As Jürgen Klopp has asked, what really improves after Brexit? While several industries have been forced to come to terms with the new regulations introduced on 1 January, the debate over their lasting impact on British football continues to rage.
With all transfers from European Union nations set to be subject to work permits that will be allocated using a points-based system and every Premier League and EFL club now banned from signing foreign players until they are 18, the days of Arsenal recruiting a talented 16-year-old from Barcelona’s academy, as they did with Cesc Fàbregas in 2003, are over. Likewise, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham – both now full England internationals – would not have been able to complete their moves to Borussia Dortmund from Manchester City and Birmingham under the new rules.
Yet even if many have rushed to predict the demise of English clubs’ dominance in the post-Brexit era, some of those within the game are not so sure.
Alan Redmond, who is head of football for Roc Nation – an American agency that represents Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Chris Richards of Bayern Munich among others – sees one positive. “It’s possibly the only thing I’m grateful for from the whole Brexit process – that for a brief window young English players will be given more time to play and develop. But it’s still going to be an uphill battle and they will still be faced with the same competition when they get to 18.
“The European players will now have to qualify via the points system when they are 18 but the new rules also mean players from outside the EU can also enter the market. So they are open to competition from a greater number of countries.”
A youth coach from a top-six Premier League club who did not want to be named said: “It’s a good thing for English talent because paths are not blocked at a crucial age. It also makes the clubs in the country focus on the English players and that puts more value on the players at lower category clubs. If the big clubs then target those players then the money will flow more through the English system. If less well-resourced clubs like Birmingham, Charlton and Exeter are already producing world-class players imagine what they would do with more investment?”
To purchase someone under the age of 18, English clubs previously had to pay a small amount of compensation to their previous club and could also count them as a home-grown player. But while Klopp has argued the development of players in Liverpool’s academy will be adversely affected by the new restrictions, the coach disagrees. “We’ve proven that we can produce players that are better than anyone in the world – [Phil] Foden, Sancho, [Emile] Smith Rowe and all the players who have won the Under-17 World Cup,” he says.
“These players developed in schoolboy programmes around English players – I don’t think training with foreign players for one year made any difference to someone like Bukayo Saka or Mason Greenwood, who broke through as second-year scholars.
“Now our players are hungry and they are playing for the badge and not the money. They will be training with players from all over the world when they turn 18 anyway.”
The City team that won the FA Youth Cup for the first time since 2008 in November contained one foreign player – Senegal’s Alpha Diounkou – who was only playing because the regular left-back, Josh Wilson-Esbrand, was injured. As for the limitations on young English players following in the footsteps of Sancho and Bellingham, Redmond does not expect the new regulations to stop them eventually moving overseas.
“There haven’t been a huge number of players who have taken that route but because of the poverty of first-team opportunities in the UK, the players will just go at 18 instead,” he says.
“It’s a tricky one – you may have a lot of younger players examining which passports they are eligible for. If someone is eligible for an Irish passport or have a grandparent from an EU country then it opens them up for a move. That’s something players and agents will be looking into because a young player in that position has a wider net to cast than a standard UK player.”
Everton’s announcement of a new partnership with the Irish club Sligo Rovers – from whom they signed Séamus Coleman for £60,000 in 2009 – at the start of the month was another indication of the changing landscape.
Various other potential loopholes including loaning a player to a league where he is more likely to gain the necessary points to be granted a “governing body endorsement” as happened with Brighton’s South Africa international Percy Tau – who spent more than two years on loan in Belgium – or establishing a network of clubs around the world like City could become much more commonplace.
Redmond says: “Whether it’s developing their scouting network in a particular territory or buying a club that could serve players who are not ready for the first team, certain clubs will always try to be a step ahead. If they do it in a way that’s not stockpiling players and is offering them a pathway then I don’t object to it.
“Where clubs will hit a big wall is the expectation they can park players somewhere because they just want to play football. If you have a network of clubs then it will be to your advantage but you can’t expect to dominate because that’s not how it works. You can’t control the variable factors sufficiently – clubs have had feeder clubs for years and nobody has turned it into a goldmine yet.”