Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Premier League clubs united in belief post-Brexit signings system is bad for business

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Seldom do the Premier League’s 20 clubs get together and find common ground. Too much self-interest, a need to look after number one.

On the impact felt by Brexit, though, there is a rare united front.

Premier League clubs oppose the rules they have been asked to play by since the United Kingdom formally departed the European Union (EU) on December 31, 2020, and now seek change.

The common consensus among top-flight clubs is the current rules inhibit, restrict and drive up prices. They are, in short, bad news for business.

The Football Association has been told as much. As previously reported by The Athletic last month, chief executive Mark Bullingham attended a shareholders’ meeting of the Premier League in September and heard the concerns of clubs. The plea was for rules to be relaxed, allowing greater scope for the recruitment of foreign players in this post-Brexit age.

The FA has been willing to listen but still has its own interests to protect. Placing limits on the number of players signed from overseas will, in theory, benefit the development of English talent for the national team. Fewer foreign imports mean greater opportunities. Or so goes the plan.

The Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) system, initially agreed upon by the FA, Premier League and EFL two years ago, is the source of irritation. That points-based scheme was designed to suit all parties, allowing English clubs to keep on recruiting the best players from around the world.

“The system meets the joint objectives of the Premier League and The FA, allowing access to the best players and future talent for clubs, as well as safeguarding England teams, by ensuring opportunities for homegrown players,” a joint statement outlined at conception.

All declared they were happy with the arrangement back then but there was a telling comment added by Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive. “Following the January transfer window (in 2021), we look forward to reviewing the agreement with the FA,” he said.

And here we are. The Premier League’s 20 clubs are unanimous in their calls to see rules relaxed, lowering the entry requirements needed to sign players from overseas. That, they believe, would dilute disadvantages they find in the transfer market, with English clubs no longer forced to pay a premium for those that are eligible.

The GBE debate is not expected to be resolved before next summer but the thirst for change is growing.

Like so many arguments on British shores in recent years, this one all dates back to the referendum in which 51.9 per cent of the UK electorate voted to leave the EU in 2016. Freedom of movement ceased once the formal withdrawal followed in the final hours of 2020 and football could not avoid the ripples.

No longer could EU-qualified players move to British clubs without a second’s thought. A GBE would be required, much like the work permits that used to be needed for those signed from outside of Europe.

The details and demands of a GBE have been covered at length on these pages before but placed into practice the impact has been undeniable. Analytics FC, the football strategy and analytics specialists, worked with immigration law firm Fragomen to produce an independent study titled Brexitball, released this week, and among their findings was a 92 per cent reduction in the player market in pre and post-Brexit times.

It is estimated 60,000 professional footballers used to have the right to play football in the UK prior to Brexit but overnight that figure plummeted. Forecasts suggest fewer than 5,000 players would likely have automatically gained a GBE this summer had they been targeted by British clubs.

It is worth pointing out the vast majority of those players now ineligible would have been of no interest to English clubs, especially those in the Premier League. Yet the smaller the pool of players available, the higher the costs involved to recruit them.

That is at least the concern of the 20 Premier League clubs, who for now can only point to financial intangibles. The reality is that recruitment from overseas has seen little or no change in the four transfer windows across English football’s top flight.

The big deals, like Erling Haaland, Antony and Darwin Nunez, kept on happening this summer and will do so again in transfer windows to come. Premier League clubs have never known greater financial dominance over their European counterparts and it shows. Foreign spending comfortably outstripped domestic spending, continuing a long-held pattern.

Erling Haaland joined Manchester City in the summer for £51.25million ($60.6m) (Photo: Lynne Cameron – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

Where change has been seen, though, is among young foreign players. In the summer window of 2020, the last before Brexit, Analytics FC found English clubs had six of the top 10 transfers for players aged 18 or under. No longer able to sign 16 or 17-year-olds due to FIFA rules that prohibit such deals, that number fell to three in 2021.

It went up to four in the summer window just gone but three of those were domestic deals, involving Carney Chukwuemeka (Aston Villa to Chelsea), Romeo Lavia and Juan Larios (both Manchester City to Southampton).

The Premier League’s share of the under-21s market has instead gone up in the post-Brexit summers. Six of the top 10 deals were done by English clubs, as opposed to only two in 2019-20. Therein lies a long-term concern of Premier League clubs if they are made to wait until a player turns 18 before a transfer can be struck. Valuations by then have ballooned via progress with clubs on the continent, with fewer bargains to be found.

“If you look at the 18-year-old market, pre-Brexit the Premier League had seven out of the top eight fees paid for 18-year-olds,” explains Andy Watson, one of the co-authors of Brexitball.

“That’s no longer the case in terms of foreign youngsters coming to the country. There have been three domestic 18-year-old transfers this summer, which have been high profile, but there isn’t the same domination of that area.

“Premier League clubs do have an issue with being able to buy the younger players but that changes very quickly, where under-21 transfers are being dominated. Premier League clubs are still able to attract young players of a high quality.”

But at a cost.

The FA’s long-held aims of a GBE system was to ensure greater opportunities for English players but the last two years have so far brought mixed results on that front. Although 273 English players were playing in the Premier League in 2021-22, up on 206 in 2018-19, the minutes played by those players fell last season. According to Analytics FC, that went from 277,845 minutes in 2020-21 to 253,258 last season.

The corresponding figures for the Championship are at least more encouraging for the FA. Minutes played by English players last season stood at 604,854, as opposed to 554,329 in the last full season before Brexit.

“The amount of minutes played by English players in the Premier League has not gone up,” says Watson. “It has in the Championship. The interesting thing we discussed with this was quality versus quantity.

“You may well find over time that English players do get more minutes but it’s difficult to say yet if the higher quality of players coming in improves that group of English players. It’s a very small sample size so far so we can’t draw clear conclusions yet but the early indications are that there’s not been an increase in the minutes played by British players in the Premier League.”

In the Championship there has arguably been a bigger impact than in the Premier League. Although clubs like Burnley, Norwich City and Hull City ensured that nine of the biggest 10 deals of last summer went to overseas clubs, the number of Band One imports (Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1) has fallen significantly since 2019-20.

“The Premier League is still very dominant in bands one and two,” says Watson. “They’re always going to get the cream of the crop. That leaves the Championship with fewer players who qualify.”

If there is a winner in the post-Brexit years, it is perhaps the Scottish Premiership. The Scottish Football Association (SFA) has imposed slightly different rules to those south of the border, enabling a higher number of foreign players to qualify. Any player unable to get the necessary 15 points to qualify can go before an exceptions panel, where in England the player falling short must still get at least 10 points to have their case heard.

The research from Analytics FC says 16 per cent of all incoming transfers and loans completed by Scottish clubs in the summer of 2022 could not have been conducted in England. Among those were Antonio Colak (PAOK to Rangers), Bojan Miovski (MTK to Aberdeen) and Kye Rowles (Central Coast Mariners to Hearts). The percentage of incoming transfers in Scotland that fail to hit the 15-point GBE mark is growing, with recruitment departments now targeting signings from leagues such as Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Norway.

“If you think about the Championship and the SPL being relatively equal in terms of quality and the players they attract as clubs, having that different interpretation on the exceptions panel is making a big difference,” adds Watson. “I’m sure recruitment departments in the Championship, especially those not getting parachute payments, would like more scope.”

The GBE work-permit system has always been considered a work in progress, something to be fine-tuned and evolve. That has already included under-21 players sought by English clubs being permitted to go to an exceptions panel, even if that still brings no guarantees of a GBE.

The Premier League now wants further alterations it believes will indirectly help the EFL at a time when discussions are continuing over a new deal that will lead to a funding increase from the top flight down to the 72 clubs below. The argument has been made that the post-Brexit legislation has meant a greater amount of money has left the English game, never to be seen again. Record fees have instead been spent buying players from countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands.

Next month will mark the second anniversary of the GBE scheme being announced and its imperfections are now being highlighted by those feeling its impact most.

(Top image: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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