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England Needs Athletic

In a recent blog about Newcastle’s new arrivals I suggested the cost of fielding a fully English team would be far too much for any Premier League team, outside the current financial powerhouses, to consider. Whilst I stand by this, there is a solution to the free-spending required to build the full English of Premier League teams. In Spanish football Athletic Bilbao continue to buck the trend of importing foreign superstars, instead producing teams of players of Basque origin. Whilst Athletic have loosened the criteria needed to qualify in recent years, accepting players with an affiliation to the Basque region through football development or ancestry, the concept should still be admired.

Before I go any further I should point out that I am not xenophobic and personally think that importing players is important for a league to grow. However looking at Athletic Bilbao and how they maintain their place in La Liga year after year (having never been relegated) without heavy spending, and knocking Man Utd out of the Europa League last season, it is worth considering whether this model would work in the Premier league. Admittedly the Basque region is quite large and making a team capable of playing at that level made of players solely from Hampshire, Lincolnshire or another county would be very difficult but a team that engineers a policy of only signing English players could still be successful and widely supported in a period where the English national team set-up is undergoing significant restructuring. I’m no suggesting a new title contender, just a side that plays a part in the development of the national side.

This week the England senior squad would have had training sessions at St. George’s Park in advance of the showpiece friendly against Brazil to celebrate the anniversary of the FA last night. The development of St. George’s Park is impressive and will surely help usher in a new dawn for the England national team, but this will likely take 15 years at least to show signs of progression. Whilst creating a new team within the English league pyramid (with potential obstacles on where to begin) with an english only policy would also take time, there is a chance for this to gain immediate recognition and backing, helping it to rise up quickly alike AFC Wimbledon have. It would also be worthwhile basing the new side at St. George’s Park, enabling a young English side to gain valuable experience within the set-up to push them on in their development to reach one of the English teams.

Even if no players from this side made it into the national team for the first 15 years there would be no need to consider the development a failure. At the very least a side of English players based at St. George’s park could provide a stepping stone for players with the potential to join one of the top sides, rather than wasting three years sat on the bench. Athletic Bilbao are not Barcelona or Real Madrid and as such are limited in the number of superstar names associated with the club. Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente are the most recognisable players of the recent Bilbao teams. Both full internationals and unfortunately for Athletic both wanted moves to bigger clubs, with Javi Martinez leaving last summer for Bayern Munich and Fernando Llorente leaving this summer for Juventus. Now the squad looks light on international talent or immediately recognisable players for those of us outside of Spain. In a couple of years time we may all be talking about Iker Muniain moving on to bigger things. However many international players Bilbao provide does not matter. The club remains a staple in La Liga, a financially strong and a well-run side, which in Spain is not particularly common (albeit it is not common in England either). Athletic Bilbao should be looked upon as an example of how a domestic, domestic team could work. If you need another reason why it could be helpful for England’s international future then copying the model in the Premier League would also increase the overall average percentage of Englishman in the 25-man squads. All the more reason why they should become everyone’s second team.

Based at St. George’s Park could mean direct control over the finances by The FA. This would ensure the longevity of the project. This could in part be financed by the other clubs in the football pyramid as a mandatory payment for application to the league. Whilst I’m sure this idea would not suit everyone it is likely something will need to be put into place to give English players the chance to gain first team experience in the build up the tournament football. Roy Hodgson has previously said he has to accept that some of his players will not be playing week in, week out. I’m sure Vicente Del Bosque would lose the rest of his hair if his first choice team were not regular starters in their domestic sides. If not following the Athletic Bilbao model, it may be worthwhile considering how other countries limit the influx of foreign players into their leagues. For example, Swedish top division, Allsvenskan, has a rule that requires each match day squad to contain at least 9 players trained in Sweden. Brazil’s Serie A limits foreign players to three per squad. Further to my earlier statement I think the arrival of foreign players makes the league more interesting. I wake up most mornings and look at the gossip column on the BBC Sport website to see which superstars are linked to the premier league and am especially keen on seeing Newcastle’s new arrivals at some point in the near future. I wouldn’t want this to be restricted by a fixed number of foreign players ruling and I doubt I’m alone. Bilbao es el camino a seguir.


Bad Football Joke of the Week 3:


After learning his trade and proving his loyalty, Michael Appleton has signed a one month contract to take charge of Nottingham Forest. He is said to be pleased to work with like-minded owners.

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