The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river
–Jones, Strummer, et al
Maybe I’m talking out of my ass. I freely admit this is a touchy issue, as an outsider I don’t really understand it, and just as Phil Jones is so wont to do I’m probably sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong. For the life of me, though, I cannot comprehend how a nation of passionate football supporters can just give away their sporting legacy.
Don’t mistake where I’m coming from with this. It’s not ridicule or condemnation. More like sadness. I love football, English football above any other nation’s, and Manchester United above all other clubs. Yet looking at the state of the game from afar I’m not certain you can call the Premiership English (or British) anymore, and I’m alarmed supporters on the whole seem fine with that despite the overwhelming, systemic influx of foreign influence from the players up to the coaches and into the boardroom.
In 2014 the Beeb measured the percentage of English players in terms of minutes played, finding an increase of almost 4 points to 36.08% was–to the pride of Prince Charles–largely credited to newly promoted Burnley’s use of only one foreign player. Burnley’s gone back down, of course, and with Norwich and Bournemouth each having seventeen British players out of 30 in their squad, and Watford just five, it’s certain that number will also go down. The point remains that calling the competition English football when one out of three players is born and bred is like asking for beef stew and getting a green salad with a bone at the bottom.
If it were just a question of players the problem might not be so dire. Unfortunately when you check the league table you might cringe to see Adam Pardew is carrying the torch for British managers with his Crystal Palace side currently in sixth. He is the sole representative in the top of the table as well. Tony Pulis and Garry Monk have West Brom and Swansea in twelfth and thirteenth respectively, then it’s Alex Neil, Mark Hughes, Eddie Howe, Steve McLaren, Tim Sherwood, and Sam Allardyce anchoring the bottom of the standings. Given Toon’s impressive 6-2 shellacking of Norwich thanks to (foreign-born) Georginio Wijnaldum’s four-star performance, there’s a chance one or two of the bottom feeders–Mark Hughes has the personnel at Stoke to also be higher in the table–may move up and paint a slightly rosier picture. Meanwhile optimists might cheerfully note half the clubs are employing British managers. If you’re a realist you’ll say that the ambitious clubs with money to spend are hiring talent from elsewhere. Big Sam is the lone homegrown new hire, starting out behind the eightball when he looks up at Watford’s Quique Sánchez Flores, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, Leicester City’s Claudio Ranieri, and his own replacement at West Ham, Slaven Biliç.
When it comes to ownership there are actually less Premier League clubs, nine, controlled by overseas interests than the twelve in the Championship. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing. In fact I’m pretty certain it’s not. A Guardian investigation put the phenomenon down to tax avoidance, providing some interesting graphics depicting the distance from a club’s ground to the nation in which it is registered. At the least it means supporters’ hard-earned pounds are being sapped out of not just their local economy but the national coffers as well. It also means a growing number of the people in control of clubs are not at all interested in English football. Most worrisome though is it strongly suggests most British corporations, moguls, and especially fans have, if not complete disinterest in the welfare of their game, then a monumental apathy regarding the issue.
Although I was born in America and have spent most of my adult life here I was raised in Canada. As a result I have an equal love for ice hockey and the National Hockey League as I do for football and the Prem. Just as football is the British Empire’s gift to the world, hockey is Canada’s, and just as the UK football supporter is losing his grip on the game the Canadian fan is feeling hers slip into the hands of powerful foreign interest. The difference is Canucks are actively fighting the erosion.
While there has been a steady influx of European and American players into the NHL it has not been the one-way street it has been in the Premier League. Canadian players are well represented in European leagues, coaches as well. In fact legendary coach Iron Mike Keenan has been spending his golden years–he’s now sixty-five– coaching Magnitorsk Metallurg in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He won the Gagarin Cup with the club last year. Now he is in the process of finalizing his Russian citizenship to assume a role with the national team, possibly even as its head coach, something Canadians are viewing with a disconcerting sense of irony.
That there have been only one or two European coaches in hockey’s North American top flight and just the one general manager (read as technical or sporting director) is on some level at least down to an inherent nationalism. That cannot be honestly avoided. Yet it is also because the Canadian style of play, while rivaled by the more technical European style, has responded positively and proven itself to be not only competitive but dominant. The same defiance is woefully absent from the FA and English supporters.
The attack on Canada’s game is not coming from overseas however. Rather it’s from south of the border. There is a distinct resentment among Canadian fans of American influence on the game at the ownership level. Some believe the salary cap which is intended to keep clubs on a level playing field in fact favors American sides because of the strength of the US dollar. They point as proof to the fact no Canadian club has won the Stanley Cup in the past twenty-four seasons. Even more prevalent is the idea the league’s American commissioner is focused on growing the game in southern American markets, largely unfamiliar with cold weather let alone hockey, at the expense of viable Canadian cities. He has rejected more than one application for ownership or expansion from Canadian investors.
As mentioned though there is significant resistance to American control. Rebuffed investors continue to press their case and new groups occasionally join the fray. Canadian media consistently covers the controversy and fans let their voices be heard at games and on social media. The most significant influence, though, is prolific corporate support of youth programs. Watch a live stream of an NHL game broadcast on Canadian television and you’ll be amazed at the number of ads touting this support. It puts the almost non-existent interest in the England youth setup to shame.
Perhaps fans in the UK are thrilled to have so many of the world’s best players plying their trade in the Prem–as Canadians are with regard to the NHL–but the price for that privilege is incredibly high. Perhaps they also feel there is little they can do given the wealth foreigners possess to back their play. On that count they are wrong. Ownership regardless of nationality relies on supporters to fill seats and buy merchandise and broadcast packages. Join your club’s supporter’s group, which so effectively fought to lower ticket prices for traveling support, urge them to focus on this issue, then stand your ground and sit on your wallet until the fat cats understand the need to reinvest some of their profits in youth programs and the national setup. If enough supporters act, things just may change.