There has been recent commentary around the realisation that just one Australian will compete in the English Premier League in season 2020-21.
Since the inaugural edition of the competition in 1992-93, a grand total of 51 Aussies have played in the top tier of football in the ‘old dart’. Yet Mathew Ryan will be the only one doing so in the new season that kicked off last weekend.
Ryan’s solo presence appears to bring sadness to many who witnessed some of Australia’s best on English soil. Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill and Stan Lazaridis to name a few and when that commentary turns to criticism of the modern Australian player in general, the misguided nature of it never fails to annoy me.
Michael Lynch wrote a sensible piece for the Sydney Morning Herald last Friday, where he identified the lessening opportunities available to Australians in the EPL.
However former Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Heart manager John Aloisi took the stone cold facts and parlayed them into his opinion that the drop off in Australians succeeding in England was reflective of a “lost generation” of top players.
Aloisi’s argument appears to be that there has been, in his view, a drop in the intensity in the development of players; citing the lack of an effective academy structure to do so around the time of the birth of the A-League.
The former Coventry City player also cited the Institute of Sport which played a key role in his development in Canberra and the pre-A-League structures that saw “the best 16-year-olds in the country……..training with each other, playing against 19-year-olds in the youth league.”
Such a view is one I regularly hear. People claiming that the lack of Australian players offered contracts in England is representative of the lesser footballers we are currently producing; all measured contextually inaccurately against the exceptionally high standards of the oft mentioned ‘golden generation’.
Aloisi’s sentiment is somewhat wide of the accuracy mark considering contemporary context and when compared to the world that was English football nearly 30 years ago.
It is easy to quote numbers such as the nine men who were EPL players in Australia’s squad when the team travelled to Germany for the 2006 World Cup and compare that to Ryan being the solo EPL representative in the current squad.
However doing so misses a simple reality and the actual reasons behind less frequent Australian involvement in the EPL.
Even on an English front that diversity is obvious. In 2017, Dave Fraser’s piece for The Sun cited a doubling in the number of English Players of black, asian and ethnic minority backgrounds in the EPL between 1992/93 and 2016-17.
Near 33 per cent of English players had such backgrounds, compared to just 16.5 per cent when the Premier League first kicked off in the early nineties.
That diversity in local talent has morphed the league from a predominately white English competition into one which reflects the English community far more accurately and appropriately.
Domestically, that has broadened the talent pool and increased opportunity for talented local boys; perhaps lessening the need for clubs to look abroad for youth as frequently.
In saying that, EPL clubs certainly do not think twice about casting their recruitment net far and wide when it comes to acquiring proven stars from around the globe. This is another factor that has eroded Australian involvement in the most lucrative and arguably talented competition of all.
In 2018-19, 565 players were listed on Premier League squads, just 33 per cent were English and those numbers were considerably lower at the powerful top-end of the league.
But for Cardiff City at 52 per cent, Southampton at 55 per cent and Bournemouth with a whopping 64 per cent of their roster eligible for the England squad, the real figure for those clubs competing for the title was somewhere near the mid 20s.
The number of international players has escalated consistently over the last 25 years, as the financial clout of the league has continued to grow. The growth of African football lies at the forefront of this and it is not only Australians struggling to find a pathway to EPL play.
Many young English boys have been forced to ply their trade in the lower leagues or venture abroad in the search for opportunity. We have even seen a handful of them in Australia on loan, a concept that would once have been deemed madness, yet one that is now becoming more realistic with the fewer opportunities available to young English players at the top level.
Thus is the plight of promising Australian talent and talent from right across the globe; all lusting after the financial rewards of EPL play.
In reality, around 220 players take to the pitch to start EPL matches each weekend and to suggest that there are many more Australians capable of earning a spot among them alongside Mathew Ryan is highly questionable.
However, the reasons behind that fact have little to do with the quality of Australian players and a whole lot more to do with the evolution of the Premier League.