Potential foreign player restrictions in England could impact Irish game

PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness says it could be a positive for domestic game

Representatives of the Irish players' union, the PFAI, will meet their English counterparts in a couple of weeks to discuss the implications of a proposal by the English FA for a post-Brexit reduction in the number of "foreign" players allowed in each Premier League squad.

The association is widely reported to be on the verge of seeking an agreement to cut the maximum number of overseas players from 17 to 12 as well as curtailing the recruitment of foreign players under-18 by academies, moves that could have profound implications for the development of young Irish players and the opportunities open to established professionals.

PFAI general secretary Stephen McGuinness met with PFA deputy chief executive Bobby Barnes this week in Belfast and it was agreed that the proposed changes would be discussed at greater length in at the annual congress of the unions’ international umbrella body, FifPro in Rome.

The changes could further limit the already declining opportunities for the most talented teenagers from this country to go into the academies of the big English clubs and potentially squeeze a small number of senior professionals out of top flight clubs. However, McGuinness believes they could be good for the longer term development of the game here if they force the government and other stakeholders into making the required investment in youth development within Ireland.

“A lot depends on how this all actually works out in the end but it in the short term it could certainly have a negative impact,” he said. “In the longer term it could actually be a good thing, though. We have been talking about the need to take control of the development of players for a long time but this could mean we really have to do it if we are really serious about having a competitive international team.”

In total there are believed to be around 250 Irish players in England at different levels of professional clubs. Under the current regulations many of these qualify as being “home-grown” because they either came through academies run by English clubs or spent three continuous seasons at clubs there before their 21st birthday.

So, at Burnley for instance, Robbie Brady, Kevin Long and Jeff Hendrick are all considered "home grown" while Stephen Ward is not.

The move is intended to provide greater opportunities to young English players to get game time at Premier League sides. The average percentage of players in its starting line-ups eligible to play for England has dropped below 30 per cent this year and the current requirement of a limit of 17 “foreign” players has allowed a number of clubs to meet its quota requirements by listing a handful of English players in their squads of 25 who simply never play.

The move would make the best English players more marketable which would, in turn, likely increase the pressure on young players with dual eligibility, like Declan Rice, to declare for England in the future.

There have been suggestions that Ireland would be treated as a special case because of the Common Travel Area but its legal foundations have been called into question in recent days and a new agreement may have to be negotiated once a Brexit deal is finalised. “We simply don’t know how the situation would affect us but it could represent a huge change to what we have been used to,” says McGuinness.