If Gareth Bale turned 17 today, who would take a chance on him?
The Football Association has an understanding with Premier League clubs that any player on England duty on Monday who might be the subject of a deadline day transfer will be given leave to undergo the medical, contract, posing-with-a-newly-minted-shirt formalities.
The chauffeurs waiting in the driveway of St George’s Park for that eventuality this morning would be advised to take a newspaper and a packed lunch. Only Leighton Baines and Will Hughes from the seniors and Under-21s may potentially move before the deadline. As of Sunday morning, from the two squads, just Nathan Redmond and Jonjo Shelvey had made permanent moves this summer, with Wilfried Zaha’s agreed in January.
There is an argument for saying that this is simply the way it is this year, although curiously in the squad Roy Hodgson named on Tuesday only Daniel Sturridge has moved in the last 18 months (unless you include Fraser Forster’s permanent transfer to Celtic last summer after two seasons on loan). Before Sturridge, you have to go back to Gary Cahill’s transfer from Bolton to Chelsea in January last year for the last move.
Across the Premier League as a whole there is a very obvious trend. Wayne Rooney’s flirtation with Chelsea aside, the English footballer is just not in demand. As of yesterday morning, only 22 English players had been signed on permanent deals out of roughly 100 Premier League transfers. While Baines, Tom Ince and Gareth Barry could yet move, the £15.5m West Ham paid Liverpool for Andy Carroll could well be the most anyone paid for an Englishman in what is being billed as English football’s £500m summer of spending.
Those 22 English players who had moved by Sunday morning include the likes of Kevin Phillips, 40, who moved on a free from Blackpool to Palace; the perennial back-up goalkeeper Carlo Nash (Stoke to Norwich); Simon Moore (Brentford to Cardiff) and Duncan Watmore, son of former FA chief executive Ian, who went from Altrincham, in Conference North, to Sunderland.
The transfer of 19-year-old Watmore is, like the journey of Dwight Gayle, signed by Crystal Palace from Peterborough, one of the few that makes you hope that the occasional gem can be plucked from the lower leagues. Aside from Carroll, Gayle and Steven Caulker (sold by Spurs to Cardiff for £9m), no English player had moved for more than around £6m by yesterday.
In a week in which the new England Under-21s coach, Gareth Southgate, has named his first squad it is sobering to consider that among the players he has selected who are registered to Premier League clubs, only four – James Ward-Prowse, Redmond, Luke Shaw and Shelvey – could claim to be current regular starters for those clubs.
As for Hodgson, he faces that familiar bind as his England squad meet up for the first World Cup qualifying double-header of the autumn, against Moldova and Ukraine – where is the pressure from beneath for places? Meanwhile in Spain, Juan Mata and Fernando Torres are not even in the senior squad.
There are still clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Spurs who try to develop or sign English footballers. Are they good enough? It is a personal view that is an equally important question we should be asking.
At the end of a transfer window in which the Premier League has begun spending its £3bn broadcast deal, the fear is one voiced by Hodgson’s assistant Gary Neville; his belief that even those young English players capable of playing at the elite level are having their path blocked by foreign signings. “I always felt the cream rises to the top,” he said. “I’m not quite sure any more”.
Take the case of Tom Carroll, 21, a highly rated midfielder at Spurs who was arguably the standout performer in Spurs Under-21s’ recent 4-2 win over their Chelsea counterparts. An England Under-21, he is by no means a prodigy like Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard were at a similar age, but many believe he is deserving of a run in the first team. Carroll started the Europa League second leg against Dynamo Tibilisi on Thursday but, given the number of new signings at Spurs, it is likely this season he will go out for his third spell on loan.
Carroll has seven league appearances for Spurs. Compare that to Etienne Capoue, acquired by Spurs for £8.6m from Toulouse this summer. The season after Capoue turned 20, 2008-2009, he was a regular in the midfield of the Toulouse side that finished fourth in Ligue 1. Compare Carroll to Marco van Ginkel, six months younger than the Spurs man. He had played 93 league games for Vitesse Arnhem when he arrived at Chelsea this summer.
It may be that Capoue and Van Ginkel are simply better players than Carroll. What no one could argue with is that they have had greater opportunity to play top-flight first-team football from a young age in the countries in which they were born.
And it is telling that the biggest transfer of all time involves a player who came through the English academy system, benefiting from exactly that kind of persistence. Nurtured at Southampton and then patiently developed by Spurs, Gareth Bale is now the most expensive player in history.
Bale had one full season in the Championship at Southampton and then his career truly reignited in the second half of his third season at Spurs. He certainly required faith, and, yes, we all know the story of how he nearly ended up at Nottingham Forest.
But now, as he prepares for life at Real Madrid, you wonder, six years after he signed for Spurs, if he would enjoy the same faith that was once invested in him were he to be joining them now as a raw 17-year-old from the Championship. As the level of competition rises, the riches of the Premier League enable Bale’s once humble Southampton to buy a striker from Roma. Will any club be able to afford taking the kind of chance that was once taken on Bale?