have thoroughly run the rule over their new arrivals many times over the past year or so, analyzing all their strengths and weaknesses before agreeing to a deal. They will be as confident as can be of producing the next generation of English superstars.

Paying the ‘English premium’ will never be a safe bet. But one thing is for certain: If you win, the rewards are enormous.


  1. Great read, particularly the point on the ambitions of young English players, hadn't really thought of that. I guess Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabgregas (and to a lesser extent Alonso and Mascherano) are shining examples.

    The Home Grown rule seemed to be the catalyst for the premium last season, but the reality is, looking at the squad lists, most clubs comfortably fit the regulations: http://www.premierleague.com/staticFiles/62/69/0,,12306~158050,00.pdf

  2. Brilliant article! This is one of the reasons why Arsenal have been relatively unsuccessful in the last few years (imo), no English backbone. I would add that the increase in fees this summer will also be because of the income/expenditure rules coming up. Clubs will want 2 spend the money before ther accounting year ends. In case of Liverpool i think it is August the 1st (not sure tho).