Brexit is coming – and English football had better be ready

The Premier League is an international success story that could be changing

Cardiff manager Neil Warnock has criticised the UK Government’s handling of Brexit negotiations and admits he cannot wait to get out of Europe. Video: Sky Sports News

 

Suddenly it feels like an accelerator has been pushed and Brexit is surging towards us, its only certainty uncertainty, its impact a matter of guesswork. How will a Euro-centric global brand such as the Premier League cope as Britain withdraws from Europe?

Some would say the impact is already felt. Last August Mauricio Pochettino brought up Brexit when discussing Tottenham’s failure to sign Jack Grealish from Aston Villa.

It meant Spurs began the Premier League season without a single new signing and Pochettino noted the rising price of the new White Hart Lane stadium and 77-acre training ground.

Pochettino said the actual cost of the new ground is “nearly £1bn – that’s is the truth, don’t believe when they say £400 million. Then, with Brexit, it’s worse, because the cost is 30 per cent more.”

The negotiations between the Premier League, English FA and the British government should see the expansion of “home-grown” players from seven in a 25-man squad to 10 or 12

It sounds like an extrapolation too far, but six months on and with Spurs suffering injuries, if a 30 per cent hike in stadium costs due to Brexit’s affect on currency valuations ate Pochettino’s summer budget, then Brexit might be said to have shaped the 2018-19 title race.

It is speculation. What can be said, speaking to some inside the game, is that the negotiations between the Premier League, English FA and the British government should see the expansion of “home-grown” players from seven in a 25-man squad to 10 or 12.

The aim will be to increase opportunities for English boys and to help the England team. Tottenham, with a proven record of bringing through English talent, should not find that disrupting.

But Chelsea, for one, may think differently. Chelsea have 40-odd young players on loan at any given time. They have a business model which sees them recruit a 16-year-old such as Nathan Ake from Feyenoord, send him loan to Reading and Watford and then sell him for £20m to Bournemouth.

How will that process be affected by the return of borders, new work permit regulations? Will Chelsea and others find it so easy to recruit the likes of Ake from an EU/EEA (European Economic Area) country? Fifa allow the transfer of 16-18 year-olds if both clubs are based in the EU. But not cross-territory. Is the Chelsea model at an end?

The Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish believes that Brexit will ultimately see a change in the composition of English club squads. Not only will there be more local boys, there will be a spreading of the net globally – less French flags beside names, maybe, for instance, more Mexican ones.

“The bar is set very high for work permits outside the EU,” Parish said recently.

English clubs signing established internationals from top football countries should remain straightforward, although post-Brexit there would presumably be additional visa issues.

It’s those players deemed beneath that level who may be affected and, depending on where you are in the world, that affect could be positive or negative.

Parish thinks the current points-based system for non-EU recruitment is forbidding. It means clubs look to familiar markets in Europe.

To bring in a player from Central America today is difficult because he may not come from a top-75 Fifa-rated country and might not have played the necessary amount of minutes.

In the Premier League the average salary is around £36,000 per week 

Plus he is likely to be on small wages, which for the Exceptions Panel who assess these transfers, is a problem. The UK government will have to be shown that the player is a high-value migrant. Proof of that will come from a transfer fee or his future wages – which by definition need to be above average.

This is known as the “minimum salary criteria”. In the Netherlands the salary is around €680,000 per annum. In Belgium the minimum salary figure is less - approximately €140,000 per annum. It is not such a financial risk therefore for a Belgian club to sign a 20-year-old from Ghana and any transfer fee will reflect that.

In the Premier League, however, the average salary is around £36,000 per week. The same signing would not be made.

But if the UK salary criteria is lowered to, say £10,000 per week as one recruitment official said, then the range of countries from which players could go to the Premier League would rise and change. It would possibly also have an impact on Irish players.

English football is in a strong position with the UK government. The Premier League is aware a Neil Warnock Little Englander image can be damaging, that this can appear anti-internationalist, and the league is an international success story.

But politicians take the “soft power” of such brands seriously. They will meddle at their peril.

Football, moreover, contributes hugely to the Exchequer. On Thursday Ernst & Young revealed that in 2016-17 Premier League clubs paid £3.3 billion in tax and contributed £7.6 billion to the economy.

One thing to be said with certainty is no government wants to lose that.

Larne’s Martin Donnelly: The club are currently 15 points clear at the top of the Championship, the Irish League’s second tier. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton/Inpho
Larne’s Martin Donnelly: The club are currently 15 points clear at the top of the Championship, the Irish League’s second tier. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton/Inpho

Larne’s great leap towards Europe

The great contradiction for UK football and Brexit is that every season contains a race to get into Europe. And from an unexpected corner of Antrim there is a new contender: Larne FC.

Larne’s results and Larne’s name may not feature prominently in reports but they soon will. Larne are currently 15 points clear at the top of the Championship, the Irish League’s second tier.

They are cruising to promotion and next season will be challenging Linfield and Crusaders at the top of the Irish League. After that, it’s Europe and, unlikely as it may seem, the planning has already begun.

If this sounds like a pipe-dream, it isn’t. Around 18 months ago Larne were taken over by Kenny Bruce, a businessman born in the town who, among other things, set up the Purplebricks online estate agency.

The club was on the verge of collapse and its ground, Inver Park, was dilapidated. Larne were knocking on doors for sponsorship.

When Bruce’s door was knocked his response was to fly Larne manager Tiernan Lynch and the directors to New York for a meeting. There Bruce said he would invest long-term. He bought the club and bought Inver Park from the local council. Bruce then sold the ground to Larne FC charitable trust for £1 so that they own in perpetuity and nothing can ever be built on it bar a football team.

“Kenny wanted to invest in the club as a catalyst for investment in the town,” says Gavin Clements, the commercial director appointed by Bruce. “It’s long term – we have a five-, ten-, 15-year plan.”

A new pitch, meeting Fifa specifications, was laid costing £800,000. New LED floodlights are going in. New stands and dressing rooms – built to Uefa specification so that games in Europe can be played at home – are under way. And the team is full-time. Larne have 21 full-time professionals.

“The new third tier European competition comes in 2021,” Clements adds.

Feedback says Larne is beginning to feel some economic benefit. It is a town of 18,000 people and the club had a crowd of 1,700 at Christmas.

Larne is a key port, Sammy Wilson is the local MP, so Brexit is around. But at Inver Park, Larne are making a downpayment on the future regardless of what happens on March 29th.

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