Kevin Keegan smiles wryly. “It’s not a new problem, I had it when I was in charge,” he says.
“I went to watch Arsenal play Chelsea and there was one English player and that was back when I was manager in the 1990s.
“Aime Jacquet, the France manager, who was sat three rows from me, had 12 or 13 players on the pitch and on the bench. It was happening a long time ago – for at least 15 years.”
It’s been 13 years since Keegan walked out on England, quitting in a Wembley toilet after a 1-0 defeat to Germany while (FA chief) David Davies tried to convince him to stay.
The match was England’s final game at the old Wembley and, having already failed to get the Three Lions past the group stages at Euro 2000, it was too much for ex-captain Keegan.
The mercurial ex-Liverpool and Newcastle legend could not recreate his playing powers as manager of the national team. He is not the only one. Getting the best out of England is an issue which has haunted most managers.
Last season, Roy Hodgson had just 32 per cent of players used by Premier League clubs available to him.
Despite this the victories against Montenegro and Poland saw England reach the World Cup, finally capping an inauspicious qualifying campaign.
There is little expectation they can actually win in Brazil though, with supporters’ confidence waning over the team’s ability and desire.
And as Spain and Germany set the standard in Europe they serve only to highlight England’s failings, problems which have been all too evident to Keegan and a succession of Three Lions bosses.
“It’s not an easy job, most people know that, and I know it better than most,” he says, his words steeped in experience. “When you’re England manager you can’t go out and buy the players for the positions you’re not strong in. You’ve got what you’ve got – and sometimes you haven’t even got that. With injuries and suspensions, they don’t turn up.
“I know why they aren’t replicating their club form because they are sat on the bench for most of their clubs.
“(Alex) Oxlade-Chamberlain, (Chris) Smalling, these players for whatever reason are not playing on a Saturday, not on a regular basis in bigger games. They are playing sometimes, that’s for sure, but even (Theo) Walcott only got the chance to play down the middle this year after Robin van Persie went.
“Roy knew it was a problem because it’s been there. We have seen it increasing and increasing to a point that, in all the transfers this summer, two out of every three of them came from abroad.
“All the facts are there. I don’t know why people would say: ‘I didn’t know that.’”
But Keegan, who won 63 England caps but played in only one World Cup, is all too aware of the challenge facing the national team.
The path is complicated with even Jack Wilshere, England’s ace card, forced out of his favoured central position at Arsenal by £42m German star Mesut Ozil. The FA cannot complain about that – particularly if players like Wilshere can learn from Ozil.
But the influx of mediocre foreign players which stifles the development of young English starlets in the Premier League is the issue.
It is that which is being questioned and Keegan insists the next generation of England players are not just idle bystanders.
He said: “The people who know that more than anyone are the players. You’ve got to be in there, you’ve got to play matches and be in the heat of the competition.
“You have to be battling and not come on for five or 10 minutes in games and be left out for the big games. All of that, mentally, the players know that’s a long way from playing in a World Cup quarter-final.
“You don’t get experience from watching other players play. That’s been a big problem.
“All these players we are pinning our hopes on as youngsters are not playing on a regular basis and people have got to see that. I’m sure they do.
“There are six great midfield players from Spain playing and three of them are in this country. You have Cazorla, Silva and Mata and that’s not counting Iniesta, Fabregas and obviously Xavi.
“That’s what I’m comparing when you’re talking about England winning a World Cup.
“You have to get up to that level and at the moment I don’t think anyone will question players like Jack Wilshere are still trying to be what those players are – but he’s not there yet.”
The uncomfortable truth is that England are at least a decade behind their rivals.
Qualification for next year’s World Cup allows unrealistic expectations to build despite Roy Hodgson’s men recently being ranked 17th in the world, their lowest placing since 2001. They have been left out of the top seeds for Brazil 2014 because of it, leaving them open to face the hosts or defending champions Spain in the group stages.
The opening of St George’s Park a year ago will help bridge the gap, but it will be years before England are seen as serious contenders again.
There is, at least, little immediate pressure on Hodgson from on high with recently installed FA chairman Greg Dyke instead demanding England win the already-controversial 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Dyke has admitted the FA would be letting the country down if they did not combat the “frightening” trend of signing foreign players.
During the summer transfer window, Premier League clubs spent £630m on players. Only £60m of that went on Englishmen. That, at least, takes the heat off Hodgson with his bosses affirming it is a long-term project, even if the manager must still get results in the short term.
“The statements coming out from the FA themselves are that they are talking about winning the World Cup in 2022,” says Keegan. “They are not talking about winning in Brazil, I don’t think anyone thinks that.
“The younger players need to get the experience of playing on that stage – and hopefully going further in the competition. Players like Wilshere have very little experience at international level. He’s not played on a regular basis for Arsenal for more than a year – mainly because of injuries – and he’s still learning his trade.
“Going to Brazil will give him the chance to play there as a 22-year-old. When he starts to come to his peak as a player, he’ll have the experience of a tournament behind him. It’s not always about going and winning – only one team can win – but some teams can learn a lot from it and that’s what the players will have to do.
“There will be no (Steven) Gerrard or (Frank) Lampard at the next World Cup in 2018. There are holes to fill and the other players need to have the experience if they are going to replace them.”
The midfield duo of Gerrard and Lampard, along with Ashley Cole, are the last of England’s centurions, the ‘Golden Generation’ who were expected to challenge for major honours.
The closest they got was three quarter-finals under Sven-Goran Eriksson, Keegan’s permanent successor when he took the job in 2001.
The tag is met with some bafflement by Keegan, who is still confused as to why they were so lauded.
He said: “The players like that were the ‘Golden Generation’, but they haven’t won anything. They have played 100 times for England, but they haven’t played in a semi-final of a World Cup.
“What you need for your country is four or five players come through at once and suddenly you have the nucleus of a good side. It happened at Manchester United with Beckham, the Nevilles, Butt and Scholes, who came through with Giggs.
“Sometimes it happens and those players bring everyone up and that’s what England need now. They have got one or two players who have got great potential – Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott – but even if you asked them if they were there yet, they probably wouldn’t say they were. They are on their way, though.”
Keegan name-checks the Arsenal trio at random and says he could pick any number of England players who are still to fulfil their potential. It is a Catch 22 situation, though, with young English players – and indeed experienced ones such as Jermain Defoe at Tottenham – at top clubs.
Do they stay and fight or take a step down, out of European competition, for first-team football? It is a situation Keegan does not envy.
“I wouldn’t want them to leave the clubs they are at, though, because they have got to be good enough to play at those top four clubs,” he said.
“Genuinely, all the top players in the Spanish side play. When I say play they are playing key roles. They are generals – they’re not soldiers. Cazorla, when he plays for Arsenal, plays a big part, it’s not just a supporting role.
“They then all get together for Spain and play in midfield and they are all generals because of their experience. You can’t gloss over it, someone can write a book about it.”
Last month’s 0-0 draw with Ukraine, which at least kept England’s World Cup hopes in their own hands, was an indication of the team’s current malaise. And there is a certain irony. When Keegan stepped down as England boss, his parting remarks included: “If you need someone to get you a goalless draw in Ukraine, I'm probably not your man.”
It was a self-conscious nod to an attacking approach which took him close to the Premier League title with Newcastle in 1996 before they blew a 12-point lead.
Cavalier Keegan is the opposite of cautious Hodgson’s more measured and structured approach, one which came under fire early in the qualifying campaign.
Joe Hart has also been criticised over his form for Manchester City with calls for him to be replaced by either John Ruddy or Fraser Forster. Hart still kept a clean sheet in Kiev and against Poland and Keegan believes Hodgson has handled the situation perfectly.
“Joe Hart has conceded one goal in his last three England games,” said Keegan, who left City as boss a year before Hart joined from Shrewsbury in 2006.
“If he had thrown one in for England, it would be different. But people should not confuse form for your club and for your country.
“I still think, looking at the other two goalkeepers in the squad, that Hart is England’s No.1. He has made mistakes this season and he hasn’t started off great.
“There would be a lot bigger headlines, though, if Hodgson had left him out.”
It is Hodgson Keegan ultimately feels for. Knowing the strains the former West Brom boss must contend with, the ex-Newcastle, Fulham and Manchester City manager believes the criticism levelled at Hodgson is undue.
His hands are, in the main, tied. England, just as in Keegan’s time, are not a world force and it feels as if the gap is increasing.
“I think Roy is doing great at the moment,” said the 62-year-old.
“They got the result they wanted in Ukraine but that was all you could say about it. You weren’t able to say: ‘Wow, if we qualify we’ll have a real chance,’ but there were a lot of players missing. There were key players missing.
“I gave Frank Lampard his debut and he’s just made his 100th appearance, so a lot has changed since I was manager.
“But I know where Roy’s at and what he’s thinking at times. He’s got to make the best of it and he’s doing a good job. He’s doing a really good job.
“I know there will be a frustration, but you just have to get on with it – he can’t change it by inventing a player out of thin air.”