Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

English Panel held on 21 January in London



    Allan Mullery—Independent expert;

    Dennis Smith—Independent expert;

    Mike Walker—Independent expert;

    John Young—Football Association;

    John Bramall—Professional Footballers Association;

    Andy Williamson—Football League (Bristol Rovers application only);

    Mike Foster—Premier League (Chelsea and Southampton applications only).

Application by Bristol Rovers Football Club for a Work Permit for Vitalijs Astafjevs


  The Panel considered written evidence from the Club which included testimonials from Keith Peacock, Assistant Manager of Charlton Athletic Football Club, Gary Johnson, Latvian Head Coach and Einars Fogelis, Director of the Latvian Sports Department. The Panel also took oral evidence from Ron Craig, Club Director, Roger Brinsford, Club Secretary and Ian Holloway, Team Manager.

  Mr Craig informed the Panel of the Club's recent history with particular emphasis on the financial commitment he and others had made to the Club. He also stressed that Latvia were only one place outside automatically qualifying under the published criteria. As an emerging and newly independent country, they would take longer to get into the top 70 average countries in the FIFA rankings but were now 63rd and rising quickly. Mr Holloway then expanded upon this and gave a long and impassioned talk on the Club's long term plans of which Vitalijs Asafjevs would play a vital role. He is currently Latvia's most capped player. Compared in skill to other Latvians currently playing in the Premier League he is an attacking midfield player, with excellent timing and vision who can score goals regularly. Mr Holloway felt that a player of his undoubted quality would not only provide an important element to the team's attempts to gain promotion but would be an excellent example to his younger players. Mr Astafjevs was judged to be a model professional and would, in the Club's opinion, be a major asset and command an immediate place in the team. He was seen as an investment for the future and a key player for their promotion ambitions (Bristol Rovers are currently 2nd in Division 2). He also stated that employing the player was a major financial risk for the Club and not one which would be taken lightly, indeed the Club was borrowing further money to finance the signing. They also stated that to ensure the Club's future they had made substantial investments in their youth and reserve teams. Mr Holloway made the general point that, in his opinion, British Clubs were pricing players out of the market. He had made enquiries for Non-League Players who had been valued at £250,000.

  The Panel asked why no other Clubs had been interested in the player. Mr Holloway said others were showing an interest in him, including trials for Millwall and QPR. Further discussions centred on the player's ability, thought to be at least Division 1 standard. He would also be in the top five wage earners in the Club. The Panel agreed that the Club had made a compelling case for the employment of Mr Astafjevs. They were convinced that he was a player of high technical ability who would have a major impact at Bristol Rovers and recommended, unanimously, that a work permit be issued.

Application by Chelsea Football Club for a work permit for Rati Aleksidze

  The Club's solicitors provided written evidence which included five witness statements testifying to Mr Aleksidze's quality as a player. The Panel also took oral evidence from Colin Hutchinson, Club Managing Director, Gwyn Williams, Assistant Team Manager and Mick McGivern, Director of Coaching. Nicola Kerr of SJ Berwin, Chelsea's solicitors, also attended.

  Mr Hutchinson explained that Chelsea's continued growth and success over the past decade had allowed them to attract world class players to the Club. He made the point that although Chelsea were viewed as a major employer of overseas players that they currently have only two work permit holders. He stated that Football is a Global game and it was Chelsea's aim to continue to strengthen their squad on the basis of ability only, not on nationality. Mr Williams went on to say that the Club had a strong and well established youth set-up. Indeed Mr Aleksidze had been to Chelsea for trials in 1996. He was marked as a young player of unique talent. This sentiment was endorsed by Mr McGivern who was convinced that Mr Aleksidze had, even at that stage, all the attributes and skills necessary for a career in Football at the highest level coupled with an excellent attitude to his work and colleagues. The player had committed himself to signing for Chelsea in 1996 but only when the time was right for both parties. He subsequently developed a very successful career in Georgia, becoming Captain of his Club team, Dynamo Tiblisi, a very powerful European Club side, at 19 and a regular member of the Georgian Under 19 and Olympic teams. Written statements from the Georgian Football Federation made the case that it had been a tactical decision on their part to play Mr Aleksidze at Olympic level rather than in the full National Team, even though, in their opinion he was capable of securing a regular place in the full National side. The Club were keen to secure Mr Aleksidze now as his contract with his home club expires shortly. The Panel asked what would be the repercussions if the application were refused. Mr Williams said that Mr Aleksidze would most certainly sign for a major Spanish Club and Chelsea would be forced to pay a significant sum in the future to get him back to the UK. The Panel questioned that, given the number of world class players in the current Chelsea squad, would Mr Aleksidze be an immediate part of the team. Mr Williams stated that Chelsea's squad system could not guarantee anyone a first team place but that Mr Aleksidze would immediately join the 20 players in the first team squad and, in his opinion, be in the starting 16 each Saturday within a few weeks.

  The Panel agreed that although still young in terms of International experience, Mr Aleksidze was a player of outstanding ability. He is an attacking midfielder who plays predominantly on the left of which there is a current dearth in the English game. The Club had made convincing arguments that they be allowed to employ a unique talent which they had nurtured in the initial stages of his career. John Bramall of the PFA was not convinced that Mr Aleksidze would immediately command a first team place. All of the other Panel members were convinced that a work permit should be issued in respect of Mr Aleksidze.

Application by Southampton Football Club for a work permit for Imants Bleidilis

  The Club submitted written evidence including testimonials from Gary Johnson, Latvian National Coach and Nils Johan Semb, National Coach of Norway. The Panel also considered oral evidence from Brian Truscott, Club Secretary, Dave Jones, Team Manager and Marian Pahars, current work permit player with Southampton and Latvian International.

  Mr Truscott began by stating that, in the Club's view, the use of FIFA rankings to determine the quality of a player was flawed as there were a number of ways of interpreting the FIFA rankings which would give varying results in terms of an individual team's position. The Club had commissioned Leeds University to carry out a study of the way the FIFA rankings were collated and averaged out. A copy of this report was given to Panel members for information. The Club were informed that Overseas Labour Service would examine the information to ensure that the way the FIFA rankings are collated are fair and transparent. (We will seek expert opinion within the Department and advise the Minister of their recommendations.)

  Dave Jones then explained the Club had originally sought to sign Mr Bleidilis last season when they signed his compatriot Marian Pahars but lacked the finance to do so. They judged Mr Bleidilis to be a player of similar quality to Mr Pahars who had been highly successful since his move to the UK and compared him to Andrei Kanchelskis who was a successful player with Manchester United, Everton and Rangers. Marian Pahars stated that Mr Bleidilis was a very skilful International colleague with more caps than himself. They felt they had to sign him now as other clubs in Europe had shown an interest. Marian Pahars' success had also proved to be a factor. Mr Jones explained that the Club had a comprehensive scouting system in place covering Clubs in all Divisions of the Football League in an effort to recognise talented players. He had attempted to sign a number of British players but the price had been prohibitive with many, in his opinion, grossly overpriced. This was a concern to the Panel members but John Bramall stated you could not control market forces. The Club were convinced that Mr Bleidilis was a skilful right winger who would be an immediate asset to a Club currently struggling near the foot of the Premier League.

  John Bramall and John Young felt that Mr Bleidilis would not make a sufficient impact on the English game as he was, in their opinion, an addition to a squad rather than a genuinely gifted player in his own right. However, the rest of the Panel were convinced that Mr Bleidilis was a player of high quality, a regular Latvian International who at 28 was in his prime. Therefore on a majority decision it was recommended that a work permit be issued.

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