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I've seen the future and I'm scared

International football England
by Matt Slater (U1647490) 08 February 2007
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For those of you who didn’t see England’s friendly against Spain, well done, I only hope you used the time more profitably than I did. Perhaps you re-ordered your CD collection according to highest chart position reached or unravelled a wicker basket to see if you could put it back together again.

But in case you’re wondering what you missed, imagine any of our World Cup performances but with the mental safety net of “it’s only a friendly”.

Unfortunately, the next time Steve McClaren's men play, in Israel next month, there will be no safety net. Fail to win for the fifth game in a row and England’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 will start to look more than a little threadbare.

Ho hum…at least the Premier League has become the world’s number one sports brand. And according to Deloitte, English clubs will make up over half of the top 20 of its world’s richest clubs list next year. That’s got to be good for business, hasn’t it?

Of course it has…what do you think (London-centric, anti-Liverpool bias alert) Tom Hicks and George Gillett are doing here? Because they’re certainly not here to help consign displays like last night’s to the dustbin, sorry, trash can, of history.

For the last month or so I have been speaking to people involved in youth development and to say that our conversations have been illuminating is an understatement. They have also been equal parts encouraging and depressing.

The starting point for my interest in the subject was Rafa Benitez, or more precisely his pre-Christmas rant that academies, which were set up in 1998, weren’t working.

My initial reaction was to dismiss his comments as a case of getting his excuses in early, or perhaps a not-very coded message to Liverpool academy boss Steve Heighway. That soon, however, gave way to indignant jingoism - “you cheeky Spanish git, how dare you suggest our lads aren’t as good as your lads etc etc”.

But with memories of last summer’s World Cup still fresh, I reconsidered. Rafa could be on to something here. After all, the entire academy system is currently under review. And wouldn’t I be annoyed if the only product of a £3m a year coaching complex was Stephen Warnock?

So I spoke to youth development experts at the Football Association, Football League, Premier League, a few clubs and even a few interested outside observers.

What they told me was that academies have been a great success…and a complete waste of time and money.

The quality of coaching is improving all the time…and no better than before.

Our clubs are producing better athletes with better techniques…and nowhere nearly enough players of Premiership quality.

English kids are coming through the system and the first real batch of the academy years are only now reaching maturity…under-pressure managers are still more likely to prefer a short-term fix from the transfer market than an unproven youngster from the academy.

And so it went on. Numbers of coaches and decent facilities, up. Actual time spent with a ball, down.

Some clubs struggling to turn expensively-nurtured potential into Premiership reality, while others can’t stop turning out first-teamers and internationals.

Some clubs eager to join the academy gang and unearth some Gareth Bales of their own, while others starting to wonder if that youth development money can’t be better spent somewhere else, namely abroad.

But what everybody agreed on was that youth development matters. And it will matter even more if we start to miss international tournaments again. What good is having the world’s most popular league if we can’t actually play the game ourselves?

Two of the most passionate people I spoke to were Football League development manager Graham Hawkins and Brazilian Soccer Schools founder Simon Clifford.

Hawkins is as football establishment as they come. He played for some of this country’s oldest and most storied clubs and went on to manage Wolves. He is now chief cheerleader for the Football League’s academies and centres of excellence.

Clifford is as far removed from the football establishment as it is probably possible to be whilst still making a living from the game in this country. A former teacher who turned to football coaching after meeting Juninho’s dad at Boro, Clifford has been upsetting FA suits for years with his radical plans and outspoken style.

Inside or outside the gang, both agreed on a few core issues that can no longer be brushed under “World’s best league/brand” carpet.

1) The money at the top is not filtering down (the Premier League, which will earn £1.7bn next season, gave Football League clubs just £4.2m to help fund their youth set-ups this season).

2) The top flight’s riches make getting there or staying there all important. This leads to short-termism, particularly in regard to signing players (65% of Premier League signings in January were not English) versus developing them.

3) Talented English youngsters are not playing enough football and the football they are playing is probably not the right kind. Teenagers at Brazilian clubs are practising, mostly on basic technique and conditioning, for 20 hours a week. On the continent, they get 10-12 hours. Our brightest prospects are getting five hours.

4) There is no scientific or social reason why English kids, with the right coaching and sufficient time, cannot be as good as kids from anywhere else. In fact, with the levels of interest, expertise and wealth here, they could be better.

So with that last point in mind here is my very short manifesto for saving English football from becoming English tennis.

1) Implement Uefa’s quotas for home-grown players. If Boro can field a team that has 15 of the 16 players from their own academy (as they did against Fulham at the end of last season) surely the others can field teams that have four of 25 (as Uefa has demanded and the Premier League has ignored). I know it is unrealistic to expect to see another team of local lads win the Champions League (as Celtic did in 1967) but it would be nice if at least one or two of them were more than just short-term contractors at the company.

2) Reduce the academies’ catchment areas. They can currently take under-14s from within a 60-minute travel time radius and older kids from within 90 minutes. Clifford wants to reduce that to 10 minutes. I think he has a point. Access to the players is a huge issue, and our climate, clogged roads and school timetable don’t help. But let’s work around that. Let’s get the kids into their LOCAL club before school. Or perhaps let them have their PE lessons there. Clifford has told Leeds chairman Ken Bates to forget recruiting academy kids in Liverpool and Newcastle. He thinks he could field a Leeds United side of locals in just 10 years. It won’t happen but it wouldn’t be any worse than what they have now and it would be considerably cheaper.

3) Stop competitive 11-a-side games for the youngest players. Most academies spend two thirds of their five-hour allotment with the kids on preparing for the upcoming weekend’s game. That leaves just one third of the time for work on technique, the very building blocks of young player’s career. Less focus on competition, with smaller games and more touches is the way forward. Who cares if their teams under-12s are top of the table if your under-18s can’t trap a ball?

I could go on (to more dangerously communist territory like salary caps) but I won’t.

What I will say is that I am fed up of waiting for England to win an international tournament and I am not convinced that the mega-bucks world league that is the Premiership is going to help that.

I will be here for the rest of today (and longer if the Central Line freezes) and am happy to debate all this (or any related subjects…let’s try to avoid club-based mud-slinging, though) with any of you that also want to see England prosper.

Latest 10 comments

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posted Feb 9, 2007

We are all passionate about football. I hope the next generation will as well. A successful England Team is a vital part of the jigsaw that will enable this.It is an obvious thing to say that to be successful as a national team we have to better than the other countries.To better at anything you have to work harder and smarter than your opposition. In youth coaching in this currently we are not doing it. It is that simple. We do have good players but too few of them. That is why they are so expensive in the transfer market. Simple. Supply and demand. We are not going to produce enough technical gifted players of quality by going about it as we do currently. If we were we would be doing already. Our national teams at every age group cannot retain possession. Why? Because they lack quality as Arsene Wenger would say.Big international tournaments take place in the summer when it gets hot. In the heat you need to retain possession. Don't blame our manager, blame the whole system that produces players from top to bottom.The solution is to get players of all ages to get a ball at their feet as often as possible. The talented and hardworking ones will eventually master the ball. Coaching must concentrate on skill development and place physical development at the bottom of the priority list as the Dutch do. We must learn from best practice and we should look no further than the most innovative coach in this country Simon Clifford. Yes he is a maverick but so was Brian Clough. When your in need of a change and root and branch reform you don't send for a civil servant or a man who will keep the chair warm. My message to the football establishment of this country is that if we don't do something serious soon then future generations will start takimg up other sports and pastimes in greater numbers and our national game will slowly but steadily decline. Football has no divine right to be top in the popularity stakes and youngsters today have many more choices than previous generations. Let us all get real.

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posted Feb 9, 2007


England had 53% possesion, Spain had 47%. It is a stereotype that England can't keep the ball. The only problem with England was their finishing.

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posted Feb 10, 2007

If a team is only allowed to have players from within a 10 minute radius, what teams could anyone born in Cornwall play for? No one.

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posted Feb 10, 2007

I have heard the same things said about the England since the fifties. We managed to lose to USA with one of our better teams!!!
Somehow we managed to win the 1966 world cup, due primarily to a truly world class defence and Charltons great shooting ability.
The Brazilians, Italy and Germany have their crisis qualifying, but most times somehow get it together when it matters.
The problem with England is the choice of manager, and we usually end up with the wrong person. Any half intelligent fan could do a better job.
We do not lack the talent or skills that is a myth. The problem is that a bad manager can always mess up a good squad.
It is all about formation, tactics and implimentation.
So first you have to decide on a formation, once you have decided that then you find the players, not the other way round.
Tactics requires somebody who can see what is happening, and get around it.
Implimentation requires constant honing of skills and practicing formation and tactics.
I remember Merson and Allison taking over the England team in a shambles, and immediately transforming it into a good team, I think they may have one of the best records, please check that.
Poor McClaren is not very sharp, he does not even know what the problem is never mind how to fix it. We will probably qualify for the Euro Champs and end up going out in the quarter finals as usual. We should always make the semi's.
McClaren is the wrong person, almost every fan knows this, do not blame him, blame those who selected him.
The solution is to let him go and now, but that will not happen.
Another damage control option is to draft in some help, I think that 'Appy 'Arry and Pearce together would solve the problem.

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posted Feb 10, 2007

There is not a great problem in youth development in england. The problem is that some clubs develop players and others don't. Two main names that crop up are Wenger and Benitez. Wenger has been at Arsenal 10 years, the great thinker, helps designs a stadium, build a good team but has nothing to add to the gunners youth set-up. How can this be? 10 years. He could have addressed the issue if he wanted.

Shinning examples like Man Utd have a manager who dedicated to bringing through players or Boro who have a chairman who states he wishes to see a team of teesiders, then builds towards that.

Liverpool have had managers from abroad but there no evidence to show that they have brought their knowledge to develop youth players.

Its a myth that other countries have better set-ups. Scotland beat france in a real match, did the french blame the youth set-up or state that the scots must have a better system?

Englands poor performance was down to tatics. Why play a right footer at left back and a centre mid on the left? Shorey, Baines, Matty Taylor, Andy Taylor and Barry would have provided a decent left side. Lampard was never in front of Neville once in the game. Does not really matter if a player only gets the odd cap, just that they come and do a job.

It was a friendly and nothing was explored. Gary Neville played rather than Richards. Lampard and Gerrard where crow barred into the same team again. Crouch showed that he could hold the ball up, so what. The BIG risks where playing Carrick (keeps the ball well), Foster in goal (i'll give this credit) and bringing in two injury prone players back into the fold.

Why not leave Gerrard or Lampard out to see what happens? What does Dawson (holding spurs defence together) have to do to start? Three centre halfs that played don't need the experence and one of them will be out again soon with injury (Woodgate) Does Barry have to score more than 9 goals (his tally so far) to get in?

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posted Feb 11, 2007

"3) Stop competitive 11-a-side games for the youngest players. Most academies spend two thirds of their five-hour allotment with the kids on preparing for the upcoming weekend’s game. That leaves just one third of the time for work on technique, the very building blocks of young player’s career. Less focus on competition, with smaller games and more touches is the way forward. Who cares if their teams under-12s are top of the table if your under-18s can’t trap a ball?"
I know a lot of kids who would howl at the prospect of losing their competitive games, although 11-a-side is unnecessary.

Do you think all those Brazilian kids don't play competitively until they grow up?

On the contrary! That's what these kids live for!

Actually, I think the best additional ingredient to youth training would be regular camps/exchanges abroad in foreign clubs as home-grown players broadly lack the qualities/attitude/culture/psyche nutured in other countries.

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posted Feb 16, 2007

It's not just football suffering in this country. It's any sport. There isn't the investment with young, old, rich, poor, black, white. Why do the Americans keep churning out top athletes in all fields (apart from footy, but we all know the USA don't really support footy)? Because they invest massively in their sportsmen/women and the opportunities provided are endless.

The opportunities are so poor in England that athletes have to go abroad to get quality training and time to play their chosen sport. This takes cash. Which, because it's so
damned expensive to buy mediocrity in this country, is hard to come by. That's why we have people like Paul Casey and Luke Donald in the top echelons of golf. Or why Andy Murray (I know he's Scottish, but a good example) is doing so well now he has an American coach. They went and learned their trade in a foreign country.

The other problem which, I believe, will not be resolved in the next 25 years is the attitude of the country. The country, as an entity, does not support the individual because of the attitude of the collective nation. These days it's "cooler" for youngsters to smoke their back-sides off and place buns in the young ovens of our teenage ladies than spend time and effort in any endeavour that uses brain-power and physical attributes. Add to that the seemingly unrestricted media who failed as sportsmen/women and decided to write about it instead. In the process they are hyping up the potential of some sportspeople and when they don't deliver (because of the poor opportunities) they are cut to shreds. The media are like pushy parents who are trying to fulfil their unattained dreams through their subject matter.

For an athlete, this pressure is unnecessary, unwanted and damaging. The problem with England football team performances is that they are scared to "play". You can see it in almost every game. Sports are games. They need to be played. You can see that the England team are scared of trying anything and just "playing the game" in case it doesn't come off and they get rated with a 4/10 in the Sun the following day. They may say in interviews that they don't care about that, but it's there in the back of their minds. That in itself is enough to impair performance.

There's little hope for en-mass production of quality sportspeople in the near future in England unless a whole crop come across some cash from somewhere, take the bold step as a youngster to live in another part of the world, then come back at age 18 and show the rest what it's all about. Unless the opportunities improve here, massive personal sacrifice and effort from the individual is the only thing that will produce quality.

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comment by Beecke (U7218941)

posted Feb 16, 2007

So just want to put some outside view on this. I am living in Germany and used to live in the UK.
To be honest I don´t think yous should moan that much about all the stuff surrounding the development of english football players. After all you have to admit, that looking on the England squad usually is a pleasure to do. Apart from a quality goal keeper you got it all, on every position.
And since I am from Germany I obviously tend to compare our national side to yours and since about 1996 I cannae remember thinking that we could match your team at all, and as time moved on it only seemed to just get worse and worse for us.
In Germany we took our big crisis a few years ago (still somehow we managed to get to WC final 2002, which is absolutely astonishing). I think since 2000 we finally managed to turn our system around and we are at the point where we earn those changes through all these new young players coming through, who are a pleasure to watch.
So what I think about England is
1st: it is absolutely beyond me how England is able to massively underachive with a squad like that every time, for me that is a freak accident
2nd: England needs finally to get a good manager, I think Germany would have been nothing without their managers
3rd: english players seem to lose their attitude as soon as they put on this shirt that represents their home nation, usually guys like Gerrard never know when they are beaten, but they somehow accept defeat so easy with the national team (that is something what I really admire about our national side, we can be as bad as you want, but we tend to get results though)
And for your league „problems“: There can´t possibly be a money problem in England at any football club. These clubs are getting obscene money in comparison to the german clubs. If they are not able to convert that into sth. good then that is it for english football.
All in all, i am amazed by the bad handling of this situation of not achieving at big tournaments. This situation isn´t new and still there is not one solution found, why does it take so long to turn things around. Why don´t you make a deep cut like we did in Germany after 2000 and especially with Klinsmann 2004? It´s not that you can lose anything, it can´t get worse than underperforming in the extend as yous are doing at the moment. I really will never understand how England stands at one major win, that is a joke.
But don´t get me wrong, I quite enjoy watching England lose time and time again on big occasions, not because I dislike yous, but I just love the build up in front of every tournament, where your media declares you as the only possible winners (as well as the guys of BBC, what is an even bigger joy to watch their faces afterwards), and then blames everyone and everything else than the team for going out of the competition. Somehow it is paranoia there.

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comment by U7354129

posted Feb 18, 2007

like many others we saw the future as soon as mad mac was employed. 'it was always gonna be a difficult-hard-tough game'
It is the sun newspapers fault for begging we needed an english manager and helping ruin the chances of scholari.

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posted Nov 25, 2007

How many English players playing at the very highest level can be classed as two-footed?
Check this concept out

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