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Soccernomics: how good are Trap's Boys in Green compared to class of '88?

Had the likes of Given, Dunne, Doyle or Hunt played in the 1980s they they would be playing for the elite English clubs, write economists Robbie and David Butler.

The Irish team huddle up before the second leg of their Euro2012 playoff with Estonia last week.
The Irish team huddle up before the second leg of their Euro2012 playoff with Estonia last week.
Image: INPHO/James Crombie

THERE HAS BEEN much debate recently in the print media, on national TV and radio airwaves as to how the current Irish squad stands up next to our heroes of the past, particularly those of the Charlton era.

It is probably fair to say that the current Irish squad is weaker than the so-called class of 1988, further enhancing what Giovanni Trapattoni has achieved.

However a word of caution; comparing teams in a cross sectional manner is a dangerous game.

Nonetheless it is not surprising and one should have suspected it would arise following Irish qualification to Euro 2012. In reality, such comparisons fail to appreciate how football has evolved through time.

In fact, football has undergone more of a revolution than an evolution since the 1980s.

The power of economics will help to explain why, attempting to comparing the abilities and club status of Jack Charlton’s 1988 squad to Giovanni Trapattoni’s current recruits, is almost impossible and in some ways, utterly meaningless.

Arguably the most influential player in the history of football is not Pele nor Diego Maradona nor Lionel Messi but Jean Marc Bosman. Bosman, unlike the other three, influenced the game off the pitch rather than on it. The successful action Bosman took in the European Court of Justice in 1995 altered the landscape of football forever.

Sea-change

Labour mobility increased instantly and dramatically. The flexibility of this labour became apparent throughout football in the mid to late 1990s as players, from differing nationalities, began to move clubs and particularly across borders, more frequently. In 1995 (just before the Bosman Rule was introduced) Ajax of Amsterdam won the Champions League, beating AC Milan one-nil in the final.

Of the 32 players named on the team sheet that night, only five were from neither the Netherlands nor Italy (15.6%). By the year 2000, and the Champions League final contested by Real Madrid and Valencia, 16 of the 36 players named on the team sheet were not from Spain (44.4%). The Champions League Final of 2008, between Manchester United and Chelsea, had no less than 26  players from a total of 36 not from England (72.2%)! Labour mobility is allowing this to happen.

The massive mobility of labour, which has allowed the globalisation of football to occur, has been aided and abetted by the equally massive breakthroughs in information technology over the past decade.

Regular televised football matches, the internet and social networking (in recent years) have broken down barriers and reduced transaction costs associated with acquiring information on players. Traditionally, an excellent scouting network was required to source players from faraway places like South America or Australia. Information on players from most parts of Africa was almost unattainable, while acquiring talent from Eastern Europe during the latter part of the Cold War was almost impossible.

Asian players were rarely, if ever scouting, due to the massive costs associated obtaining this information. The internet has removed these barriers. Information on any player, for any club, anywhere in the world is available at the click of a button. Live televised games allow mangers, scouts and directors to watch players from any part of the world on a weekly basis.

The advent of cheap air travel in the late 1990s has further assisted labour mobility.

Irish eye

So what does this all mean for international football and Ireland? The Bosman ruling was introduced into football at the twilight of the Charlton years. Almost every squad Charlton ever picked was selected prior to the Bosman Ruling’s introduction. The internationalisation of the English Premier League and the resulting influx of foreign players has diminished the opportunity for Irish players to play with ‘top clubs’.

Only two of Trapattoni’s regulars play at a club in the current top 10 in England – Shay Given and Richard Dunne at Aston Villa. The reason for this however is obvious – the opportunity for Irish players to play for elite clubs in England is more restricted than it was in 1988. Talent can be sourced from anywhere in the world today relatively cheaply.

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Irish players need to be better than almost ever player in the world today, in order to play for elite clubs. In 1988, being the best in the so-called British Isles was probably enough to get selected to play for the top teams. Suggesting that today’s Irish players do not play for top clubs at the moment, and those from the Charlton era did because they were far better, is misleading.

The ‘Class of 1988’ may well have been better than today, but a large part of this must be attributed to the opportunities that were open to these players. Opportunities to play for the elite English clubs not just in the top English league but in the premier European club competitions. Practice and opportunity; practice and opportunity; the two cornerstones of success.

Ireland’s Damien Duff (right) and his team-mates line up for the national anthem before the Estonia game at the Aviva Stadium. (Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images).

Suggesting that the Irish player of the 1980s  are better than the current generation because they were signed by England’s elite clubs is a pitfall into which that many a football fan dives into.

The class of ’88 are better because they played for these clubs not because they were signed by these clubs; a subtle but incredibly important difference.

Had the likes of Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward or Stephen Hunt played in the 1980s I would argue that they would be playing for the elite English clubs. It is misleading to treat a ‘club’ or ‘international side’ and a ‘team’ as the same entity.

Manchester United, Liverpool and the Irish national side have existed within an adaptive environment. It’s similar to the fallacious argument of “you have to play everyone twice” when managers rightly dispute the fairness of fixture lists; the same clubs play twice, not the same teams.

While the appeal is there to compare across long time, resist the temptation, the game has changed far too much.

Do you agree?

This piece was co-written by Robbie Butler, an Economics lecturer at University College Cork, and David Butler, who also lectures at the college.

Robbie has written extensively about soccer economics here.


About the author:

Robbie Butler

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