A few years ago, I remember seeing an English starting XI.
A national newspaper, possibly The Times, had drawn up a national squad that could be assembled using only Manchester-based players. Starting with City's Joe Hart in goal, United offered Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones and Chis Smalling to complement City's Joleon Lescott and Micah Richards in defence. In midfield we had Ashley Young, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverly, Paul Scholes, James Milner, Gareth Barry, Scott Sinclair, Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell, supporting Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in attack.
It was hardly unimpressive. The selection featured most of the England regulars of the day, as well as young starlets like Johnson and Rodwell who had recently moved to City. It was encouraging to see our top footballers playing together, especially at the two best teams in the country at the time, because the partnerships and understandings they'd form at the highest level had to benefit England.
With Barcelona and Real Madrid sourcing almost all of the Spain team at the time, this seemed to be the way to go. Add that to big clubs investing in British youth, with United picking up Wilfried Zaha shortly afterwards, and there were a lot of reasons to feel optimistic about England's future.
Much has changed. Compare the 12/13 squads to the 14/15 ones, and almost all of those players have vanished. Hart still starts for City, but Milner has just 13 minutes in three games and the fit Richards and Sinclair haven't featured at all. Everyone else is gone. At United, Jones and Smalling were given a chance to lead the defence after the departures of Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, but proved incapable, whilst the attack-minded Young is being used to patch a hole at wing-back. They may all soon be replaced under new management, and Cleverly and Welbeck have already been shown the door.
Why the U-turn? Managers at both teams have changed, but I also think that the league has become a lot more competitive. Gone are the days when United and City could comfortably lead the pack, as Barcelona and Madrid do. Liverpool are resurgent, Chelsea have Jose Mourinho back, and Arsenal are suddenly willing to buy as well as sell. The title has become a five-horse race, and teams can no longer afford to be so civic-minded. If English youth don't provide a short term solution, they'll be replaced with guaranteed quality imported from Spain.
However, at other clubs the reverse can be observed. I can still remember when Arsenal were the one team who had no English players, and yet now they are rolling in them. Calum Chambers (19) and Kieran Gibbs (24) both get chances in defence, whilst Jack Wilshire (22), Theo Walcott (25), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (21) and new signing Welbeck (23) are the basis of their attack. At Liverpool, too, there has been a revival. The Anfield club were part of the initial trend, snapping up Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll and then ditching them the moment they flopped, but under Brendan Rodgers there seems to be a genuine desire to grow.
We therefore have Jon Flanagan (21), Jordan Henderson (24), Adam Lallana (26), Raheem Sterling (19) and Daniel Sturridge (25) dominating the first team, especially in attack. This development hasn't escaped the owl-eyes of England manager Roy Hodgson, who is building a young England attack on an Arsenal and Liverpool base. With Aaron Ramsey (23) and Joe Allen (24), these two Champions League teams feature ten English and Welsh midfielders and strikers in their regular squads with an average age of 23. These players are seen as major club assets, not just back-ups like Sinclair and Rodwell were always doomed to be.
To be fair to United, Jones (22) and Smalling (24) may well mature, and the addition of Luke Shaw (19) suggests that a top English defence could be forged at some point in the next few years. It is desperately needed, as the current partnership of Chelsea's Gary Cahill (28) and Everton's Phil Jagielka (32) will be ageing and vulnerable at Russia 2018. In attack, though, we may have two starting combinations pre-made.