It seems strangely amusing that so many already have the knives out for Roy Hodgson. As the current England team prepare to deal with another summer of unrealistic expectation, in all likelihood, it will be the England manager who will take the flack for a poor performance. Like the referee took the bullet at the World Cup in South Africa and the ‘WAGS’ did back in Germany in 2006. During the post-tournament autopsy that this country so often engages in with our national team, the knives and scalpels always seem to miss the actual nuts and bolts, the bread and butter- why aren’t our players as good as those who knocked us out?
With the news yesterday that the FA Council- shareholders from the different league and county associations from across the country- voted in favour of changing this country’s youth development regime, fans should be full of optimism for the national team’s future. Finally, kids playing the game in this country will not play 11-a-side football until they are 13. This essentially means that youngsters will see more time on the ball, developing a higher level of technical attributes and hence theoretically, produce a better generation of footballers on these shores.
And make no doubt about it; these changes are essential in assisting the national game. As time ticks by, so does football. There is nothing wrong with the archetypal English game. Knocking it up to the big man and favoring physical attributes over the technical, has been as synonymous with the footballing culture in the country, as a half-time chicken balti pie. But that doesn’t win you titles internationally and it hasn’t served us particularly well over the last 46 years. At the age of eight or nine, kids should be seeing the ball, not spending entire games chasing it. Our European counterparts figured this out quite some time ago and the results of Germany, France and Spain in recent times proves that this approach pays dividends.
So why should events yesterday be greeted with steady and hazardous caution? Why play the party-pooper? Simply put, history tells us to not get out the bunting just yet. Imitation of others is nothing without implementation. Ultimately, the changes agreed to yesterday, are set to be put into practice by the aptly titled, Heads of Elite Development at the FA. The director of this, is a certain Sir Trevor Brooking and former penalty-taking maestro, Gareth Southgate. Brooking in particular, is a revered figure within certain circles for his heralding for change in the way football is played in this country, which is all very well. But this is where his influence upon these changes should perhaps dwindle.
Because ultimately, putting these changes into practice is a highly technical, complex procedure that will take years to start working. The people involved in laying the foundations hold the burden of the future of English football. These people should be experts, coaches who live and breathe youth development. Coaches who don’t have any desire for the politicking and nonsense of the FA, just the appetite to develop footballers. Someone like Tony Carr, the Director of Youth Development at West Ham is the sort of man that should be at the epicenter of the restructuring at the FA. Carr has a matter-of-fact, cast-iron record of producing exceptional youth talent. Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick aren’t just exceptional alumina of his- they are amongst the most technically astute Englishmen of their generation.
Again, Manchester City, for all their petro million induced success, beholds one of the most successful academies in the Premier League. Their director, Jim Cassell, saw Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Stephen Ireland and Daniel Sturridge pass through his ranks. Why isn’t the Football Association looking at men like Carr and Cassell to take charge of the next generation of English footballers? What does Southgate and Brooking know that these men don’t about youth football? What would they know about the attitudes of youngsters, physical development, diet, nutrition and the mentality of kids playing football?
Changing the sizes of the football pitches will see kids enjoying far more time with the football, but that is completely academic if they’re not being told what to do with the ball properly. And this is where English football looses sight; we are often quick to follow, but so, so poor to implement.
Brooking often harps on about the importance of these changes, but in his time in charge of ‘football development’, not much has developed. In the wake of the 2010 World Cup failure, a Guardian report revealed that there were only 2769 English coaches holding Uefa A, B or Pro coaching badges; deemed as the top levels of coaching qualifications within Europe, compared with 23,995 in Spain. Brooking had been in charge seven years at that point. Posturing and heralding ideas is nothing without action. The development of qualified coaches has to come before the changes to the game.
The construction of the new national football centre, dubbed ‘St. Georges Park’ up in Burton, is supposed to be England’s new footballing nerve centre- a hub for all age groups of the national team, but most importantly, an institution to breed coaches with a set philosophy. But whilst we were busy muddling around with Wembley in 2003, Spain opened their own hub, La Ciudad del Fútbol, just outside Madrid- seven years later they were World Champions. The French version, Clairefontaine, opened it’s doors ten years before their World Cup triumph. But what people don’t understand, is that the focus is on coaching, not players. The French and Spanish model was built around men like Tony Carr or Jim Cassell. They’ll always be more important than a Brooking or a Southgate.
England has had a national football hub and a youth development scheme before. When Lilleshall Hall opened in 1984, the director of coaching and education at the time, was a certain Charles Hughes. A proponent of the long ball, Hughes’ legacy can still be felt around the country today, even though Lilleshall shut it’s doors in 1999. His legacy was ultimately a generation of footballers that were technically inadequate to their European counterparts. The Lilleshall experiment serves as a stark reminder that all the investment and good intentions in the world mean nothing if the wrong man is in charge. St. Georges Park is the shell- it is the men coaching the kids, which is the most important thing.
This is by no means a parting shot at Sir Trevor Brooking, nor Gareth Southgate. Brooking’s lobbying for the 11-a-side game to be diluted at youth level, embodies the attitude that English football should be taking and he is right on point with his focus on developing the technical game. But we cannot indulge in any more imitation in this country. Damien Hirst has the ideas, but he doesn’t produce all of his artwork by hand. Sir Trevor Brooking should be applauded for his vision, but it should be left to someone like Tony Carr to make it a reality. Or once again, it will all count for nothing.
How do you feel about the changes made to youth football in this country? Will it make a difference or are the FA still bundled in red tape and politics? Get involved in the discussion on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus