Has Fabian Delph reversed the trend after Man City snub
The Aston Villa captain may have a new trend that will see young English talent reject the overtures for the 'big four'
Until he performed an unexpected U-turn on Saturday, it seemed inevitable that Fabian Delph would continue a modern trend.
Gone are the days when quality English footballers could resist the temptation of a ‘bigger’ club knocking on their door – or so we thought.
Not all of our game’s star performers have caved into the lure of a glamour move, of course. But Matthew Le Tissier devoting his entire career to Southampton, Stuart Pearce continuing to turn out for Nottingham Forest for the bulk of his lengthy stint as England’s left-back, and even Steven Gerrard sticking with Liverpool, while his club continually fell short of competing at the top end of the Premier League, are examples of loyalty rarely seen today.
Could Delph’s last minute decision to stay with Aston Villa change all that? The former Leeds United player had appeared all set for a transfer to Manchester City, the club that has proven something of a Bermuda Triangle for players from this country, of late.
With the dwindling of their minutes on the pitch following moves to City, Adam Johnson, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair all saw their wider international ambitions hit the buffers. Micah Richards, meanwhile, was eventually forced to seek pastures new after being muscled out of the first-team frame at The Etihad by high-priced recruits. Even James Milner, a regular in England squads throughout his five years with the Citizens, opted to pursue a more reliable route to regular action by moving to Liverpool this summer.
The experiences of those players weren’t expected to deter Delph from having his own crack at making it with one of the Premier League’s aristocrats. In this instance, however, an oft-cited ill of the English game has indirectly come to Villa’s aid. The fates of Rodwell and Sinclair et al at City, and those of plenty of other home-grown players at high-end top-flight outfits, all squeezed into the role of bit-part performers by expensive acquisitions from abroad, has led to the England manager being forced to cast his selection net wider to cover a broad range of clubs.
This phenomenon has reached a new zenith as Roy Hodgson’s reign as Three Lions boss has evolved. Of the 20 outfield players taken by England’s then manager Fabio Capello to the 2010 World Cup in Germany, only Milner, Stephen Warnock and Emile Heskey, ironically all Villa players at that time, along with West Ham’s Matthew Upson, weren’t drawn from the exclusive cabal of City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
Fast forward four years and Hodgson was calling upon a combined total of six players from Everton and Southampton for his 23-man party for the Brazilian edition of the competition. England’s failure in South America, however, didn’t herald a return to the days of the national team cherry picking its members from an elite bracket of clubs: such a move would have been impossible due to the paucity of Englishmen now regularly lining up in their number.
Instead, men like West Brom’s Saido Berahino, Charlie Austin of QPR and Newcastle’s former Sunderland midfielder Jack Colback have all been given a chance to join up with a full England squad. None of those players, along with Leicester City livewire Jamie Vardy, have yet had the chance to make a proper impact in their newly elevated surroundings. The same can’t be said for Delph, though, arguably the chief beneficiary of Hodgson’s need to think outside the box in order to construct a competitive England side.
From his debut, right back at the start of the post-Brazil healing process, a Wembley friendly last September against Norway, Delph has looked perfectly at home playing for his country; a rare beast, able to replicate his club form in an international jersey from the word go. Indeed, so striking was his display in a little over 20 minutes on the pitch against the Norwegians, that the Yorkshireman won a place in Hodgson’s starting XI five days later, when England embarked on their Euro’ 2016 qualifying campaign in Switzerland.
Now, 10 months after being considered something of a left-field selection for his country, Delph is an accepted component of Hodgson’s progressive midfield unit. By opting to trade his prominent status at Villa, where he is the captain and an essential part of the team, for a reduced standing at City, Delph would have been placing his international spot in some peril. Twelve months out from a major tournament, in which he can expect to play a huge part, it would have been a risk too far for an ambitious footballer.
The 25-year-old’s example provides tangible proof that playing for a top-six club is no longer a pre-requisite to be judged as worthy of playing for your country. However, unlike Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Rickie Lambert, the trio of Southampton players who travelled with England to Brazil, before they all promptly upped sticks for grander surrounds, Delph has decided that he doesn’t need a change of scenery to capitalise on his breakthrough.
None of those ex-Southampton men can be said to have furthered their careers, or improved as footballers, in the wake of their respective moves. Lambert has drifted out of the England reckoning altogether, while Shaw is going to face a battle for a left-back berth in Hodgson’s ranks with Kieran Gibbs and Ryan Bertrand, the Manchester United man’s replacement at St Mary’s.
Bertrand, in fact, by taking what would be perceived in most quarters as a step-back, when he left Chelsea for the Saints last year, has seen that decision pay off handsomely. By getting a full season of Premier League action under his belt for the first time, the 25-year-old has confirmed what could only be guessed at when he was on the periphery at Stamford Bridge: that he is a seriously good full-back, with genuine international credentials.
Southampton nevertheless seem unable to stop the bleeding. Nathaniel Clyne – another player to gain his first full international honours since the last World Cup – left the south coast for Liverpool at the start of this month, before Morgan Schneiderlin joined the St Mary’s exodus this week when he completed a move to Manchester United.
Elsewhere, though, things are changing, gradually. Everton appear to have emerged from a period during which they would lose a valuable player to a wealthier counterpart every year. The Merseysiders have clung on to Leighton Baines, Ross Barkley and Phil Jagielka, the triumvirate of Toffees that boarded the plane for Brazil with England in 2014. Another Goodison Park man, John Stones, has thrust himself firmly into Hodgson’s thoughts by virtue of his excellent form in the centre of Everton’s defence.
Still, even if we do see more Englishmen choose to stay where they know they will be valued and appreciated, as opposed to chancing their arm by going elsewhere to compete for playing time with a high-profile, cosmopolitan selection of team-mates, it is difficult to envisage any material change to the established order at the top of the Premier League.
United, Chelsea, Arsenal and City will continue to shop for the cream of continental talent. More pertinently, when an authentically top-notch English talent comes to light, there is no keeping them out of the clutches of this big-four. Witness Raheem Sterling’s protracted transfer from Liverpool to City and, in 2004, United effortlessly prising Wayne Rooney from Everton.
Yet, if players of Delph’s ilk, exceptionally good footballers, but just a fraction away from belonging to the group thought of as the very best, follow the Villa man’s lead, then that can only be a good thing for the health of the Premier League.
Supporters of the division’s ‘lesser lights’ will no longer have to watch on as their team’s young prospects, after displaying a glimmer of potential, are coaxed away by the vague promise of Champions League football. A forward who hits a prolific streak or a midfielder in a rich vein of form won’t be so vulnerable to the overtures of a moneyed rival, for whom a significant financial outlay represents only a minimal risk.
Additionally, England’s top-flight has become the extremely valuable commodity that it is today, due to its competitive, aggressive nature. Keeping Delph doesn’t mean that Aston Villa will have enough quality to consistently challenge Chelsea and United. By not losing their skipper, though, the Midlanders avoid becoming also-rans. They stand a greater chance of assembling a team that, on its day, can give anybody a game. The same applies to Everton, if they hold on to Stones and Barkley, and West Brom, if they can ward off Berahino’s suitors.
And the safeguarding of the Premier League’s week-to-week unpredictability won’t be the only welcome side effect if Delph’s immovability sets a precedent. The Bradford-born player galvanised Villa to their FA Cup quarter-final victory over West Brom last season, then went on to outstrip that showing with a scintillating semi-final display, as Tim Sherwood’s side overcame Liverpool to win a place in May’s FA Cup final.
Villa were ultimately, ruthlessly, seen off by Arsenal, on their big day. Their success-starved supporters, however, and others like them, might be able to look forward to more days in the spotlight. That is if budding England players like Fabian Delph have decided that their interests will be best served by staying at the clubs where they caught their national manager’s eye in the first place.