Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Jan 2008 : Column 432WH—continued

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of football in national life. It should also be pointed out that if the football industry ever criticises MPs for having their say, it should consider the enormous sums of national money that were paid into the game following the Taylor report into the Bradford City fire disaster 20 years ago. The
23 Jan 2008 : Column 433WH
proper running of what is a very large business, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) pointed out, is a matter for parliamentary scrutiny.

Alan Keen: That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman represents Westminster—we are his constituents, I suppose, when we are in the House—but he supports Bury. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is sitting next to him, represented Bury for quite a while.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I am wearing Bury cufflinks.

Alan Keen: Indeed. Supporters for Manchester United and Manchester City are here, too.

Mr. Devine: And Celtic.

Alan Keen: I was not sure which team my hon. Friend supported—I should know more about football. We have a Charlton Athletic supporter here, and I can see that there is someone listening to the debate in the audience—the crowd, I should say—who supports Arsenal. I was delighted that my team, Middlesbrough, beat Arsenal a few weeks a go. I wish that I had been with the right hon. Gentleman last night when Spurs knocked out Arsenal. I know what it is like to be as happy as that. I remember how I felt a few years ago when we beat Spurs on penalties on our way to the UEFA cup final. I thought about the right hon. Gentleman last night when I watched the game on television.

We care about football, and we also care about our constituents, who love football and their own team. Our constituents care about the long-term future of the game. We want our grandchildren to enjoy the game as we do now, which is why are here to participate in this debate. I was explaining how happy we were that youngsters from deprived parts of the world could come to the UK and end up as multi-millionaires. Many of them go back to help their own nations, and they spread some of their wealth around. However, it is not the ones who succeed whom we are worried about. As the right hon. Gentleman said, youngsters are brought from all over the world at a very young age, and we should be concerned about the ones who do not succeed. I should like to relate a story that I was told by the owner of a premier league club. A youngster was enticed away from his home club by an agent of some sort. He ended up going to a bigger club, but failed to get on, and I believe that his family split up as a result. He did not last at the club for more than six or nine months. We must therefore look after those youngsters as well as the skilled players.

The Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), is a supporter of AFC Wimbledon, which is trying to climb back into the Football League after the original club, Wimbledon FC, relocated to Milton Keynes. AFC Wimbledon is run and owned by its supporters, which is a great illustration of how much people care about their own club. It is not just the rich footballers about whom we should care—it is the people who support the game. It would be surprising if families had to pay £50 a week
23 Jan 2008 : Column 434WH
to watch premier league football on television. I remember going to Arsenal a few seasons ago—I have already mentioned that my team beat Arsenal a few weeks ago—with three researchers, and it cost me £140. We lost 7-0 that day, which evens up things a bit.

We care about the long-term future of the game, which is why we are all here today, speaking on our constituents’ behalf. Those who run the game must listen to the fans as well as to the very rich owners to whom they answer and from whom they receive their large salaries. We are here today representing those fans, and I hope that some notice is taken of our debate.

Mr. Devine: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a future for football trusts and that every football club should have a trust representative on their board? Celtic came down to London two seasons ago to play a pre-season friendly. The tickets for that match cost £40.

Alan Keen: I accept my hon. Friend’s argument. I live 50 m from the corner of Brentford’s ground. Brentford is now owned by the fans, and Greg Dyke is a non-executive chairman. I have mentioned AFC Wimbledon already.

I pay tribute to the football authorities because the Football Foundation gives a lot of money to the grass roots. The Government have set up supporters direct, which has helped many fans to own or part-own their clubs. That is the first step. In clubs such as Brentford, the fans own the club outright. Brentford therefore looks to the long-term future for the fans, because the fans run the club. On that note, I will conclude.

9.58 am

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing the debate, and I start by declaring an interest. As a Manchester City fan and season ticket holder for the past 24 years, I have to confess that all seven players that we signed in closed season were foreign. They have had a significant impact on City’s performance this season. The likes of Elano, Petrov, Corluka, Bianchi and Giovanni have certainly had a very positive impact on the fans.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): As a Manchester United supporter, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate. I know that there is a good rapport between Man United and Manchester City. I hope that he shares my concern about the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster and that, as a Man City supporter, he will put on the record his plea to all supporters to recognise the significance of that event, not only for Manchester United but for football in general. We hope that the minute’s silence will be dealt with appropriately in the coming weeks.

Mr. Leech: I thank the Minister for that intervention. I am very happy to put on the record my support for a perfect minute’s silence at the ground. I have concerns that a small minority of idiots will choose to ruin the minute’s silence and there is a case for having a minute’s applause, rather than a minute’s silence, to ensure that that does not happen, but unfortunately every football club has a few idiots who are prepared to ruin things for the vast majority of people. I implore all City fans to ensure that the minute’s silence is observed perfectly.

23 Jan 2008 : Column 435WH

There is a good debate throughout the country about the impact that foreign players have had on the game. England’s failure to qualify for the next championships has increased that debate, but it is bogus to suggest that the influx of foreign players has led to the downfall of the England team. I strongly believe that we were knocked out of the competition not because we did not have decent players, but because the decent players that we did have performed poorly and did not perform as a good team. The talent available in the team should have been easily good enough for us to qualify from our group.

Alan Keen: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is quite likely that the focus of those players for most of the year is on winning for their clubs and that when they join the England party, that is a way of relaxing—without their knowing it; I do not mean that they do that on purpose. Does he think that there is some truth in that?

Mr. Leech: There probably is some truth in that. Many home-grown players take great pride in playing for their national team, but within our football structures, less importance is given to the national team than to local teams, and I think that the vast majority of fans prefer their local team—the team that they support—to do better than England. That is the case for many people. We certainly have in the premiership the players and the talent of English descent to have qualified for the next championships. Lack of talent was not responsible for us being knocked out of the competition.

I argue that foreign players in the premiership can have a very positive impact on the development of home-grown players. One example from my club is Michael Johnson. I believe that in the future he will be a long-term fixture in the England set-up—I hope that he will still be playing for Manchester City at the time, but I suspect that he will be playing for either Arsenal or Chelsea. However, we cannot escape from the fact that over the past few years, since the onset of the premiership, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign players. Eventually, if the trend continues, it will become increasingly difficult for home-grown talent to push through and make it into first teams.

In the first season of the premiership, in 1992-93, only 12 foreign players played in the first round of fixtures and the total for the whole season was only 23, whereas last season in the premiership, there were 123 foreign players, and this season we have already seen 196. Clearly, the trend is significantly on the up. However, I do not get the impression when I go to the City of Manchester stadium that fans do not want to see top foreign players come to play in the premiership. Players such as Elano have had a massive impact on City and have improved the gates as a result, because people want to come to watch them. However, fans want to ensure that home-grown talent that is currently in premiership teams and that has come through the ranks, players who have been in the academy and managed to get through to the first team—like Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Joe Hart and Nedum Onuoha—will still have the opportunity to get through to first teams in the premiership in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Three positive steps could be taken. I accept the point that it is not Government’s role to do this, but I think that it is the role of the football authorities to examine ways in which we can ensure that home-grown talent can still come through in the future. First, we should
23 Jan 2008 : Column 436WH
scrap the transfer window. I understand why it was brought in. It was brought in to protect the interests of smaller clubs, but it simply does not. People at clubs outside the premiership will say that the transfer window does not work. The transfer window means that transfers become more of a risk for clubs and they are looking for instant impact from the signings that they make in the transfer windows. Premiership teams obviously do not want to sell their players to their rivals, so teams are forced to buy either players from lower divisions or foreign players with a proven track record in the top flight of football, so obviously clubs are more likely to go for the foreign imports who have a proven track record.

Secondly, rather than trying to restrict foreign imports, we should have a high minimum percentage quota for home-grown talent in the academies to ensure that if clubs want to take lots of good young talent from abroad, they still have to take a very significant number of home-grown players in their academies and lower teams, so that those players have the opportunity to flourish in big teams.

Thirdly, we should consider levelling the playing field on the rules about transfers. Buying players from other English clubs almost always requires a massive outlay of cash, whereas if clubs buy players from the continent, they are often able to spread the payments over a much longer period. Because clubs are often strapped for cash, that is a far more attractive option. Surely that inequity cannot continue. A proper level playing field is needed so that it is not cheaper in the short term to buy players from abroad than it is to buy players from other English clubs.

10.8 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution to it. He summed up concerns that many people have about overseas footballers. There is great complacency in the national game, because it is regarded as the greatest show on earth; that is how the premiership is marketed overseas. My right hon. Friend made very good points about ensuring that the quality of training for our home-grown talent remains strong; indeed, it should be strengthened. We have much to learn from what goes on in continental Europe and possibly even from other parts of the world. There is a notion that we are attracting just the cream of the cream of players. In fact, we are getting players who are being paid a lot of money, but they may well be approaching the end of their careers.

Like all hon. Members who have made and will make contributions to the debate, I am a keen football fan and have been for almost the entirety of my 43 years. Certainly for the past 35 years I have watched the fortunes of my beloved Bury football club, to which the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) referred. I have to say that it has been a case of thin and thinner times, although we got an equaliser three minutes from time to deprive Bradford City of a victory last night, so at times there are small mercies in supporting Bury.

Great changes have taken place in the footballing world even in that 35-year time frame. I recall that in the 1970s, many footballing commentators said that the
23 Jan 2008 : Column 437WH
best talent was going overseas, to the detriment of the English game. We were not actually losing that many players, but some of the top players moved overseas: Kevin Keegan went to Hamburg; Liam Brady, who was Irish but who played in England, moved abroad; and other players left these shores, albeit in relatively small numbers. Of course, my right hon. Friend and people more generally now argue that there is perhaps too much overseas talent in this country, to the detriment of the national game. I accept that, in part, it is a matter of degree. A vast number of overseas players play here at the highest level of the game, which is inevitably a barrier to some of the young talent.

Another big problem is that there have always been overblown expectations of our national side. Back in the 1950s, the nation had its first footballing fiasco when we lost in the 1950 World cup to the United States of America. Three years later, we had the horror of losing for the first time against anything other than a home nation at Wembley. In a sense, expectations were ratcheted up still more by winning the World cup, as we did on home ground in 1966. The expectation is that winning the World cup is the rightful place of the England national side, but the fact is that only in 1990 has England made it even as far as the semi-final in a World cup.

On immigration and overseas players, there are a lot of EU nationals playing in the premier league, but they are increasingly playing right the way through the profession, including, in some cases, in the semi-professional game in this country. Of course, there is free movement of labour, so we cannot prevent such people from playing here, nor should we.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman has thrown up an interesting question and I would be interested to hear his view on it. Once an EU national’s residency rules apply, they would qualify to play for England. Does he think that it would be appropriate for people such as Almunia, the Arsenal goalkeeper, to play for the national side?

Mr. Field: This is going to be quite a battle. My other great passion is cricket. Twenty years ago, the notion that we would have an England cricket captain by the name of Hussain might have been a horror to some of the purists of that game. Obviously, things move on, and rightly so. If Mr. Almunia wishes to make his home here and is committed to becoming a British citizen, he should have every right to play for the English national side or, indeed, the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish national side.

There are something like 250 or 260 overseas players on the books of premiership clubs, but there are virtually no restrictions whatever to the talent that premiership or other clubs can choose to employ. There are no wage, squad size or registration restrictions, and, post-Bosman, sometimes no transfer fees. Of course, that is in stark contrast to other games internationally; for example, baseball in the United States.

There are plenty of non-EU nationals for whom, potentially, employment restrictions are in place. Those of us who are keen football fans will have seen coverage of the Africa cup of nations. I suspect that we are at the thin end of the wedge. We are attracting and will
23 Jan 2008 : Column 438WH
continue to attract an incredible amount of top quality African talent to these shores, as well as South American talent. The recent controversy over the Watford player Al Bangura, a Sierra Leone national who was initially refused a work permit will, I suspect, be the start of things to come with regard to the debate over such matters.

I understand that the Minister will elucidate in his contribution at the end of the debate the plans afoot to limit the number of non-EU players. I understand that the Home Office tightened the rules as long ago as 1999, so that non-EU players applying for a permit must have either played for their country in at least 75 per cent. of its competitive A-team matches in the previous two years, or else it must be possible to say that they have contributed significantly as a special talent to the development of the game at the top level in the UK. Given my right hon. Friend’s concerns, will the Minister tell us more about the potential review of that legislation, and whether there are plans to tighten or loosen it in future?

The face of the national game has changed greatly. Again, I recall the low point in the 1980s, which I mentioned earlier. There was hooliganism and poor attendances, and crumbling, low-grade stadiums led to some of the appalling disasters that those of us who follow football well remember. To a large extent, the money from television has helped to transform elements of the national game. Today, the premier league is the most lucrative football league in the world, with total club revenues nearing £2 billion. The Sky TV deal money has cascaded in, as it were, even in recent years. Rightly, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) talked about the importance of the premier league, which was created 16 years ago. At that time, the Sky deal was worth what seemed like an astronomical sum compared with the deal negotiated by the BBC and ITV only a few years previously. It was worth £191 million over five seasons, but it increased to £670 million over four seasons from 1997, and to in excess of £1 billion over three seasons for the period that ended last year.

There is no doubt that the game is being marketed abroad. I travel abroad, and it is a joy to me to be able to watch live football matches in China or India. The game is being marketed as the greatest show on earth. The branding and marketing opportunities, particularly in south-east Asia—audiences in China alone are in excess of 200 million—are making an enormous difference. The colossal marketing and branding of our game has had a great impact on the amount of money that it attracts. I understand that football goes out to 202 different countries, which is greater than the membership of the United Nations, and that 500 million people frequently watch it.

I worry for the future of our game. I worry that too much of the money goes straight through to the talent, and I wonder how sustainable that will prove to be, particularly if Sky reaches saturation level in its coverage of the game. Although I accept that Setanta has moved in to some extent, it is a smaller interest in the broader TV game. Sky is almost a monopoly player, so if it wanted to put a cap on its coverage, it could be difficult for clubs to work down the talent’s expectations of the game.

Next Section Index Home Page