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Where Have All The Foreigners Gone?

Wanderers used to be known as the United Nations of Bolton, now they are known as a hotbed of mediocre English players. What happened?

Michael Regan - Getty Images

Football has changed quite a bit in the past few decades. The back pass rule came into affect. The amount of substitutes available and allowed to enter the match have increased. The amount of international matches, for clubs as well as countries, has increased. The international support, and reach of clubs in general, has greatly increased. The money has increased exponentially, and perhaps this is most closely related to all of the changes.

Michael Lewis wrote a book in the early 2000's called Moneyball. To many, this was a book about baseball, but it truly wasn't. It was a book about economics, specifically the concept of undervalued assets, viewed through the prism of a baseball team with a much smaller player budget than its competitors. At this time, Big Sam Allardyce was using the same concepts to build his squad at Bolton Wanderers. He saw three specific market inequalities which he felt could be exploited, although Big Sam probably wouldn't have phrased it that way.

The first was foreign players, specifically players from nations that were not traditional European powers. As everyone knows, English players are extremely overpriced. Bolton managed to develop some players under Allardyce (Kevin Nolan, Nicky Hunt, Michael Ricketts), but didn't really buy English players. Instead, he brought in players from Senegal, Tunisia, Iran, Japan, Israel, Nigeria, Mexico, Iceland, etc.

The second was older players. General training methods had improved over the years, allowing aging players to be better for longer. Big Sam took this a step further. Bolton were really on the cutting edge of medical advances in sport, and employed a massive training staff during this era that included massage therapists, yoga instructors, nutritionists, ice chambers, acupuncturists, and anyone else that he felt could get the best out of his players physically. So a lot of players that came to the Reebok were considered past it, too old to make a difference. This list includes Youri Djorkaeff, Fernando Hierro, Gary Speed, Bruno N'Gotty, and a few others.

The third was free transfers. At this time the Bosman rule had only been in effect for a few years, and was used sparingly by clubs and players. If a player tried to run out his contract, the club called him disloyal, the fans booed him, and many other teams in the market considered him damaged goods, having some sort of problem. This was all, of course, rubbish. Players such as Ivan Campo and Jay-Jay Okocha, who were still in their primes but considered bad characters for one reason or another came to Bolton in this way.

Our last season under Big Sam, when we finished seventh, of 33 players assigned squad numbers, 12 were from outside Europe, and a further eleven were from outside the UK. There was a backlash to this. Bolton became the first club ever to start eleven players from eleven different countries. Arsenal became the first club to have an entire eighteen man squad with no English players in the English league. Maybe this is part of the reason for the change at the Reebok.

In the past few seasons Bolton have been far less likely to sign players from outside of Europe generally, and the UK specifically. That reduction has coincided with the rest of the league increasing their numbers of international players. I remember when the homegrown player rules first came in some felt they were specifically directed at The United Nations of Bolton. Now, of our 35 players assigned squad numbers, three are from outside Europe, and a further four from outside England.

Now, certain managers have certain biases, and that can affect who a club signs. They want their type of player, whatever that might mean. Sammy Lee wanted players who were really good at Keepy Uppy, no matter that they were useless on the pitch during an actual match. Gary Megson wanted players from European leagues that already spoke English (with one notable exception). And Owen Coyle wanted, well, it's a little hard to say. Perhaps that was a big part of the problem.

To me, it is fairly clear. Bolton need to take a hard look at what was done in the past to create all our early and mid-2000's success, figure out where we got away from, and plan a way to get back to it.

One thing is certain. No matter who the new manager is, our scouts need to log some frequent flyer miles.