Rarely do the 20 Premier League clubs come together and find common ground. Too much self-interest, a need to take care of number one.
When it comes to the impact Brexit is feeling, however, there is a rare united front.
Premier League clubs are opposing the rules they have been asked to follow since the UK officially left the European Union (EU) on December 31, 2020 and are now demanding a change.
The common consensus among top-flight clubs is that the current rules inhibit, restrict and drive up prize money. This is, in short, bad news for business.
The Football Association has been informed. As previously reported by Athleticism last month, chief executive Mark Bullingham attended a Premier League shareholders’ meeting in September and heard clubs’ concerns. The plea was for the rules to be relaxed, allowing more leeway for the recruitment of foreign players in this post-Brexit era.
The FA have been willing to listen but still have their own interests to protect. Limiting the number of players recruited from abroad will, in theory, benefit the development of English talent for the national team. Fewer foreign imports means more opportunities. Or so goes the plan.
The source of irritation is the Board of Trustees (GBE) approval system, originally agreed by the FA, Premier League and EFL two years ago. This points-based system has been designed to suit all parties, allowing English clubs to continue to recruit the best players from around the world.
“The system meets the common goals of the Premier League and the FA, allowing access to the best players and future talents of the clubs, as well as the protection of English teams, by guaranteeing opportunities for local players,” said one. common statement during design.
All said they were happy with the arrangement at the time, but there was a telling comment added by Premier League chief executive Richard Masters. “After the January transfer window (in 2021), we look forward to reviewing the deal with the FA,” he said.
And here we are. The 20 Premier League clubs are unanimous in their calls for a relaxation of the rules, lowering the entry requirements needed to sign foreign players. This, they say, would dilute the disadvantages they find in the transfer market, with English clubs no longer forced to pay a premium for those who are eligible.
The GBE debate is not expected to be resolved until 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% of the British electorate voted to leave the EU in 2016. Freedom of movement ceased once the official withdrawal followed in the final hours of 2020 and football could not avoid the ripples.
Players who qualified for the EU could no longer join British clubs without thinking. A GBE would be required, much like work permits which were required for those signed from outside of Europe.
The details and requirements of a GBE have been covered at length on these pages before, but put into practice the impact has been undeniable. Analytics FC, the football strategy and analysis specialists, worked with immigration law firm Fragomen to produce an independent study called Brexitball, published this week, and among their findings was a reduction 92% of the player market before and after Brexit.
It is estimated that 60,000 professional footballers were eligible to play football in the UK before Brexit, but overnight that figure dropped. Predictions suggest fewer than 5,000 players would likely have automatically won a GBE this summer had they been targeted by UK clubs.
It’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of these now ineligible players would have been of no interest to English clubs, especially those in the Premier League. Yet, the smaller the pool of available players, the higher the costs involved in recruiting them.
This is at least the concern of the 20 Premier League clubs, which can only point to financial intangibles for the moment. The reality is that overseas recruitment has seen little to no change in the four transfer windows in English football’s top flight.
Big deals, like Erling Haaland, Antony and Darwin Nunez, have continued this summer and will do so again in upcoming transfer windows. Premier League clubs have never enjoyed greater financial dominance over their European counterparts and it shows. Foreign spending significantly outpaced domestic spending, continuing a long-standing trend.
Where the change has been seen, however, is among young foreign players. In the 2020 summer window, the last before Brexit, Analytics FC found that 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 grew to four in the summer window that just ended, but three of them were domestic deals, involving Carney Chukwuemeka (Aston Villa to Chelsea), Romeo Lavia and Juan Larios (both from Manchester City to Southampton) .
The Premier League’s share of the Under-21 market has instead increased in the post-Brexit summers. Six of the top 10 deals were made by English clubs, up from just two in 2019-20. Therein lies a long-term concern for Premier League clubs if they have to wait until a player turns 18 before a transfer can be completed. Valuations then exploded thanks to progress with clubs on the continent, with fewer bargains to be found.
“If you look at the 18-year-old market, before Brexit the Premier League had seven of the top eight fees paid for 18-year-olds,” says Andy Watson, one of Brexitball’s co-authors.
“This is no longer the case for young foreigners who come to the country. There have been three highly publicized 18-year-old domestic transfers this summer, but there isn’t the same dominance in this area.
“Premier League clubs are struggling to be able to buy young players, but that is changing very quickly, where Under-21 transfers are dominated. Premier League clubs are always able to attract high quality young players.
But at a cost.
The FA’s long-standing aims of a GBE system were to secure greater opportunities for England players, but the past two years have so far brought mixed results on this front. Although 273 English players played in the Premier League in 2021-22, compared to 206 in 2018-19, the minutes played by these 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 England players last season stood at 604,854, down from 554,329 in the last full season before Brexit.
“The number of minutes played by English players in the Premier League has not increased,” says Watson. “He has in the Championship. The interesting thing we discussed with this was quality versus quantity.
“You may find over time that English players get more minutes, but it’s still hard to say whether the higher quality of players coming in improves this group of English players. It’s a very small sample so far. present, so we can’t draw any clear conclusions yet, but early indications are that there hasn’t been an increase in minutes played by British players in the Premier League.
In the championship, there has undoubtedly been a greater impact than in the Premier League. Although clubs like Burnley, Norwich City and Hull City ensured that nine of last summer’s 10 biggest deals went to overseas clubs, the number of Band One imports (Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1) has decreased significantly since 2019-20.
“The Premier League are still very dominant in groups one and two,” Watson said. “They’re always going to get the crème de la crème. This leaves the Championship with fewer players qualifying.
If there is a winner in the post-Brexit years, it may be the Scottish Premiership. The Scottish Football Association (SFA) imposed slightly different rules to those south of the border, allowing more overseas players to qualify. Any player unable to obtain the 15 points needed to qualify can go before an Exceptions Panel, where in England the defaulting player must always obtain at least 10 points for their case to be heard.
Analytics FC research indicates that 16% of all incoming transfers and loans made by Scottish clubs in the summer of 2022 could not have been made in England. These included Antonio Colak (PAOK to Rangers), Bojan Miovski (MTK to Aberdeen) and Kye Rowles (Central Coast Mariners to Hearts). The percentage of inbound transfers to Scotland that do not reach the 15 GBE point mark is rising, with recruitment services now targeting signings from leagues such as Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Norway.
“If you think the Championship and the SPL are relatively equal in terms of quality and the players they attract as clubs, having that different interpretation on the exceptions panel makes a big difference,” adds Watson. “I’m sure Championship recruiting departments, especially those who don’t receive parachute payments, would love to have more reach.”
The GBE work permit system has always been seen as a work in progress, something to be refined and evolved. This has already included players under the age of 21 wanted by English clubs allowed to stand on a panel of exceptions, although this still does not provide any guarantee of a GBE.
The Premier League now want further changes which they say will indirectly help the EFL at a time when talks continue over a new deal which will lead to increased funding for the top flight to the 72 clubs below. The argument has been made that post-Brexit legislation has meant more money has left the English game, never to be seen again. Record fees have instead been spent buying players from countries like Portugal and the Netherlands.
Next month will mark the second anniversary of the announcement of the GBE program and its imperfections are now being pointed out by those who feel its impact the most.
(Top image: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)