What British football would look like using Athletic Bilbao's local-only policy

What British football would look like using Athletic Bilbao's local-only policy

3 months ago

London would absolutely walk this league

It is one of football's great mysteries how Athletic Club (Bilbao) manage to stay competing with the big guns of Spanish football every season despite their self-imposed restrictions on recruitment.

As one of three founding members of the top division in Spain, they have never been relegated. They've also won the league eight times.

Currently sitting in eighth in La Liga, it's safe to say this policy has provided a level of sustainability that some of their rivals can only dream of.

What is Athletic's 'cantera' policy?

Since 1912, the club have only ever used players born in the Greater Basque Country, which includes Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Álava and Navarre, as well as Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre, in France - hence how Aymeric Laporte was able to play for them, France U21s and then the Spanish national team.

One might think this would limit the club's capabilities of achieving success - and while that is arguably the case - they've still not done too badly.

How would it translate to the UK?

This got us thinking: which region in England and Wales (because, you know, Swansea and Cardiff) would be able to put together the best team while only using players born locally? So we drew up some starting XIs.

But before we get into them, let's just go through the rules of this hypothetical exercise. Essentially, there aren't any. While we have stuck to the main population hubs of the country, geographic differences between Spain and the UK mean we might have drawn a few arbitrary borders, for the sake of each team's talent pool.

The most controversial decision is probably our call to combine Wales and the 'West Country', the definition of which we have stretched to its very limits. Hopefully when you see the team, you'll understand.

South Coast FC

GK: Bradley Collins (Barnsley FC, born in Southampton)

DEF: Joel Ward (Crystal Palace, born in Portsmouth), Adam Webster (Brighton, born in Chichester), Lewis Dunk (Brighton, born in Brighton), Matt Targett (Aston Villa, born in Eastleigh)

MF: James Ward-Prowse (Southampton, born in Portsmouth), Ben White (Arsenal, born in Poole); Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Liverpool, born in Portsmouth), Mason Mount (Chelsea, born in Portsmouth), Solly March (Brighton, born in Eastbourne)

CF: Danny Ings (Aston Villa, born in Winchester)

Starting on the south coast, there is a strong Brighton presence which is testament to their commitment to bringing through young talent since their ascent to the Premier League.

Ben White has been moved into a slightly unfamiliar midfield position after it transpired Adam Lallana was actually born in St Albans, while Mason Mount takes the playmaker role in a side that well equipped to play high-intensity, possession football.


GK: Freddie Woodman (Bournemouth, born in Croydon)

DEF: Reece James (Chelsea, born in Redbridge), Joe Gomez (Liverpool, born in Catford), Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa, born in Newham), Luke Shaw (Manchester United, born in Kingston)

MF: Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace, born in Epsom), Declan Rice (West Ham, born in Kingston); Emile Smith Rowe (Arsenal, born in Croydon), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal, born in Ealing), Jadon Sancho (Manchester United, born in Camberwell)

CF: Harry Kane (Tottenham, born in Walthamstow)

This team, as it should do given density of population in the capital, would probably walk all over the rest of this imaginary league.

The only real weakness to point out is arguably Freddie Woodman in goal. The Croydon-born keeper is on loan at Bournemouth and spent 11 years in his youth career at Crystal Palace. Thankfully, he's got a pretty solid defence in front of him, and that from six would strike fear into most teams.

Despite being raised in London from a young age, neither Raheem Sterling or Wilfried Zaha are eligible using our arbitrary rulebook, having been born in Jamaica and the Ivory Coast respectively.

Small caveats: Gallagher was born in Epsom, while Rice and Shaw hail from Kingston-upon-Thames, which some people deem as Surrey. But for the sake of this game, if it's inside the M25, it's London.


GK: Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal, born in Stoke)

DEF: Marc Albrighton (Leicester, born in Tamworth), Jamal Lascelles (Newcastle, born in Derby), Gary Cahill (Bournemouth, born in Dronfield), Ben Chilwell (Chelsea, born in Milton Keynes)

MF: Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund, born in Birmingham), James Maddison (Leicester, born in Coventry), Dele Alli (Everton, born in Milton Keynes)

FW: Jack Grealish (Manchester City, born in Birmingham), Nathan Redmond (Southampton, born in Birmingham), Patrick Bamford (Leeds, born in Grantham)

Another team that requires a couple of minor caveats: Ramsdale makes it in by the skin of his teeth, with Stoke-on-Trent considered the border between the Midlands and the North.

Similarly, Dele Alli and Ben Chilwell hail from Milton Keynes, which is also in that nether zone of commuter towns that don't really fall into any of the main regions. However, Wikipedia defines Buckinghamshire as being part of the 'South Midlands', so we're going with it.

On the pitch, I'm well aware of the no-defending-just-vibes nature of this midfield trio, which leaves Jude Bellingham with a huge amount of ground to cover. But there's no denying that front five would be an enjoyable watch on the counter-attack.

North West England

GK: Dean Henderson (Manchester United, born in Whitehaven)

DEF: Kieran Trippier (Newcastle, born in Bury), Michael Keane (Everton, born in Stockport), James Tarkowski (Burnley, born in Manchester), Aaron Cresswell (West Ham, born in Liverpool)

MF: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool, born in Liverpool), Scott McTominay (Manchester United, born in Lancaster), Curtis Jones (Liverpool, born in Liverpool)

FW: Phil Foden (Manchester City, born in Stockport), Harvey Barnes (Leicester, born in Burnley), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United, born in Wythenshawe)

I know, I know, I know. Trent is in midfield. Stop shouting.

I'm normally the first to rubbish suggestions of moving him there, but looking at the talent pool for this side, it made the most sense.

With the personnel available, this XI looks like a threat on the break, with Alexander-Arnold's pin-point passes releasing a dynamic quartet of attackers into space.

That approach would also probably suit James Tarkowski and Michael Keane in defence, who have both excelled in low blocks but struggled in more expansive systems

It's an exciting XI but would likely lack the defensive solidity and organisation we have so far only seen in the South Coast and London teams.

North East England

GK: Jordan Pickford (Everton, born in Washington)

DEF: Chris Basham (Sheffield United, born in Hebburn), Lewis Gibson (Sheffield Wednesday, born in Durham), Dan Burn (Newcastle, born in Blyth)

MF: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, born in Sunderland), Sean Longstaff (Newcastle, born in Newcastle), Jack Colback (Nottingham Forest, born in Killingworth), Paul Dummet (Newcastle, born in Newcastle)

FW: Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund, born in Sunderland), Adam Armstrong (Southampton, born in Newcastle), Andy Carroll (West Brom, born in Gateshead)

I have a lot of love for the north east of England and the people who reside there, but there's no getting around the fact that as a region, they do not produce many good footballers.

In fact, there were so few full-backs to choose from for this team, that we've had to put Jordan Henderson in at right-wing back.

In midfield, I was disappointed to learn that Matty Longstaff was not born in the north-east like his brother Sean, but in Rotherham. That opened up a space for Jack Colback to come in and pump it long to Andy Carroll every time he gets the ball.

With the long ball ability of Dan Burn and Jordan Pickford at the back, that tactic just might work as well. Assuming Carroll stays fit, which he obviously won't, but just imagine this is a parallel universe in which he never got injured.

USA international Gio Reyna qualifies through his father, Claudio, who played for Sunderland when Gio was born, offering this team a glimmer of flair surrounded by some rather agricultural players.


GK: Alex Smithies (Cardiff, born in Huddersfield)

DEF: Kyle Walker (Manchester City, born in Sheffield), John Stones (Manchester City, born in Barnsley), Harry Maguire (Manchester United, born in Sheffield), Ben Godfrey (Everton, born in York)

MF: Kalvin Phillips (Leeds, born in Leeds), Fabian Delph (Everton, born in Bradford), Dan James (Leeds, born in Hull), James Milner (Liverpool, born in Leeds)

FW: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton, born in Sheffield), Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund, born in Leeds)

Absolutely no messing about in this team. A physical back four, industry in midfield and two big men up top with an eye for goal. This is Waitrose route one football.

Oh yeah, Erling Haaland. Famously a Norway international but born in Yorkshire during his father's time at Leeds United, which qualifies him for this team. Just imagine how many goals he would score running onto Dominic Calvert-Lewin's flick-ons.

Wales & The West Country FC

GK: Jack Butland (Crystal Palace, born in Bristol)

DEF: Neco Williams (Liverpool, born in Wrexham), Eric Dier (Tottenham, born in Cheltenham), Joe Rodon (Tottenham, born in Swansea, Ben Davies (Tottenham, born in Neath)

MF: Ethan Ampadu (Venezia, born in Exeter), Joe Allen (Stoke, born in Carmarthen), Aaron Ramsey (Rangers, born in Caerphilly)

FW: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, born in Cardiff), Jarrod Bowen (West Ham, born in Leominster), Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa, born in Torquay)

I would like to begin this section with an apology for mixing two rival regions into one team. But while I appreciate the controversy, I wanted to give them a fighting chance. Given half the Welsh national team is born in other parts of Britain, this felt like the best way of doing so.

You'd hope the Tottenham chemistry at the back would serve them well, behind a midfield trio who play together at international level. And just look at that front three.