If England Flop, Shall We All Blame Wenger?
They say in football there is always the next match - and indeed, the next tournament. And qualifying for the next major tournament - the 2010 Word Cup - may become England's sole focus if Russia beat Israel on Saturday and finally put the Three Lions' wounded Euro 2008 campaign out of its misery.
For those of the anachronistic persuasion that no tournament is complete without the presence of England, the likelihood that they will fail to reach the Euro 2008 finals is unthinkable.
It will no doubt precipitate the media execution of Steve McClaren, but not the admission by the FA that they lacked both the vision and the guts to make a bolder appointment than McClaren after England’s last damp squib, at the 2006 World Cup. You certainly can't blame McClaren for accepting the job, especially on that salary; and if his record has not been brilliant, why on earth should anyone be surprised? Were Middlesbrough outstanding when Mac was in charge?
But judging by the tone of recent outpourings in the media from many who should know better, it won’t only be McClaren who cops the flak when the inquest is launched into England's latest failure to live up to the hype.
There will also be the burning of effigies of Arsene Wenger who, as we all know, is single-handedly responsible for the decline from unconvincing to inept of the England national team.
Of course the same people who blame Wenger for everything that's wrong with the English part of English football also like to proclaim, loudly, that we have a host of "world-class" players - among them John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, David Beckham (yawn), Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen (zzzzz).
So what about these lions of the English game? Somehow, despite the pernicious Wenger, or in the case of Ashley Cole, because of him, they made it to the top in English football. The allegedly failing system failed to prevent them earning the recognition and the rewards that go with being in the first-team at a leading English Premier League club.
They may not be very good at gelling as a consistently successful unit for the national team, but few would deny they're hot properties in club football. Apparently though, they are the exceptions as there is allegedly a chronic dearth of decent English players "coming through". And it's all Wenger's fault.
It’s open season on the Arsenal boss at the moment. Michel Platini, Gordon Taylor, Sepp Blatter, Steve Coppell, Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson... they've all had a pop in the last few weeks. Now even the British Prime Minister is said to be expressing concern at the lack of home-grown players appearing regularly for England's leading clubs.
And that from Scotsman Gordon Brown. Why would he care? Only, of course, because he can sniff the potential votes aboard a good old nationalistic bandwagon.
And that is one of the nauseating aspects of this whole pathetic debate: the blatant hypocrisy of it all.
This morning we had Mourinho patting himself fondly on the back for "insisting on an English core" while at Chelsea, and comparing that noble stance with the continental tomfoolery and sheer anti-Englishness at Arsenal.
But let's look at the facts. When Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Joe Cole were already there. They are three excellent players. Any manager with half a brain would pick them. So it was not a 'policy', it was expediency.
In exactly the same way, Wenger, when he arrived at Highbury in 1996, counted his blessings that he had Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Adams, Keown and Parlour already there. He made full and excellent use of them and they were all key (English) figures in his first double-winning team of 1997-98.
As for Mourinho's buying policy, the main Englishmen he bought were Ashley Cole (whom Wenger had made such a good job of nurturing into a top talent that Jose and his club were prepared to break the rules to poach him off the Gunners), Shaun Wright-Phillips and Steve Sidwell. SWP was lucky to get a game under Mourinho while Sidwell (another English talent nurtured by the Arsenal youth system) has forgotten what a football looks like.
Then we have Ferguson. He had a great record of producing an outstanding crop of English talent in the mid-90s, the Beckham-Scholes-Butt-Nevilles G and P generation. But what have United produced off the home-grown conveyor belt since then? Brown, Richardson, Eagles and the like are solid but hardly spectacular; they don't command places in Ferguson's preferred starting XI. And we saw the quality of the latest crop of kids at Old Trafford when Coventry dumped them out of the Carling Cup this season.
So Ferguson has sensibly devoted most of his and his scouts' energies to buying (at eye-watering prices) the likes of Ferdinand, Rooney, Carrick, Hargreaves, Ronaldo, Nani, Anderson, Vidic, Evra, Saha, Tevez. The first four of those are English, but neither United nor Ferguson can claim much credit for discovering and nurturing their talent; they bought them "off the shelf." The others, surprisingly enough, are foreign, as are Van der Sar, van Nistelrooy, Forlan, Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Veron, Barthez, Pique, Schmeichel, Cantona, etc, etc.
There is nothing at all wrong with Ferguson buying decent foreigners. I merely take issue with his, or Mourinho's, criticism of Wenger for doing he same. Except, of course, that Wenger is so much better than they at spotting and recruiting young talent from around the world and developing it within the Arsenal system, rather than going out to buy it when it has already emerged.
And on the question of buying, why would Wenger not be circumspect about buying on the English market when the likes of Francis Jeffers, Richard Wright and Jermaine Pennant proved to be such expensive flops when given their chances at Arsenal?
Where Wenger has attracted most criticism is in daring to field starting elevens that haven't contained a single Englishman. So, does a Chelsea team containing Terry, Lampard, Joe Cole and eight foreigners reflect patriotism, while an all-foreign Arsenal team with Theo Walcott, Justin Hoyte and Kieran Gibbs on the bench constitutes a traitorous attack on the English way of life? And who would you prefer to watch anyway?
Wenger has shown how football can and should be played. His teams may not win every trophy but they are thrilling and entertaining to watch. He has repeatedly said he selects on the basis of talent rather than nationality, and long may that continue. Every manager worth his salt should do the same. That is the only way, in the long-term, that the quality of English-born players will be raised.
There is no way that someone as talented as Rooney or Joe Cole or Gerrard would not rise to the top wherever they were. If you are good enough, you will make it, English or not, at Arsenal or any other club.
The answer, surely, is not to place restrictions on demand by imposing quotas, but to address the supply side of the equation. Schemes like the Brazilian Soccer Schools now flourishing in England offer an innovative way forward, and are light years ahead, in terms of coaching, of the typical school PE curriculum which is most kids' introduction to organised football.
Of course, the professional clubs through their academies then have a very real responsibility to offer first class footballing education to the best of the youngsters that schools and grass-roots boys' football can produce. But this IS happening at a club like Arsenal as a matter of course.
There are extremely talented English youngsters on the books at Arsenal, as well as at other Premier League and Championship clubs. Not all will make it. The wastage rate in professional football has always been high.
But even those who can't command a first-team place on merit alone at somewhere like Arsenal are not necessarily lost to the professional game. English players like Sidwell, Pennant, Upson, Harper, Bentley, Muamba, Taylor and Gray all benefited from their years at Arsenal, and their current clubs are enjoying the benefits now.
At the end of the proverbial day, quotas are a distortion, in any market. They introduce selection criteria other than pure quality, and should be resisted for that reason. Fans want to see the best. If the best is all home-grown, fantastic. But if it isn't, don't dilute it in order to satisfy some politically-correct, discriminatory notion.
Club managers are not and should not be responsible for the performance or prospects of the England national team. That is ultimately the responsibility of the FA. So before pillorying Wenger or anyone else for producing attractive, cosmopolitan teams, consider the FA's own record in this area.
Remember the much-vaunted national training centre near Burton-on-Trent? It was going to help revolutionise the discovery and development of young English talent. But the whole project got mothballed when the FA ran out of money during the building of the narcissistic folly that is the new £1billion Wembley Stadium.
A case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic if ever there was one. But don't worry, just blame Arsene Wenger. Like he said, he can take the criticism.