The challenge facing England's youngsters
One of the major theories put forward by those trying to explain England's latest failure at a major championships is the lack of what the sport refers to as "access opportunities" for the country's best young players.
There is plenty of evidence to support such a view because it is clear the country is producing some good footballing talent. Inspired by Ipswich Town's teenage prodigy Connor Wickham, England won the European Under-17 Championship this summer.
Last week, I visited Normandy to cover the build-up to the Under-19 Euros, where England have started well. If they beat the Netherlands in Bayeux on Wednesday, they will reach the semi-finals.
The problem, as ever, is what happens to these talented young players once they return to their clubs. Take striker Frank Nouble, for example.
On Sunday, he scored twice in a 3-2 win against Austria in Flers but then discovered his club, West Ham, had signed two foreigners - Mexico winger Pablo Barrera and French striker Frederic Piquionne. Nouble could have been forgiven for wondering where his first-team opportunities will come from in the Premier League this season.
Frank Nouble (left) scored for England under-19s against Austria
I met up with Wesley Sneijder's younger brother Rodney last week in Caen. 'Sneijder Minor', as he has been dubbed, is the latest product from the illustrious Ajax academy and a key member of the Dutch Under-19 side.
He told me how much harder he felt it would be for him to make his mark if he were English. After all, clubs in England are rich enough to be able to afford the best talent and that 60% of the players in the Premier League are foreign.
The case of Laurence Wilson should serve as a warning to the sport. Five years ago, the Everton academy graduate had the world at his feet. A member of the England Under-19 side that reached the European Championship final, the midfielder never once got the opportunity to appear for his club's first team, having been farmed out on loan.
Today, Wilson languishes in League Two at Morecambe. A good, solid pro, Wilson is philosophical about his career, pointing calmly to the riches of Premier League clubs who prefer to buy fully matured players rather than patiently investing in developing domestic talent.
Aware of these arguments, the Premier League has introduced new rules designed to limit the number of foreigners in squads. These kick in this coming season and state that squads must now contain a maximum of 25 players over the age of 21, of whom eight must be 'home-grown'.
To avoid contravening European Union freedom of labour laws, this does not necessarily mean home-grown players have to be English. They just have to be trained in England or Wales for 36 months before the end of the season in which they became 21. That means, for example, Cesc Fabregas qualifies as 'home-grown'.
In Germany, the rules are stricter. Twelve players in any Bundesliga squad must be 'home-grown' and be able to qualify to play for the national team. Yet some Premier League clubs are still struggling to meet the new rules, while Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has already made it clear he is against them, revealing he will be forced to sell some players as a result.
The new rules certainly contributed to Liverpool's recruitment of England international Joe Cole this week. Roy Hodgson has conceded that his new club's cosmopolitan squad could fall foul of the regulations if he doesn't bolster his squad with domestic talent.
Last year, it was revealed that, at 90%, Liverpool had the highest ratio of foreign players within their squad of any club in Europe. Hence the signings of English teenage stars Jonjo Shelvey from Charlton and Raheem Sterling from QPR earlier this year. The club's capture of young Rangers defender Danny Wilson is yet more evidence of the attempt to sign British talent to meet Uefa's new regulations on 'home-grown' players.
The Premier League points to Manchester City's purchase of Adam Johnson from Middlesbrough in February and Manchester United's acquisition of former Fulham defender Chris Smalling as signs that the new rules are already having an effect. And yet, as of Tuesday this week, only 21% of players secured by top-flight clubs this summer are English, only nine of 42 acquisitions.
On Tuesday, I took part in a debate on BBC Radio 5 live on the wide-ranging issue of youth development. Contributing to the discussion were former players Steve McManaman and Darren Caskey, Football Football Club Ltd chief Nigel Hargreaves and Ged Roddy, the Premier League's impressive Director of Academies.
"We want to get more home-grown players into our first teams," said Roddy. "The more we do, the more chance of an outstanding England team in the future. It's more than a half-step. Twelve months ago, there were no regulations like this. I've heard the owners are only interested in the product but they voted this in. They're not stupid. They recognise if we can develop our own players then we have a much stronger product."
The Football Association's latest review of elite player and coach development feels like déjà vu. I remember being at an electric Soho Square news conference in late 2007, when, an hour after sacking Steve McClaren as England coach following the country's failure to qualify for Euro 2008, Geoff Thompson, then chairman of the FA, promised a "root and branch review" of England's lack of success.
The FA's Sir Trevor Brooking has suggested ideas for best practise at club academies
But no such review ever materialised, just as nothing ever happened after Lord Burns recommended in 2005 that the FA undergo modernisation.
One of his 64 recommendations was the formation of a central body incorporating coaching experts. The Youth Management Group was eventually set up, chaired by Howard Wilkinson, but the usual tensions between the FA, Premier League and Football League led to it being disbanded after a few meetings. Since then, there has been no body providing leadership of this most fundamental of the sport's territories.
As chairman of Sport England and a top sports politician, Lewis is wary of criticising football's authorities for disregarding his proposals. But, when I met up with him at the Emirates Stadium a few days ago, his disappointment was palpable. "I thought the Youth Management Group had potential to continue to get people around the table and get a consensus moving forward," he said. "I thought it was an opportunity. One needs to learn lessons. Perhaps this is the time to look again."
Time will tell if Roddy and Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, can secure the consensus that Lewis failed to bring about. Brooking's coaching training manual 'The Future Game' was a long-awaited document produced just before the World Cup, a subtle attempt, without any means to implement it, of suggesting ideas for best practise to club academies.
Brooking seems optimistic and hopeful that more money can be found to invest into youth coaching. The FA has money worries - while bring able to afford to spend £6m a year on Fabio Capello and his backroom staff - but there are some signs of progress. The National Football Centre should be operational by 2012, while the FA's Youth Award scheme, designed to produce more age-specific coaching, has merit.
But as a country, England still puts way too little into the development of players. It has been estimated that the FA, with a turnover of some £200m, invests only 1% of its money into the development of young players and relies too heavily on sponsors like Tesco to deliver projects like skills-based coaching.
And yet, amid the debate over club versus country, home-grown player rules and the quality of coaching, one cannot help but feel that something much more fundamental is crucial. Namely that not enough children are playing the sport, not enough are playing the game in the right way and not enough are being coached in a fashion that produces technically adept footballers.
Too many English youngsters play competitive, league-based matches on full-size pitches - with overzealous parents often on the touchline - at too early an age. Strength and speed wins out over fun and skill, with many smaller players neglected.
In England, more than a million youngsters have no access to the sport, with children living in inner cities and urban areas, the traditional footballing hotbeds, deprived of basic facilities, clubs and leagues.
Members of Noel Blake's England Under-19 side have defied the odds to become the best in the country at their age.
Perhaps an even greater challenge for them will come when they return to their clubs. But one wonders how many possible England stars of the future have been lost to the game before they ever had the chance to impress.