Affirmative Action Won’t Save the Three Lions


So the latest FIFA rankings are out, and well, England placed 20th. England fans are outraged, after all, how can England place below such countries like the United States, Costa Rica and Croatia? How can England, the country with what is generally agreed to be the world’s top domestic league do so poorly in international competitions? England didn’t even make it out of the group stages in the 2014 World Cup!

After the initial outrage has subsided, it seems like the Premier League is shouldering a large amount of the blame. After all, if the country with the best league in the world is ranked 20th, it stands to reason that the Premier League is to blame for the failure of the Three Lions. Specifically, the fact that the English top flight is filled with foreigners is commonly perceived to be a cause for England’s problems. After all, how can English players develop if they don’t get playing time? Or in other words, the “damned foreigners are taking the jobs away from our lads!”

Due to these perceptions, there is a lot of people who believe that the Premier League should have a higher home-grown player quota. They believe that the high number of foreigners in the Premier League is hindering the development of English players. The FA’s proposed solution is to reduce the number of non-homegrown players allowed to 12 less (from 17), effectively making it so that if a club wishes to register a full 25 players, they are required to register 13 homegrown players. Will this help England? Let’s start by looking at what this rule change would mean for the Premier League.

A home-grown player is a player who has trained in the English and Welsh professional system for at least 3 years before the age of 21. Contrary to popular belief, Premier League clubs are not required to have 8 homegrown players, they are allowed up to 17 non-homegrown players. In theory a team can consist of 0 homegrown players, although that means only 17 players can be registered. A club does not have to register players under the age of 21, thus the home-grown rule only affects players over the age of 21.

Using the squad list here, I have compiled a chart detailing the number of homegrown players present on every single Premier League club. Let’s assume England reduces the amount of non-homegrown players allowed from 17 to 12 (Increasing the amount of homegrown players in a full squad from 8 to 13), how many non-homegrown players would have to leave? That data is present in the 4th column, in the “players forced out” column).

ClubNumber of Homegrown PlayersNumber of non-homegrown playersPlayers forced out
Aston Villa1690
Crystal Palace15100
Hull City13120
Leicester City1770
Manchester City8164
Manchester United12120
Newcastle United9164
Queens Park Rangers1870
Stoke City12131
Swansea City12131
Tottenham Hotspur6175
West Bromwich Albion10131
West Ham United13110

In total, 27 players would be forced out of Premier League. 11 clubs would not be effected by such a change. 9 others would have to make a change. Under current circumstances, reducing the homegrown players (obviously the numbers change as current players under 21 age, and as rosters change).

On the surface, this looks like a good idea. 27 new jobs created for English lads! Since there are 229 home-grown players in total in the Premier League, this is almost an increase of 12%. Now if this was a politician, and he increased the number of jobs by 12%, he can win any election by a landslide! However, the goal of increasing the number of homegrown players isn’t to create jobs, but to improve the English national team, and that angle, the numbers get murky.

Notice that the currently in the Premier League, many teams don’t even register a full 25 players over the age of 21. Southampton has 20 players total over the age of 21. Even with a whole world of footballers to choose from, clubs like Southampton could not find a worthwhile addition that would improve their team after undergoing cost benefit analysis. Either the available players would not be an improvement over their under-21s, or they are too expensive, or Southampton just haven’t discovered the players that they could sign.

Because of this, I do not believe that reducing the number of allowed non-homegrown players will create 27 new jobs for homegrown players. Out of the 20 Premier League clubs, 13 of them registered less than the maximum 25 players. This leads me to believe that maybe some of these “jobs” would simply disappear, due to the face that maybe some clubs simply cannot find worthwhile English talent to replace the departing foreigners.

Don’t forget that homegrown doesn’t mean English. Since employment discrimination due to nationality is illegal, the FA can only mandate that a certain percentage of players are home-grown, they cannot create a “British player quota”. Assuming that every single English player in the Premier League is homegrown (since there probably isn’t many English youth going abroad to train), there are 207 Englishmen in the league, since there are 238 homegrown players, English players are 87% of all homegrown players. Even assuming that decreasing the number of non-homegrown players allowed would create 27 new jobs for homegrown players, only about 23 of them would go to English players.

So in the best case scenario, where clubs would hire homegrown players to replace every single non-homegrown player forced out, we can expect to see 23 new jobs for English players over the age of 21. Assuming that there isn’t any reverse discrimination going on right now, as in foreign players are not favored over English players of similar skill and price, the effect of these 23 new jobs are negligible at best.

If a club has to cut foreigner players due to a quota, we would assume that each club would cut their worst foreigner players, and not their big imported stars. The homegrown players already on the team would get “bumped up” on the depth chart, replacing the departing foreigners. There will be up to 23 new players previously playing in the Championship who will now be at the bottom of premier league depth charts.

Of course, it is not these 23 guys who will benefit the most from an increased homegrown player quota, since being at the bottom of the 25 man squad list means that you probably won’t even make the bench in most games. Instead, it would be the guys immediately below the departing foreigners on the depth chart who would benefit the most. 13 non-homegrown players allowed still means that a team can field a starting lineup of all imported players, but the bench spots would go to the homegrown players who previously couldn’t even make the bench.

So what would this actually do for the English national team? English starters in the Premier League who already started on merit when the homegrown player quota was 8 would still start, guys who never made the bench would start getting spots on the bench. If a player couldn’t even make the bench under the current homegrown rules by the age of 21, he is very, very unlikely to become good enough to ever play for the English national team.

I believe that England’s problem is not that it doesn’t have enough opportunities for established players. After all, none of the English national team is struggling for playing time in the Premier League. Instead, its problem lies in talent. England simply doesn’t produce enough talent for the Premier League, or to be competitive on the global stage.

After all, the Bundesliga and Liga BBVA never needed a quota to ensure that teams have at least 13 homegrown players, and the German and Spanish national teams are doing fine. In fact, the Bundesliga has a significantly higher percentage of German players than the Premier League does English players, without needed regulatory measures guaranteeing employment to homegrown players.

In fact, looking at the numbers, I suspect the true problem with English football lies in their inability to produce enough players of high enough caliber. After all, English clubs employ foreign players not because they discriminate against English players, but simply because there isn’t enough English players good enough to play in the Premier League. The level of play in the Premier League is too high for England’s overall player development system. English clubs simply cannot produce enough players of a high enough caliber.

An affirmative action plan in the form of reducing the number of non-homegrown players allowed in the premier league is merely combatting the symptoms, not the source of the problem. Creating jobs for established players over 21 will water down the quality of the league, decreasing the quality of competition for the established English players to play against, while not really giving opportunities to young English players to prove themselves.

English youngsters lack opportunities to prove themselves. They have ample opportunities to play in the Championship (and lower), but they lack opportunities in the Premier League. Homegrown player quotas do nothing to help young players, since players under the age of 21 don’t need to be registered. Instead, the league should have incentives to encourage teams to play young players.

Another problem lies in the massive gap in quality between the Premier League and Championship. Young English players get loaned to the Championship, and prove to play well enough to succeed in the Championship, but since the gap between the Championship and the Premiership is so large, those youngsters still haven’t developed to a point where they can succeed and start in the Premier League. I believe it would be very beneficial if English youngsters were encouraged to go abroad for playing time and to prove themselves.

No matter where the true solution lies, I can tell you one thing, decreasing the number of non-homegrown players allowed in the Premier League will not help the Three Lions. Affirmative action will not save the Three Lions, but it has become almost a populist policy, designed to placate then fans. Real solutions backed up with data and research is needed, not a Band-Aid to mask the symptoms of systematic failures in the English player development process.