Skip to main content

Overseas Footballers

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]

I asked for this debate not to demand that politicians and the Government get directly involved in running UK football, or any sport for that matter, but because, like many hon. Members, I take an interest in football. I care that the national games of England, Scotland and the other home countries are in good health, and when they are not, I want to ask key questions and initiate a debate.

Many hon. Members will remember that the English national side crashed out of the European championship rather ignominiously last year. At the time, under much criticism—not just from the media—the Football Association promised a root-and-branch review. It said that it would not be rushed into appointing a new manager and that it would do everything in good time, but within a few weeks, it had rushed to appoint a new manager and the root-and-branch review was apparently so deep that no one has heard of it since. The FA may be searching even now to find out what the roots are, but most of the spectators—the season ticket holders who turn out, day in, day out, year in, year out, and fork out lots of money—should have a part to play. I am concerned that their voice has not been heard. Many of them say that they do not know what is going on and that they are fed up with it. To allow this issue to disappear into quiet considerations among men whom no one really voted for and whom no one from the fan base seems to have any contact with would be wrong. Lord Triesman’s arrival presents an opportunity to initiate a debate, and I want to help. If nothing else, the House should at least ask questions and start a debate that reflects the interests of many people in the country.

I want to address two linked issues. The English premiership is peculiarly unique in many respects. I shall not focus on Scotland, because it has sorted out many of the issues that I want to discuss. The Scots’ team did incredibly well in the competition, and it was a tragedy that it did not qualify—not the other way around. Many relevant issues have been sorted out in Scotland, including its youth policy, and we may well have lessons to learn.

The English premiership is so dominant. The first issue that I want to address is the effect of training on the development of new, young English players coming through to the top sides. The balance of overseas players in the premiership seems to be out of kilter with almost everybody else. On training, the premiership declares:

“Young players must fight for first team places against some of the best players in the world. Those who succeed can be confident that they have been tested against the best, and deserve their places on merit”.

I worry about such statements, because they sometimes miss the point. Making youngsters from possibly every nation in the world compete at that age begins to limit the number of places available for young English national players.

The different attitudes on training are interesting. Alfie Apps, the European scout for West Ham has said that, in England, our clubs have put money into training and demanded that players develop quickly. Many clubs discard players at a very early age if they do not think they are up to the job—18 is normally the limit. Many overseas coaches are concerned that, on the continent for the most part, they persist with the development of young players until they are 22. Ironically, that is often the age at which English clubs pick up overseas players, having discarded their own at an earlier age.

Other interesting developments go hidden in the lack of debate. What is happening about the lack of premiership academies? It is staggering that more and more of them are taking overseas players at younger and younger ages, thus squeezing opportunities for young English players. Currently, 15 per cent. of youngsters attending academies are from overseas, and that number is increasing. Arsenal now has an academy in Africa, and Liverpool has forged links with MTK in Budapest. No less a person than Sir Trevor Brooking, for whom I have huge respect, has said that

“in five years’ time we are going to have a far more serious problem: can our English youngsters even get into the academies at Premiership clubs?”

I shall come to premiership numbers in a moment. If one watches carefully, one sees that the situation is beginning to mirror what has happened between the advent of the premiership and today—a slow squeezing out of English participation. If Trevor Brooking is worried about it, I think we all should be.

The current situation stems from a problem deep in the roots of youth training. When Juninho came here and saw our training, he said:

“This is a load of rubbish. It’s like learning to swim on dry land.”

He had a very poor opinion of the quality of training. Trevor Brooking made a telling point when he said:

“Only a small percentage of clubs—Manchester United is an obvious example

of an exception—

have full-time coaches working with the five to 11s.”

On the continent, people are really looking at football early on, trying to fish out players early and stay with them over a longer period; it seems that almost exactly the opposite happens here.

I am not a supporter of Manchester United—indeed, I gloried in Tottenham Hotspur’s great result last night, which will go down in the history books, I am sure—but one has to respect Alex Ferguson and Manchester United enormously, because the club’s player participation ratios are among the best in the premiership. Also, Alex Ferguson’s ability to bring on young players is worth considering. He criticised the rule that prevents English clubs from signing under-12s who do not live within an hour of the club’s academy and under-16s who live more than 90 minutes away, and he should have been listened to. Such matters could and should have been dealt with, but they have not been dealt with early enough.

On the pressure of training, Damian Comolli, the sporting director at Tottenham Hotspur, who knows something about this, said:

“Over four years between the ages of 12 and 16 a French boy would receive 2,304 hours of training”,

whereas in England, the amount would be 1,152 hours on average. The point that he is making is that the French seem to take training much more seriously, and theirs is much more skills-based. How much do we complain about watching a side that cannot keep the ball when it plays other international sides? That starts with training.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. We have four home nation teams, and not one of them will participate in the European championship this year. Does he agree that they had passion and commitment, but clearly lacked technique?

I am not setting myself up as an expert on technique; I am simply asking the questions that most fans are asking, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman asks. I think that Scotland has got to grips with some of the problems. If the English premiership were a bit more like the Scottish, I sense that there would not be the same kind of problems—he is right about that.

Let me come to the FA’s role. When I secured the debate, we asked the FA how much money is being invested and what it could tell us about the effectiveness of that investment. We hear an awful lot about football being a business. We constantly hear that it is a global business, that we are in competition and that it is all about business. I shall come back to that point in a moment. The FA gave us a global figure that £60 million a year is invested; £38 million into the grass roots, including £15 million to the Football Foundation charity. My point is that we cannot get any deeper than that.

If I were running a business and was training people, I would constantly assess the effectiveness of the training. I would measure it against the outputs and outcomes, not just the inputs. That is what I am worried about. It should be more public, and we should be talking about it. Clearly, something fundamentally wrong is going on, and it is only fair that every fan can get to the roots of that.

I return to the point that I began with: why do we have so many overseas players? What is the problem? I have to tackle head on the whole issue about the premiership being a business. I do not doubt that business is involved in it. Clearly, money is necessary to make these things run, and clubs must be as profitable as possible and run as businesses for that reason. But is football just a business?

Let me quote something from a press release that was included in the premier league’s documents that came over to me when I started talking about this debate. Page 1, which is normally where one places some of the most important, key, salient facts, states:

“Premier League has become much more than just the United Kingdom’s most popular regular sporting important economic agent, with a significant impact on employment, GDP and local economies...generates significant taxation revenues for national and local Government, giving the Government and local authorities a direct interest in the continued economic health of our competition.”

I could pick that up from pretty well any annual report published in the City. Where is the passion? Where is the idea that the premier league is about teams playing all the way up to international level? I have never been to a football ground where the chant has been, “Our price to earnings ratio is better than yours,” or “Your profit and loss is rubbish.” It does not make any sense to me. Imagine fans debating and chanting across at each other about financial figures. What a smart day that would be. They do not do that. Everyone screams about what is happening on the pitch, and it would seem that that should be the No. 1 point.

Football is not just a business, but, even if it were, we should examine the idea that it is a competitive, global business. Who is the premier league competing with, and on what is it competing? First, we are told that the number of overseas players involved in the league is all about competition—if we do not do it, the others will, and we have to compete. Let us look at first-team squads. The FA wants us to look at contracted players, but the truth is that many of them will never make it on to the pitch for the first team at all—they will not be seen on Saturdays or in cup games.

The proper comparison is with first-team squads around Europe. Only 37 per cent. of first-team squad players in the premier league hail from England. We are told that this is a competition, so what is the percentage in the other leagues? In La Liga, 61 per cent. of players are Spanish; in Serie A, 63 per cent. are Italian; in the Bundesliga, more than 50 per cent. are German; and in the French league, 62 per cent. are French. Those leagues seem to be competing on a different set of criteria. They seem to think that it is possible to have a successful league and national involvement.

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons why there are so many foreign players in Britain is that most foreign players want to play in the premiership, because it is considered the best competition and it is where they get the highest wages?

I shall come to the highest wages point in a second, but let us consider whether the premiership is the best competition. I looked at some of the overseas involvement—I know that this question has been around for a long time. Who actually plays from those countries? One would think that they would be the very best—in other words, that our teams would be packed with people who play for their national teams. Should we think that? Of the 15 Spanish players in the premiership, five play for their national side; of the three Italians, none play for their national side; of the 34 French in the league, only 12 play for their national side; and of the German eight, three play for their national side. My point is that if the situation were exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we would have nothing but top-flight internationals, but some of the top players who play for countries such as Brazil do not choose to come to the premier league.

I am not damning the premier league, but I am saying that we allow that statement to go out as if it were set in stone and biblical—it is not. I do not believe that our league is considered by players as technically any better than the others. Let us dismiss the idea that, somehow, this is a fantastic league with which none of the others can compete. In spectacle, it may be—perhaps the television side is—but in technique and for the internationals, it is not.

If the premier league is doing so well, it must therefore be exporting talent to every country. Is not one of the things about businesses that they want a fantastic export record? We could not find any English players playing in any of the European top leagues at present, but I found that 12 Italians are playing in Spain, three are playing in France and three are playing in Germany, and that off a high base of those who are playing in their own home league.

The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point when he mentions salaries. I looked at the salaries and was quite shaken. When the premier league came into being, the salary base was £54 million. By 2006, it had risen to £605 million a year, which was a compound increase of more than 1,000 per cent. In comparison, the increase in the national economy was 67 per cent. So there has been a huge increase in salaries.

Okay, let us say that, as it is a competition, we have to compete; the others are paying massive salaries, too. So I looked at that, because businesses must compete—and, of course, keep their cost base down. However, I found that the others are not paying massive salaries. In fact, if salary bills are converted into euros, in 2005-06, the premier league paid €1,235 million in salaries. In Italy, the figure was €806 million; in Spain, it was €739 million; in France, it was €541 million; and in Germany, it was €578 million. Do they know something that we do not? Do they know something that means they can get away with paying much less for their football players yet still retain some of the great players in their leagues? I do not know what other hon. Members think, but I am not aware that anyone would accuse Serie A of being a substandard league. I remind Members that it produced the World cup winner, and it produced the champions league winner last year. I do not think that one can safely say that that league is worse than the premier league.

Too much nonsense has been chucked around about the premier league and about why we must not touch it, why we must not have this debate and why fans must accept the fact that we need such high participation by overseas players because it is good for the game. My concern is that we do not examine the situation properly or ask questions. The fact is that no one else seems to be competing in the marketplace in which we seem to have set ourselves.

The big questions are for those charged with running the game. Why have we not done an in-depth analysis of what is going peculiarly wrong with the game in England and even in some of the home countries, although, as I said earlier, some of that is being put right? Why is it that we simply do not study the facts and ask questions about training? Why have we not asked about the quality of training in England? Why have we allowed ourselves just to bumble along like Mr. Micawber, believing that something will turn up? That seems to be peculiarly English, and it is time that it stopped. That must happen for the sake of all those who pay huge amounts for season tickets and who want their clubs to do well but who—like me and, I believe, all hon. Members in this Chamber—also share a passion for the game and for their national side and a belief that football is not just about profit and loss.

Football is not just about our clubs doing well. It is also about wanting one of the home countries to go on and, even if not to win the World cup or the European cup, at least to get within striking distance regularly, as other countries so often seem to do. There is that terrible, constant shrugging of the shoulders every time that international competitions come around. We talk about our wonderful players only to find that they simply do not succeed. Yes, football is a business, but it is not just a business—there is much more to it than that.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. He is a football friend of mine, and it is worth noting that there are at least five Members waiting to take part in the debate who play football regularly, as he does.

In his summing up, the right hon. Gentleman asked who is running the game. That is one of the keys to this debate. About half the premiership is in foreign ownership, and those people certainly do not care too much about how the England side is affected by the decisions that they make when running their clubs. When I decided to participate in this debate, I did not want to talk just about the England side, because I did not want to repeat the clever words used by the right hon. Gentleman. Instead, I wanted to talk about the growing inequalities in the game, which stem from the decisions that have been made by those who run the premier league. We all admire football; we watch it every week. However, the people who take ownership of clubs, and therefore make the decisions that affect our national side, come into football for financial reasons. We should not be surprised that they make short-term decisions, which are not directed at the aims of those who care about football.

We have to do something about the problem. Whenever we have these debates, the media say, “What do Members of Parliament have to do with football?” The right hon. Gentleman said straight away that it is not MPs’ job to run football. However, it is our job to look after our constituents. It is our constituents who, on a weekly basis, pay money for subscriptions to Sky, and now Setanta, who go through the turnstiles and purchase merchandise such as shirts and everything else that young people enjoy so much. It is our constituents who pay those massive sums, which eventually go back into football. Obviously, it is a wonderful if young players come here from Africa and go back—of course, they do not always do so—as multi-millionaires 15 years later and can help others. That is excellent, and we all praise such work.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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 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.

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 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.

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?

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

“Bring sport into relevant EU policies in order to improve its use as a tool for EU policy. Most of these actions address the societal role of sport and the economic dimension of sport.”

The second is to

“Increase legal certainty regarding the application of the acquis to sport, as a contribution to improved governance in European sport.”

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:

“An analysis will be made of home-grown players rules to assess whether they do not conform with EU law.”

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, 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.

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.

We heard, too, from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), chairman of the all-party group on football, and probably the wisest and most experienced voice of football in the House. I thank him for his contribution. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), spoke about his own team, Manchester City, and we would all endorse his remarks about the Munich air disaster. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who made some sensible comments about over-hyped expectations, which are a key problem affecting English football, and about the success of the premier league. We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—another keen footballer and cufflink-wearer—who made some wise remarks about youth development, and he was absolutely right. Finally, we heard from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), who laid out his party’s approach to these issues.

Hon. Members want to hear from the Minister, so I shall keep my remarks relatively brief. I do, however, want to lay out the Conservative party’s initial thoughts on the two key issues that have been raised—the premier league, and the dearth of English qualified players who are of sufficient quality to represent this country successfully. Before I do so, however, I want to make two preliminary points. First, during the two years in which I have served as my party’s sports spokesman, I have become ever more convinced of the need to empower national sporting governing bodies to get on and run their own sports without constant interference from the Government or anybody else. I am not naive enough to believe that that is always an easy course for Governments to follow, but I genuinely believe that it is the right way to proceed.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one problem in football is that we have two conflicting authorities—the FA, which should have the power, and the premier league, which does have the power?

No, I am not sure that I agree. The FA is clearly the sport’s national governing body, and it has responsibility for the English team. If issues need to be addressed, it is up to the FA to identify them and recommend the necessary action.

Incidentally, it is worth saying that there have been quite a few critical remarks about the FA this morning, and we should balance those by paying tribute to what it has achieved. Over the past 12 months, it has done three significant things: it has got Wembley open, and up and running successfully; it has implemented the Burns review, which was by no means easy and which quite a lot of people in football thought might be beyond the FA a year ago; and it has just signed a new television deal. It is therefore important to balance our remarks.

I am delighted—that is four reasons to celebrate the FA’s success on that side of the fence.

My second preliminary remark—and this point has been made by one or two Members—is that we should keep the issue in proportion. As I said at the outset, there are several reasons why we failed to qualify for Euro 2008, but chief among them is the fact that we failed to beat a sufficient number of teams during the qualifying rounds. We have discussed several other reasons—the number of foreign players, academies, structural issues and so on—but it is worth remembering that it is the basic failure to beat a sufficient number of teams on the pitch that caused the problems that we face today. I have every confidence that the appointment of Fabio Capello, who seems to be bringing a more professional approach to the top end of the national game, will have a considerable effect on football.

I want to move on to the two issues that underpin everything that we heard this morning: the premier league and the development of young players. We have, of course, been debating football, but the club-versus-country issue is not confined to football, and has recently been addressed in rugby and cricket. It is easy to be critical of the premier league, but, again, we should balance that criticism by recognising, as hon. Members have, that it is the wealthiest league in the world and is watched on television and listened to on the radio by more people across the world than any other league. It is a UK export with a truly global reach, as we have seen in India this week, to cite a recent example.

I am told, albeit by the premier league, that stadium attendances over the past 15 years have gone up by 60 per cent. and that the average occupancy rate now sits at a staggering 92 per cent.—figures that almost every other sport in this country would die for. I entirely accept what my right hon. Friend said in this regard, but the premier league is also a significant economic driver, with a considerable impact on local economies, and it generates huge revenue for the Treasury. Of course, all of that depends on what happens on the pitch, and much of the league’s success and, indeed, from my point of view, its fun comes down to the fact that it is such an uninhibited, unencumbered free market. My advice to anybody seeking to curtail that is that they tamper with it at their peril.

It is, however, perfectly reasonable to ask whether some form of restriction, whether voluntary or otherwise, would enable more English qualified players to gain the necessary benefits from playing top-level club football so that they stood a better chance of succeeding as internationals. I am not sure that intervening in that way would help, and there is the obvious problem of whether any quota system would be legally enforceable or practically workable. Furthermore, any possible restrictions might fall victim to the law of unintended consequences, and simply encourage big clubs to source their talent from Africa and south America even earlier. I am not sure that any of us would wish to encourage that.

Would there perhaps be an unintended consequence for the Scottish and Welsh teams? If players could play either for those teams or for England, they might opt for England because that would give them a greater income than playing for, say, Scotland, where they might be the first choice.

To be entirely honest, I not sure that anybody in the room or in the premier league knows what the unintended consequences of any intervention would be, which is precisely why that is such a dangerous track to take.

Any levelling-down, which is what the artificial selection of English qualified players would involve, would not be the correct response. The challenge for English football is to produce more young players of the calibre necessary to break into the top premiership clubs, so that they could hold their place there on merit and then get through to the national team. The key to unlocking this issue is therefore improving the supply line of young English football talent.

Time does not allow me to examine the various strengths and weaknesses of the supply line from schools, through clubs, academies and centres of excellence and on to the proposed new national football centre, although I am sure that we all welcome the news that that centre is going ahead. However, the 2007 Lewis review on youth development in football makes excellent sense, and if its conclusions had been implemented five years ago, I suspect that we would not be in the position in which we find ourselves today.

Incidentally, I suspect that all right hon. and hon. Members would join me in paying tribute to Richard Lewis. Not only has he been an excellent executive chairman of the Rugby Football League, which promotes truly community-based sport, but he has given up a tremendous amount of time—he is a wise and influential figure in the wider world of sport—to help with the FA review and the Sport England review, which the Minister will no doubt mention. We should all put on record our thanks to him for all that he has done. The Lewis review has identified a sensible way forward, and I strongly urge the FA, the premier league and the Football League to work together—that is crucial—to implement the review’s recommendations and see what difference they make, before turning to any other possible interventions, which may produce considerably less certain outcomes.

In conclusion, I again congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. There has been a wide measure of agreement about the problems and possible solutions. The Conservative party’s position is threefold. First, we strongly believe that the issue before us is one for the FA, not the Government or anybody else. As part of the FA’s root-and-branch review, I urge it to look at the issues raised this morning, to work with the premier league and the Football League and to produce a genuine plan of action as soon as possible. If that requires legislative action—I am not sure that there is any reason why it should—I am happy to put on record that we would, of course, offer our full support.

Secondly, I strongly support the recommendations in the 2007 Lewis review of academies and centres of excellence, as well as the FA’s decision to press ahead with a new national football centre. No one should ever pretend that it is easy to get young players to make the jump from club to international level, but the review’s recommendations are a sensible way forward.

Thirdly, unless there is a voluntary quota, which is unlikely, I would not support any artificial barriers to the selection of players in the premier league. The premier league is a fantastic national asset, and we should enjoy and cherish it, warts and all. The answer to this question lies in getting more youngsters into the top flight of the game. As so often in sport, it is a question of getting the structures right to service the national team—the academies, centres of excellence and the national football centre—then breeding a culture of success within the team, as the Australians have done so brilliantly in cricket, and as I believe the French did in football in the late ’90s. If that is done, I have no doubt that we shall qualify for the next World cup.

Welcome to the Chair, this morning, Mr. Caton. I congratulate my right hon. football friend—the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—on securing this important debate. Indeed, I congratulate all the hon. Members who have contributed; I consider them all parliamentary football friends. I am quite happy as Sports Minister, because in the past week about eight hours have been dedicated to sport in the House; that is unusual. We are often criticised for not being topical and not having our fingers on the pulse. The debate shows that we are indeed passionate about our football, on behalf of our football constituents.

I agree with the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) that we are not attacking the Football Association, the premier league or the Football League; we are making a genuine effort to get debate going about what should happen. I sometimes think, particularly in my present role, that the football authorities are a little bit sensitive when people start to raise issues about the game; we do so for its benefit.

I was interested in the speeches that right hon. and hon. Members made, and not least by the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) raised ownership and governance issues, and I agree with him about putting a supporter on every board, with the right support. That is the ambition of Supporters Direct—a movement that we are happy to support.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) for his response on the Munich air disaster. I understand what he said about the minute’s applause. However, the issue is bigger than the two clubs involved and bigger than English football. If we cannot get across what the aftermath of the Munich air disaster meant to everyone, we shall sink low in the estimation of football supporters around the world.

The hon. Gentleman was right to talk about the positive impact of foreign players, particularly at Manchester City. I was interested in his suggestions about the transfer window not working as well as it might and particularly in what he said about the academies quota.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) talked about the new rules on European Union players and freedom of movement and about the Government’s proposals in connection with the points system for immigration. He will be pleased to know that the new system simplifies more than 60 current routes to enter the country into five tiers. Tier 2, for skilled workers with a job offer, covers footballers playing for UK clubs.

We have developed a special tier 2 sporting category for elite sportspersons and coaches, for those internationally established at the highest level, whose employment will make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level in the UK. Other tiers relate to sporting competition. I hope that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman that we are taking the right approach. He made great play of the impact of television money on football and its presence in the game at all levels. He makes a fair point about saturation and what will happen in the future. The football authorities need to take those points on board.

The Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is another of my footballing friends; we have shared many games together. In fact, I should congratulate the parliamentary football team, which I understand won 6-2 yesterday against the Showmen’s Guild. I think that the parliamentary team has had a long successful streak.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of coaching and the debt that we owe to volunteer coaches throughout the country for their commitment to football. I want coaching to grow, and I want coaches to be held in the same esteem in the UK as they are in the United States, where a high-school coach is not only a high earner but a well respected member of the community. We need to apply the same principles to volunteers and to professionalise coaching in any way we can. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on doing the level 1 coaching course.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on going to Rwanda to show the power of sport and of football in particular to the wider world. This week I went to Nottingham to visit an organisation called Balls to Poverty, which is involved in taking footballs to South Africa. It has been very successful in the past three years and is now paying attention to the UK—including areas such as Nottingham, where there are difficulties with youth crime and gun and knife crime—using the same principles. That is the power of football working. The hon. Gentleman also talked about great teams and football’s aspirations and about the Celtic 1967 team of home-grown players.

My intervention on the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was about residence rights and being able to play for national teams. He made some points about cricket and rugby union. My parents were from Yorkshire and Scotland, but I was born in Salford at the time when people could not play cricket for Yorkshire unless they had been born there. I always remember the great pleasure that other people took in telling me when I was a child that I could never play cricket for Yorkshire because I was not born there. The fact that I could not play cricket, and had no intention of doing so, did not come into it. They made the point that I would not be able to do so.

I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong). She is a keen Sunderland supporter and keeps us abreast of all the things that happen to Sunderland, and the battle against relegation. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for his comments about EU restrictions and about the opposition and problems that we may encounter in Europe.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent really summed things up with respect to our unity of purpose and aims. We must ensure that we reach grass-roots level and support young players, and the Government have a role to play: by investing in school sport and providing coaches at clubs, we can help the premier league, the Football League and the Football Association.

I am particularly pleased about the appointment of Lord Triesman as the independent chairman of the Football Association. The Burns review has been implemented by the FA, and the future is still being considered. A continual review is taking place in the FA, and I congratulate all those who are involved. It has been a difficult period, with the move from the old FA council set-up to an independent chairman. I know that Lord Triesman will be a tremendous asset to the FA.

The defeat against Croatia upset us all. I was there on that eventful night, when we all had expectations that the team would do really well. Israel had done what it did on the Saturday against Russia, and we all expected a walk-over against Croatia. However, those of us at the game saw Croatian players who could hold the ball and hold the game up, and who showed tremendous skill, whereas, unfortunately, the England players looked as if the ball was a hot potato.

The tragedy was that not only England but the rest of the home nations failed to qualify. I said that night that there should be a root-and-branch examination of what is happening in football. It was a disaster in footballing terms, but also in economic terms. The failure of any home nation to qualify could cost the economy billions of pounds. That evening the causes were considered. The following day the FA announced a root-and-branch investigation of what was happening.

Yes, Mr. Capello is now here, and I am pleased about that. He is a world-class coach and we look forward to success for the England team, but things must go much deeper into what is happening at grass-roots and school level. I watch my grandchildren playing football. There is too much pressure and competition for results. There are too many parents who are pushy for their youngsters, not focusing on skill levels and people enjoying being on the ball and enjoying the game.

The impact of foreign players is important. The premier league is world class, for the reasons that hon. Members have set out. I understand the arguments that have been given. Quotas would be difficult because of European legislation, so I want the FA to lead a review and put together a board of people who will study football at grass-roots level and consider whether we get to players early enough. I hope that the Government will be involved in that through UK sports coaches and Sport England, to help the FA and the football authorities come to terms with the fact that we need to ensure that young players get support at the highest levels. Trevor Brooking said to me on several occasions that he thought that some of the TV money could be diverted into support for skills development and training, and I agree.

It is no coincidence that the Man United coach Carlos Queiroz said at a conference in Portugal recently that he was concerned and appalled about what he saw of the coaching of young players in England. We need to learn the lessons. I think that we have a glowing view of the past, and we all say that the ’70s were a great era for professional football—