Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Jan 2008 : Column 438WH—continued

We must also think about what would happen if the popularity of our game begins to wane internationally. Potentially, other leagues could attract great interest in
23 Jan 2008 : Column 439WH
China and south-east Asia or, indeed, other sports could begin to make more of an impact there. There is little doubt that football is the world game at the moment, but I worry that we tend to look on the past 10 years as the norm. As I said, I can well recall how unpopular football had become in the mid-1980s. It was not seen as a sexy sport; and, given the game’s problems, celebrities did not wish to associate themselves with it in any way.

The half-empty stadiums in recent weeks have been quite an eye-opener.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Interestingly, it is possible to say that season ticket holders actually mask the lower numbers. Fewer and fewer people watch FA cup matches because they have to pay so much extra money to see such games.

Mr. Field: My right hon. Friend is spot on; in fact, he took the words out of my mouth. I was about to make precisely that point. The third round of the FA cup included a number of games between premiership sides. The match between Sunderland and Wigan in particular proves the rule, as it were. If that match took place in the premiership, the stadium there in the north-east would be more or less full, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend pointed out—in order to get a foothold, most people must buy a season ticket. Yet, although I suspect that rates were reduced because it was an FA cup match, only about 20,000 people went to the stadium. I worry that it might be starting something of a trend, particularly given the attraction of the bigger premiership clubs, which will move further and farther ahead in their appeal, because the more languishing premiership clubs have increasingly empty stadiums, particularly when matches are being televised. There is already some evidence of that.

My biggest concern is therefore how to ensure that the game attracts a younger generation not only of home-grown players but of home-grown fans. The great worry is that if we do not give some serious thought to the way in which our national game develops, we will find the next generation of consumers looking in a different direction. I now look forward to another Bury fan having his say on the matter.

10.20 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr. Caton, to take part in a debate with such a knowledgeable group of good friends.

To the football authorities who may glance at this debate, I am sure that we would all want to make it clear that we speak as fans—perhaps knowledgeable fans, even very knowledgeable—and we accept that there is a gulf between those football people who are in the game and those like us who may have some knowledge but who are not in the game. However, that does not mean that we do not have valid concerns, on behalf of those whom we represent, about something that we obviously love. All who have taken part in the debate have a relationship with the game that is very deep.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) for leading the debate and for posing some important questions; his trademark is extreme thoroughness and being fully prepared to examine some of the difficult issues, which he did. I was particularly tickled with the idea that the
23 Jan 2008 : Column 440WH
chants on the terraces should be altered because of changing circumstances. My contributions would be: “Who is the accountant in black?”; “Who ate all the profits?”; and “Glory, glory, hallelujah, our off-field income streams go marching on.” I am sure that if we spent some time on it, we could work up some others.

I should put it on record that I think I heard my right hon. Friend converting pounds into euros—I never thought you would! It was a significant moment, but perhaps we should draw a veil over it.

All Members spoke knowledgably. In a sense, I take a similar position to my good friend, and hero to the all-party football group and the UK parliamentary football club, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen). His commitment to the game means that he still plays. He is slightly beyond the under-23 cap that he must have hoped for years ago.

Alan Keen: If we are to have quotas on age, and if the England side has to include a 70-year-old—Mr. Capello, here I am.

Alistair Burt: If it was a quota on commitment, enthusiasm and downright love of the game, the hon. Gentleman would be in every squad that I could name.

I, too, support a club at the lower end of the league, my beloved Bury—I am wearing the team’s cufflinks today—but I have also had a long relationship with Manchester United, following its kindness and support for UK PFC, when we played a match at Old Trafford for charity many years ago. The team has always been helpful, which has enabled me to see another side to the game.

I went through an FA level 1 coaching course last year with Bedfordshire football association, for which I am grateful. That helped me to coach the game in Rwanda for a couple of weeks in the summer. I am grateful for the help given by the Football Association, which was terrific in supplying me with kit and knowledge. I was also involved in the small team that appointed Adam Crozier to the Football Association some years ago, when I was a head-hunter. Like many of my colleagues, I have seen the game from different levels.

This subject is not new for English football. It is often forgotten that the English game has always had people from outside playing a prominent part. Hardly any English clubs have been successful without the influence of Scottish, Welsh and Irish players. The Spurs team of 1963, which won the first European cup winners competition for these islands, would not have been anything without Danny Blanchflower or John White. Manchester United, which won the European cup in 1968, would not have been the same team without Dennis Law and George Best, Shay Brennan, Tony Dunne, Pat Crerand and so on.

One struggles to find an English club that has been successful without foreign talent. The great exception in our islands, as some will know, was the extraordinary Celtic team in 1967 under Jock Stein, which won the European cup not only with an all-Scottish team but with a team drawn from within a radius of 40 miles around Glasgow, a feat that will never be surpassed.

That foreign influence has always been an issue in how English players develop, and how to create a great national side, hence the discussion about whether there should ever be a Great British side. I hope that we will
23 Jan 2008 : Column 441WH
have one at the Olympics, but that must be an end of it. I believe that the four home nations should retain their individual identities for other competitions.

The scale of that influence is now so different from what it was in the past. The point is that it will not change, as many hon. Members have said. My right hon. Friend was right to pose the question, but it will not change. Fans want their clubs to be successful.

The investment being made in the game is such that the best players will always be sought, and they will come here for the higher wages. That will not change. However, there is a price to be paid. Part of our role this morning is to question how high that price should be. There is a price for the English national game and the quality of players able to play at the highest level in the premier league. It is not a matter that can be sorted out by politicians; it is an issue for the game itself, and a variety of suggestions have been made.

I strongly support the concern expressed this morning about the quality of coaching. There must be some reason why, if they have the skills, our players are not picked up to play in leagues all over the world. It is incredibly rare to find that. When our youngsters are small and playing in their grassroots competitions at home, is too much emphasis placed on competition? Are they trying to win little medals when they are six and seven? If so, they are subject to the pressure that they have to win—to get rid of the ball.

The problem is that coaches select youngsters who may not be good enough for the team because the parents want them to win—but the children want to play. Do we have to consider the parental pressure that is put on coaches? Is the link between those grassroots clubs, youth teams and the schools and academies of professional and non-league clubs strong enough?

We should pay tribute to the coaches. Football survives on volunteers at all levels, but the coaches have to assume a tremendous burden these days, working with youngsters, boys and girls, to advance the game. They deserve all our support. They should be encouraged to allow youngsters to play their natural game and to develop their skills. How is it that with “the finest league in the world” we are still searching for a left-sided midfielder? We have a game that cannot produce at the highest level those with interchangeable feet, able to play at the world level. That is extraordinary, bearing in mind the development of the game. If I were to concentrate on one thing, it would be that.

Other issues come in on the back of the immense amount of money that has gone into the game, and the introduction of overseas players. I, too, worry about the growing lack of competition in English football. For how much longer will fans watch a premier league in which only one of four clubs is ever going to win and in which the only competition is for the fifth spot and the UEFA cup spot. It is not good enough; it is not what football is meant to be.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I wish to ask my hon. Friend one small question. We talk endlessly about the premier league being the best, with everyone wanting to play in it and so on. When speaking about the quality of some of the overseas players in the league, it certainly goes beyond the top four clubs. There are questions about that, but there is a secret little link. Why do we pay such
23 Jan 2008 : Column 442WH
high salaries by comparison with the other leagues? Possibly, it is because of their lower level of skills. Many of the really top-flight international players have to be induced to come here to play; their national squads are reluctant to see them play in the premiership because they think that it ruins their skill levels.

Alistair Burt: My right hon. Friend expands on a point that he made earlier. We have to be honest. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was right, also, to question the arrogance of the English game in constantly believing that it is the world’s best, when the evidence is a little scant. It would be best if we were honest about the quality of the game here. There is no doubt that its excitement and passion are terrific and at the highest level it attracts fans who sell out the big stadiums and most of the big clubs have long waiting lists for their season tickets. However, we must query whether that development, and the lack of competition at the highest level, is good enough. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston said, there is concern about support being passed on through the generations, because of the cost now of taking your child to the game, which is how the game has survived and how most of us pick up our allegiances to clubs. That, too, is a worry.

What this debate has highlighted is not all the solutions, but that on behalf of fans we are concerned. There are some problems that the game faces, not least the number of overseas players, and if there are not to be Government solutions, will the game tackle some of the issues that we have all raised this morning?

10.30 am

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). We have heard some very interesting and some very good contributions. I think that the hon. Gentleman managed to raise some salient points about the problems facing football and the state of the game within the United Kingdom, particularly in England.

I thought early on that the debate was going to become a “Let’s knock the Arsenal” debate. I say that as an Arsenal fan, so I already feel quite knocked enough after last night. So, please, I do not need any more knocking today.

The debate is about the employment of overseas footballers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on bringing the subject matter to Westminster Hall to be discussed, but it is a shame that the debate has such a narrow remit, because the issues and problems facing English football are not just related to the number of overseas footballers.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I must explain this point. It is not possible to have a debate on anything wider, because we had to narrow the subject down. It appears that we cannot widen the debate unless the Minister responds directly. I would love to have made the debate wider.

Richard Younger-Ross: I was going to come on to that point; I had supposed that it was the rules of the House that have restricted us to the subject of this debate. Nevertheless, the debate itself, in its breadth, has not been so restricted.

23 Jan 2008 : Column 443WH

Concentrating on the subject of the debate, I have some concerns. The idea that foreign footballers are the problem of English football is dangerous and misleading. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire made the point earlier that English teams have always relied on foreign footballers. As I said, I am an Arsenal fan and I remember a plethora of Irishmen—Brady and others—playing for the Arsenal. I also remember a plethora of Scots playing for the Arsenal and, of course, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the famous Georgie Best, who played for Manchester United. Non-English players have always been there.

The danger is that, if someone starts saying that only a proportion of foreign players will be allowed, where does one draw the line? If one looks at the current Manchester United side, the non-English players include Giggs, Fletcher, O’Shea, Evans, Van der Sar, Evra, Vidic, Ronaldo, Anderson, Saha, Park, Nani, Pique, Silvestre, and Tevez. Under Sepp Blatter’s rules, all those players would be competing for just five places. Should we make that six places, or seven? Where do we draw the line? Ultimately, what would be introduced is a form of discrimination against who can play for a team, and that discrimination would not just apply to people who are non-EU but would apply to EU players as well. As we have already heard, within the EU that would be against the current employment legislation.

The members of the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport are off today to Brussels to discuss the EU’s proposed White Paper on sport, which I am told has two aims. The first is to

The second is to

That may raise some concerns about the EU and why it is looking at sport and, indeed, what sport has to do with the EU, but I shall put those concerns to one side. However, the White Paper’s recommendations include the following:

So the EU is already looking at, and is concerned with, discussions and proposals that may introduce restrictions on home-grown players.

As I said, we have had foreign players before and we have had them because there has always been freedom of movement. We have freedom of movement within the EU for employment and we have freedom of movement, certainly, within Great Britain—between Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—and also freedom for players from Ireland to come and play here.

Provided a foreign player meets the immigration requirements and can get a work permit, there is nothing to stop them coming to work here. If they can get an immigration visa to come here, why should they not be allowed to play? Why should they be told that they are restricted in the number of places in a team that they can compete for? One would not allow that to happen in any other industry. One would not say, “Oh, we have x number of Members of Parliament. This is the British Parliament, therefore we will restrict it to the number of people who have been born and brought up here.” There are restrictions on who can stand for Parliament,
23 Jan 2008 : Column 444WH
yes, but they are not essentially to do with where a person is born. The danger with the home-grown players rules is that that is what will happen and restrictions will be introduced.

There is not a debate about the regulation of ownership of clubs. There are chants on the terraces about foreign ownership, and that is the one issue that does upset the fans, but no one is saying here that we should start restricting who can buy into a British club. I am looking around the Chamber and I do not see anyone saying that we should do that, because that would be in clear breach of all the financial regulations and the free market rules that we work towards.

Is anyone in the Chamber saying that we should not have foreign managers? If that were the case, the new England coach would be on his way home and we are not arguing for that. So why do we argue that, in the case of those who play for the team, there ought to be a restriction? That argument is illogical nonsense.

A lot of money is currently put into the sport; £40 million comes from premier league clubs for their academies and £9.3 million comes from the premier league itself. The problem comes with the way that the Football Association has run its youth training, as was alluded to earlier. The problem comes with the support that we give to the community clubs, the coaching and the investment in coaching in the UK, rather than at the higher level.

Ultimately, a player will rise to the highest level of competition that they can and if they are not good enough to play against internationals, they will not get to the top of the premier league. If one looks at Arsenal’s team over the last few years, it has brought forward, time and time again, young English players and ultimately they have gone off to be very successful with other teams around the country, but they did not get into the Arsenal first team because they could not compete with the skill levels of those other international players that were playing for Arsenal.

Those young English players were given the best coaching and every opportunity to play for Arsenal. Now, if they were given that opportunity and did not succeed, I have to say that there must be something else fundamentally wrong with English sport, not the fact that we have foreign players in our teams.

10.38 am

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I would like to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. As he said at the outset, it is a matter of great regret that no home nation will take part in this summer’s European championship finals. Failure to qualify for a major international tournament in any sport can be put down to a considerable number of factors, but if structural issues within English football are indeed part of the problem, it is right that we should identify them and encourage—that is the key thing, as my right hon. Friend said—those responsible to take the necessary action. I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on securing the debate, but on the way in which he put his case.

Next Section Index Home Page