ASIDE from England, which national squad has the most English Premier League players in it for the current batch of qualifiers? No, it’s not Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Holland, France, Croatia or even Belgium
The answer is, surprisingly, Scotland, with 13 English top-flight players in Craig Levein’s current squad.
At first glance, this can surely only be seen as a positive statistic, particularly as, in the past, we have muddled through with a squad top-heavy with players from the SPL and the English Championship.
However, those who use the increased number of English Premier League players as a reason to expect better from Scotland may be barking up the wrong tree.
Aside from Belgium (with ten), the only other squads particularly well populated with Premier League players are Wales and Republic of Ireland. In this regard, we are hardly in stellar company. A scour of all the top national squads reveals a healthy contingent from leagues such as Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, Dutch Eredivisie or the Russian league. Most have one or two English-based players, but there is certainly not a worldwide – or even continent-wide – reliance on EPL players. Indeed Germany, widely considered the second-best team in Europe, have two, while Euro 2012 finalists Italy only have one. A heavy reliance on EPL players has done little good for England, and they have generally been able to pick predominantly from the top clubs, such as Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton.
Of course, we can’t compare Scotland to the elite nations. But even those mid-rank countries, such as Czech Republic and Serbia, against whom many expect us to be faring better, have a good contingent of players playing for the top clubs in a variety of Europe’s top leagues, while little Macedonia, who outplayed Scotland at Hampden last month, can call on players from Serie A and the Bundesliga.
Scotland, by contrast, are picking almost exclusively from British teams, and, Darren Fletcher apart, none play for a big club. It is all well and good that we have half a squad of players playing in one of the world’s strongest leagues, but too few are proving good enough to play for the big sides. Charlie Adam, right, tried it at Liverpool and was out of his depth. So was Alan Hutton at Tottenham. There’s a strong argument that we probably only have such a decent representation down south because, like Wales, Scotland is geographically attached to England. If England was attached to Macedonia, for instance, there is a fair chance that there would be just as many Macedonians in the EPL as there are Scots or Welshmen.
A quick scour of the squad lists at Norwich, Wigan, West Brom, Stoke, Aston Villa and Southampton will show that you don’t have to be a top-quality player to get a regular game for these sides. Of course, it bodes well that our best players are getting the chance to test themselves in a strong league, but why are none of them being picked by the big clubs? Why are Shaun Maloney, Adam, Gary Caldwell, James Morrison and Hutton not deemed attractive to Serie A or Bundesliga or La Liga clubs? Basically because, in the grand scheme, they are not that great.
Yet too many Scots have been suckered into believing that playing in England’s top flight automatically makes them “top players”. It doesn’t. And neither does making a one-off splash in the Champions League group stage. There are plenty of ordinary teams who have made it into Europe’s elite club competition and done what Celtic have done so far this season. Cluj, BATE Borisov and Unirea Urziceni have had their moments in Europe’s premier club competition with relatively modest groups of players, yet when Celtic get one eye-catching win, we rush to talk up the likes of James Forrest, Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew and Scott Brown as if they have suddenly become the saviours of our bang-average national team.
Europe is a big continent with lots of strong leagues and lots of decent teams. Until our players prove good enough to migrate beyond the boundaries of the British Isles, or at least make it to the elite clubs in England in decent numbers, we won’t get anywhere near another major tournament, regardless of who the manager is.