England's Football Team Should Just Start Signing More Players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales
Declan Rice is set to make his international debut for England, ten days after being named Ireland's Young Player of the Year. Who's to say Southgate can't pinch more players from other nations?
Illustration: Dan Evans
The arrival of any international break always stirs up complex emotions, punching a vacuum of spare time in your life that can addle the brain, throwing your daily routine dangerously out of kilter. 'It's cold outside but there’s no football worth watching,' your mind might say to itself. 'Who is punishing me like this and for what reason?' People tend to respond to the absence of their beloved Premier League and its absorbing narrative web by trying to endlessly link the international game back to it, blaming England and indeed Europe's elite division for somehow "ruining" international football, or at least the England side's ability to dominate international football – a domination that is, of course, any England side's god-given birthright.
But perhaps we've been getting this equation wrong all along. Perhaps the suits from St George's Park should not have spent years cowering in fear of the Premier League, bemoaning its gruelling scheduling for knackering the national team's lynchpins, lamenting its foreign-import culture and instinctive neoliberal largesse for denying the country's most promising prospects a route to regular club football. Perhaps, rather than whinging away about Christmas breaks and homegrown quotas, the FA should have been learning from the Premier League, tearing a few leaves out of its book.
When you have the most powerful, cash-rich and transfer-obsessed division on the planet in your back garden, maybe it makes sense to mimic it a bit, cop on to some of that acquisitive, petrodollar-monolith zeal, to start behaving like one of the Premier League’s big shots, and just go about wantonly hoovering up all the stand-out, shopped-in talent you can find, no matter where you find it or whose feelings get hurt along the way.
You can't "buy" players for an international side, of course. But you can steal them, as seen recently in the case of Declan Rice, set to make his international bow this weekend for England ten days after being named Ireland's Young Player of the Year, an impressive piece of business that was in fairness handled in a diplomatic and sensitive way by everyone involved. But what if diplomatic and sensitive isn't the way to go? At the moment, these dual nationality situations tend to look – from the outside, anyway – like a bit of a faff. They’re still treated as dilemmas that occur without warning and by accident, awkward and unfortunate affairs that provoke a lot of pussy-footing and hand-wringing. This, frankly, is not the way that winners conduct themselves. History shows us as much, especially in football, which is a game usually won these days via the obnoxious deployment of whispering intermediaries and vast sums of money.
Sure – it might be "against the rules" to scour the globe armed with wads of cash and a DIY heritage kit, sweet-talking qualifiable schoolchildren and their parents into declaring for England, but Manchester City and all the big fossil fuel clubs find a way to circumnavigate the rules, so I'm sure England could too. It might feel a little strange at first, but once it started bringing in results on the pitch, people would get used to it fairly quickly, just as they have been able to cope with the idea of the clubs they support being used to whitewash despots in the Gulf, prop up American sports franchises or safe house stressed-out looking oligarchs.
It's the Rice situation that has really brought the matter of dual nationality to the boil, but England have tons of players who could now be turning out for other countries if they so wished. Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica and so was Kyle Walker's dad. Callum Hudson-Odoi's parents are Ghanaian. James Tarkowksi has a Polish granddad and Adam Lallana a Spanish one. Dele Alli's father is from Nigeria and Trent Alexander-Arnold is probably called "Trent" because his Glaswegian grandma broke Sir Alex Ferguson's sorry teenage heart before running away to New York.
Beyond the seniors, half of the current Under-16 squad are eligible to play for multiple nations, as are 55 of the 75 schoolboys who are currently "on the FA's radar” at Under-15 level. It feels as though football’s guiding global bodies are still figuring out how to solve this happy legislative problem. Until they do, one man’s problem is another man’s opportunity, and perhaps England ought to be proactive about this. I propose that they steal a march on the competition by aggressively plundering other national youth set-ups for any prodigious talent they can find.
There are obvious practical hurdles to overcome here. First and foremost among them is the annoying issue of whether or not the law will actually allow a player to pull on an England shirt. But if a genetically helpful mother, father or grandparent can’t be located, there’s always the option to move the player and their friends, pets and entire immediate family over to England on their 18th birthday, at which point they'd only need to live in the country for five years before they were eligible to represent the famous Three Lions. There are mutual upsides to this. They'd have plenty of time to focus on establishing themselves properly at club level, and what's more, they’d be able to arrive into the England setup feeling unusually peppy and fresh, spared the physical grind of slogging their way through the international age groups and blessed with a few more years to prepare for the taxing tabloid onslaught that greets any young player honoured with an England call-up.
To increase the chances of getting a DNA match, they could focus their initial efforts on Ireland and the home nations, dispatching a cheerful army of scouts to sweep up all their best talent. Looking a bit short in the goalkeeping position? It’s cool, maybe the Welsh have got one. Worried about the lack of striking talent coming through in the Under-16 age range? Just go and steal a Scottish kid. England's options in defensive midfield weren’t too great, but look, now they have Declan Rice: problem solved. It’s really just about being assertive and plugging the gaps.
We live in changing times. The old ways are dying and everything’s up for grabs. Rather than waiting for the future to arrive, now's England's chance to really get out there and seize it. It is, after all, a strategy that isn’t without its own inherent altruism – what could be better for Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish football fans than to be able to enjoy a World Cup sat on a sofa or in a pub alongside their English cousins, all cheering on the same side as they watch boys from Inverness, Irvinestown or Llandudno lead England’s charge to glory? In divided times, it’s something that could really bring us all together. The Ghost of '66 isn’t going to exorcise itself.