English footballers are dying out

June 16 2003 / New Statesman

At the end of each football season, the back pages of the newspapers, febrile with summer speculation, carry stories announcing the imminent departure of Ray Parlour from Arsenal. Parlour, who is 30, is an anomaly at Highbury, in that he is an Englishman who preceded the arrival of Arsene Wenger at the club and progressed to become, certainly in Wenger’s early years, an important member of the team. An old drinking pal of Tony Adams and an unreconstructed Essex man, he joined Arsenal as an apprentice and, despite the recent arrival of even more foreign players at the club, Parlour continues to play more than 20 games a season. He is celebrated, as is the way of these things, more for his stamina and enthusiasm than for his touch and talent.

In person, with his lank, curly blond hair and pitted complexion, Parlour could be mistaken - especially when interviewed while breathless and sweating after a game - for an addled rock star embarking on one last farewell tour, rather than the supreme athlete that in reality he is. He speaks in an exuberant, wised-up demotic that renders him often unintelligible to his foreign, polyglot team-mates. Parlour speaks English all right, but not as they know it. “I struggle to understand Ray because he speaks entirely in slang,” said the Frenchman Gilles Grimandi, who left Arsenal in 2002.

Grimandi, who studied economics at Nice, was the model of the new kind of Continental footballer: urbane, intelligent, curious about the world and his place in it, and comfortable about travelling from country to country in restless search of a “new challenge” (or larger monthly pay cheque). Parlour, by contrast, is a reminder of an age when the English game was the near-exclusive preserve of British and Irish players, players whose attitudes and preoccupations were coterminous with the tough, uncompromising fans who paid to watch them.

Football in the era before Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television transformed the game for ever was largely a culture of booze, laddishness and fry-ups. It was essentially a monoculture. The old First Division was a place into which foreign coaches were seldom, if ever, invited, and which the top Continental players avoided altogether. The odd Yugoslav or Scandinavian would occasionally arrive unheralded in England but, on the whole, with the notable exception of a mini-influx of Argentinians following the 1978 World Cup, English football remained closed to international influence.

Today football is one of the key agents of globalisation, an expression of our winner-takes-all society. Football is at the very centre of our thin-spun entertainment culture: a symbol of aggressive meritocracy, of our fascination with money and celebrity and, in the shape of a small army of foreign players and coaches, of a deracinated cosmopolitanism.

Much has been made of how French coaches such as Wenger and Gerard Houllier introduced forensic training methods and approaches to diet, nutrition and exercise; and how they work rigorously with statistics and computers to analyse individual performance, from the number of tackles a player completes in a game to the distance he runs. These managers, we are told, along with the players they have brought with them from France, the Netherlands and elsewhere, have introduced a new sophistication and flair. Their influence has helped to remake the English game in a Continental image.

Yet at the same time, something is being lost in this hectic embrace. English teams are no longer English in any meaningful sense of the word: they are largely collections of talented foreigners playing for teams that simply happen to be based in England. Towards the end of last season, Bolton Wanderers, for instance, regularly put out teams without a single British or Irish player. Following the departure of David Seaman and the imminent retirement of Martin Keown, Arsenal may soon have only two Englishmen in their regular starting eleven.

This cannot be good for the game or for the confidence and morale of English players. We should cherish the likes of Ray Parlour while we can; we may not see his like again.