Fergie - Is that foreign wine you're drinking?

Last updated : 11 November 2007 By Kevin Archer

After obscene ticket prices, biased refereeing and inadequate security, comes the renewed suggestion that Fifa president Sepp Blatter is right to call for a limit of just five overseas players in any Premiership starting eleven. Putting down his glass for a moment, Ferguson said of Blatter's proposals: "I totally agree with that. But it would be a problem for a club like Arsenal. That's why they'll protest the loudest […] but for the good of the game in England it would be good to see more home-based players at top clubs."

Ferguson wasn't quite so vocal in support of Blatter's call for 'smaller shorts, tighter costumes' in the women's game, but he clearly thinks the Fifa man is on the ball when it comes to player quotas. He even argues that most clubs are in favour of the idea.

But let's take a closer look at some recent Premiership starting elevens. Do they support Ferguson's veiled assertion that his club is safeguarding English football, while Arsenal and others are hastening its decline?

This very lovely graph is compiled from data on the cost and country of origin of players representing Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, Man U and Chelsea, at first blow of the whistle in last weekend's Premiership games. It should be noted that a degree of educated guesswork was necessary in preparing these figures, as clubs are particularly reluctant to tell you how much money they are spending on their 'star' performers.

Before we return to the question of foreign players, it's worth noting the astounding amounts of money that Man U and Chelsea have spent on building teams that currently trail Arsenal in the title race. Ferguson has shelled out £110.8m, almost four times as much as Arsenal's meagre £29m, while Mourinho and Co. are way in front at more than five times Arsenal's total. And that's excluding £30m Shevchenko, who was left out of the starting line-up against Wigan.

It's a surprise that Liverpool's starting eleven was so competitively priced, at £47.2m, but you do have to remember that Torres (£26.5m) was out injured. The presence of two highly successful youth team graduates - Gerrard and Carragher - also helps to keep the total low (and explains the zero average cost for Liverpool's English players!).

So what about all those foreigners, ruining our game… well, out of his £110.8m budget, Ferguson has managed to spend more than £44m on seven non-English players. And that isn't even a true reflection on his commitment to overseas talent, given that Tevez is considered to be 'on loan' at the present time.

Compare this with Arsenal's total expenditure of £29m on eleven non-English players. It's already becoming clear that Ferguson's rant is less about Wenger's readiness to bring foreign players into the country, and more about the Frenchman's ability to do so for a small fraction of the price paid by Premiership rivals.

So could Ferguson have fielded six English players last Saturday? Err… no. Ferdinand, Brown, Hargreaves and Rooney started, but on the bench his options were limited to O'Shea, Carrick, Saha, Kuszczak and Nani. Which makes five Englishmen, if I'm not mistaken. And, if you want to get picky, one of those is actually a Canadian-German-Englishman.

How much has Ferguson paid for this small English contingent? Something in the region of £66m. That's more than twice the cost of the entire Arsenal team.

Ah, Man U supporters cry, but we could field an entirely home-grown team, if it was drawn from our squad as whole. Well, you could, assuming you don't ever want to score. When you look at Ferguson's attacking options, they aren't terribly, well, English: Giggs, Ronaldo, Nani Anderson, Fangzhuo, Tevez, Saha… and yes, there's one! ... Rooney. But isn't he injured? Hmm…

When his new rule comes in, which of these chaps will Ferguson be driving to the airport? Personally, I think the Welshman and the Chinese bloke are on the next flight. Nani, Anderson and Saha did, after all, cost £49m.

Perhaps the point is already made. If anyone's cash is propping up the continuing importation of foreign talent, it isn't Arsenal's. But let's take a look at the other end of the table. Here we find the team that is actually doing most to support the English cause - good old Spurs. Although, hang on just a moment… aren't they doing appallingly badly this season?

Yes, having spent £50.5m on English players, Spurs find themselves in seventeenth position. Do you think Spurs supporters are happy to sacrifice club success, in exchange for the privilege of knowing that they are building for the future of the national team? Of course they aren't. They would spend £100m on foreign players tomorrow, if it meant they finished above Arsenal. Instead, the club has paid way over the odds to attract second string English players, all thanks to the massive over-inflation in the price of English players generated by Chelsea… and Manchester United.

And what about Chelsea themselves? Did you hear too many of their supporters bemoaning the fact that league success came on the back of an entirely re-built, foreign powered team? Err, no. Are Manchester City fans desperately unhappy with an influx of foreign players that has taken them to third in the table? Err, no.

So is it likely that the proposal would receive the widespread agreement Ferguson assumes? Err, no.

If you still think Blatter and Ferguson have a point, think about the implications of carrying this proposal through. Surely clubs cannot retain the services of so many overseas players if only five can feature in any starting line-up. What happens to those who are surplus to requirements? Assuming they either go back to their home countries or to lesser clubs in other leagues, most will be facing a substantial pay cut, loss of first class football and forced relocation of their families.

And here's the bottom line. Pound for pound, foreign players have proven themselves to be more talented, committed and professional than English players. Why should clubs with limited budgets focus on the domestic market when this pool of overseas talent exists? They are, at the end of the day, running businesses, not charities. Ferguson, one of the few who can afford to splash the cash on real English talent, knows this better than anyone. Indeed, Manchester United pride themselves on being the biggest and best-run football business in England, if not the world. Or at least they did, until Arsenal overtook them earlier this year. Any sour grapes there, do you think?

Wenger, of course, gets to the nub of things extremely quickly. Responding to Ferguson he simply says, "People demand to see the best in the world and you cannot get them to watch a level down anymore." Correct.

We all want to see a stronger England team, including Wenger. But the English game was in decline long before the trickle of foreign players became a flood. Reversing the flow is unlikely to make any real difference.

Now, if you want to talk about stopping the sale of school playing fields, reintroducing competitive sport for young children and opening professional, well-funded academies for promising players… There, my friend, you may have a point.

So, Mr Ferguson, next time you reach for a bottle of Vosne Romanee 1957 Domaine Henry Lamarche (£250 from all leading wine merchants), perhaps you should pause for a moment to reflect not on the plight of English football, but on the state of the English wine industry. This is one area in which your support would undoubtedly make a substantial difference.