University of strife

It's so hard for Brits to make it in the Prem, only the hard-up try

There was an interesting headline the other week in the Evening Standard, "London's quality newspaper", so it boasts, and it's true, though the competition is rubbish. It referred to David Villa of Valencia, who were about to play Chelsea: "The softly spoken Valencia striker comes from a humble background."

Surely, I thought, the Standard subs can't possibly believe those two bits of non-information about a well-known footballer were worthy of shoving in a headline?

In my long-legged life, I haven't met a footballer who didn't speak softly - off the pitch anyway. And every clever commentator will tell you why. "They let their boots do the talking." As for background, I've gone through all the Prem players trying to think of any whose educational, economic or social upbringing was not humble.

I can't, for example, think of any graduates, which is unusual. Back in the 1970s, Liverpool had two in the first team, Steve Heighway and Brian Hall. Then there was Steve Coppell at Man United and Gordon Taylor of Birmingham City. That was four graduates in the top division at the same time. Where have they all gone?

Economically and socially, we do have the odd player born in a middle-class home, as opposed to a run-down terrace or a council estate, but they tend to be second-generation, such as Frank Lampard or Jamie Redknapp, whose dads earned enough money from football to afford a lovely house and pay for private education. Though you can hardly tell. Knowing they were going into football from the age of nine, they acquired the culture of football - the funny grammar, silly haircuts, daft clichés - so they didn't stand out in the dressing room.

There used to be the odd first-generation professional who had gone to a public school, such as Stewart Robson, who played for Arsenal in the 1980s. Can't think of any today. Why have they, and the graduates, disappeared?

Their parents and teachers are being awfully short-sighted. The average, established Premiership player makes a million a year and can retire at 30 without having to work again. Not even barristers can do that. Or doctors. Teachers, no chance. Dentists, perhaps.

It's true that only top-league players make the big money, but that applies equally to barristers. I used to say to my son, who is in fact a barrister - Look, lad, if you really want to get on in life, make sure you can kick with both feet and get a good agent. But did he listen? Did he heckers.

I honestly can't understand why there aren't more players coming through from the middle classes when football as a profession has never been more attractive. The stars have high social status, live in the best areas, have all the girls they can eat, hardly have to pay for anything and get treated with utter reverence. Upmarket papers fall on their pearls and respected publishers compete for their life stories.

I'm talking about British players, and that is perhaps a clue to one explanation. British players, whatever their background, have less chance of making it with a top Premiership team than they have ever had since professional football began. Foreigners have flooded in, taken the best jobs and girls.

Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are virtually foreign teams, with foreign managers. So any British middle-class kid who can kick straight thinks, why should I bother, the odds are too great. Let those with a humble background, and no other options, inherit the earth, sorry, the football pitch.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran