The problem with English strikers
So much for the national game. As football followers across the planet prepare to tune in to English football’s marquee matchup between Manchester United and Liverpool on Sunday, most of the attention will be focused on the two most likely match-winners, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard.
But outside that pair of homegrown headliners, English football officials are facing up to an alarming and unavoidable fact: English striking talent is at an all-time low.
“English goalscorers are a dying breed,” said Tony Cottee, a former West Ham United forward who scored 306 times in a 19-year career. “It’s a real concern, especially from the national team’s perspective. Young finishers just aren’t coming through any more.”
For reasons ranging from the growing number of overseas stars to restrictions on youth programs, the past few years have seen a striking decline in the number of English strikers in the top division.
In the 1995-96 season, seven English center-forwards—Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham, Ian Wright, Stan Collymore and Andy Cole—scored a total of 140 top-flight goals. Last season, only five English strikers—Mr. Rooney, Darren Bent, Jermain Defoe, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Carlton Cole—got into double figures.
The scariest thing for the people that run English football is that this isn’t simply a statistical oddity but a creeping trend: In the past five years, Messrs. Rooney, Bent and Andy Johnson, of Fulham, are the only English strikers to score 20 goals in a season.
Put simply, it’s starting to look like the country that invented the world’s most popular sport has forgotten how to perform its most elemental skill: Kicking the ball into the goal.
“Those traditional goal-scoring strikers are few and far between and it’s a dilemma that seems to gets worse every season,” said Andy Cole, a former Manchester United striker.
“Wayne Rooney is a special talent, but he’s a throwback. You look around the rest of the Premier League and there’s not many of those old-fashioned English center-forwards about.”
At a time when more goals are hitting the net than ever, the dearth of English forwards seems all the more extraordinary. Last season, the Premier League produced a total of 1,053 goals—the second-highest tally over a 38-game season—and this season is shaping up to be even more prolific: With 112 goals scored in 40 league games, the current campaign is on pace to eclipse the record 1999-2000 campaign, when 1,060 goals were scored.
Yet English players accounted for only 367 goals—or 35% of the total number of strikes—last season, down about 2% on the previous campaign and roughly half the ratio of the inaugural Premier League season in 1992-93. That decline is partly explained by the glut of foreign players that have joined the Premier League in the years since the European Court of Justice passed the so-called Bosman ruling in 1996, which established the right of players to free agency at the end of their contracts and abolished quotas on the number of non-nationals each club could sign or field.
Since then, the landscape of English football has been transformed. A decade ago, the proportion of English players in the Premier League was roughly 57%, but that number has plummeted in the past 10 years, according to the Professional Football Players’ Observatory in Switzerland.
“English players aren’t scoring goals because there aren’t enough of them playing regularly in the Premier League,” said John Barnes, a former Liverpool and England national-team player. “Young homegrown players are too expensive—teams don’t take a chance on them nowadays because it’s easier and cheaper to get the finished article from abroad.”
These days, English players account for fewer than 41% of the Premier League’s work force, meaning it’s no surprise that there’s been a corresponding drop in the number of homegrown purveyors of rarefied skill. Indeed, of the 34 strikers or attacking wingers in the starting lineups for Premier League clubs last Saturday, only 12 were English.
But this trend also speaks to the fact that English football’s assembly line has come to a clanking halt, raising questions about whether the Premier League’s approach to developing young players is killing off the classic goal poacher.
The present system of youth development was implemented in 1997 by the country’s Football Association and designed to enable England to build a World Cup-winning side. The new plan removed good, young players from their school teams or youth clubs and placed them in academies run by professional teams. Essentially, it allowed clubs in the richest league in the world to groom and train their own products.
In theory, the new structure would enable England to produce a generation of players who were the equal of their more skilful continental counterparts. Given unprecedented access to young prospects, clubs poured millions into their youth programs in the belief that those who graduated would be specifically trained for the professional game.
Yet once kids are signed to a Premier League academy, they are coached exclusively by it. They are prevented from playing football with their school peers and usually barred from other sports.
Some observers believe that nurturing young players on soft-grass academy playing fields deprives them of the basic skills that previous generations learned on the hard surfaces of neighborhood streets and tight corners of the schoolyard.
In addition, clubs are permitted to train their young players for a maximum of five hours a week—nowhere near the 10,000 hours which sports scientists calculate it takes to train a world-class athlete, from the time they start playing.
“I think young players nowadays are mollycoddled,” said Mr. Cottee, now a football analyst. “In my day, I’d go to training with West Ham, but I’d play for local club sides too, school teams, in the streets outside my house—wherever I could find a game.
“At that age, you need to be playing as much as possible because by the time you’re 14, 15 or 16, it’s too late.”