Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And thus, everybody expects the England U21 manager inquisition; that traditional autopsy after every Junior Lions failing at a major tournament, where every selection, tactical decision, team performance and result is dissected and scrutinised.
During summer 2013, Stuart Pearce became the scapegoat for England’s elimination from the U21 Euros in Israel and now Gareth Southgate is sitting at home, hoping the press don’t turn up in a linguistic lynch mob to make him the villain of yet another abysmal campaign.
Not that England’s recurring lack of success at virtually every age group can be put down to the person in the dugout. The seniors’ last – and only trophy – was 49 years ago, and the U21s haven’t lifted the European Championship since the 1980s. Clearly our national game’s problems stem intrinsically deeper.
Yet, after so many years of international ineptness, perhaps it’s time the FA did something they’ve never dared to before – appoint a foreign manager to the U21s.
It’s time to face some cold, hard truths. Firstly, that the current dearth of top class English coaches is arguably a bigger issue than the apparent limits of our players. At the end of last season, just nine Premier League managers were English, three of which were relegated, three of which have since been sacked, and only two of which finished in the top half.
Roy Hodgson was deemed an underwhelming appointment by many but was – and probably still is – the best option available, and the FA picked up Southgate for the U21 gig after spending four years unemployed. Home-grown managers haven’t produced silverware for decades and barring the odd miracle worker like Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, the current crop is arguably worse than ever before.
Sceptics will argue a foreign manager wouldn’t have enough knowledge of English players or of our national game. But wait a minute… isn’t our national game the problem?
Many lament the overbearing power of the Premier League, the continual dependency on cheap foreign talent, the increasingly high stakes involved and consequentially, the limited opportunities for younger players. Yet, in my opinion, there’s no debate that the way we coach and play football in this country, from U10s to senior level, from Sunday League to the Premier League, is fundamentally wrong.
Basketball-paced, dangerously open top flight games can provide entertainment to the level of no counterpart across the world, but that shared philosophy continually limits England’s capabilities on the international stage.
Even lesser nations like Croatia, Switzerland and Algeria are comfortable keeping possession for lengthy spells; the Three Lions’ attempts to hold onto the ball consists of a series of laboured passes across the backline before someone inevitably whacks the ball 70 yards, in the hope Wayne Rooney suddenly finds the sprint speed of Usain Bolt to stop it going out for a goal kick.
It’s not a question of natural talent; it’s a question of indoctrination and habit. Only recently have the FA stopped U13s from playing eleven a-side games, and indeed, whilst representing my local park side as a young whippersnapper, matches were predominantly centre-backs hoofing the ball to strikers and the rest of us running around like headless chickens on a full sized pitch.
It produced no learning experience in technique or tactics and became a breeding ground with the almost apocalyptic mantra of only the tallest, the quickest or the strongest prevailing. Football Darwinism at its worst. On the few occasions we did face foreign opposition, their seemingly alien approach of letting the ball do all the work always ripped us apart.
So even if it’s for just ten or fifteen games throughout their entire careers or a handful of occasional training camps, England’s U21s will surely benefit from a manager who hasn’t spent his whole career unwittingly contributing to the perpetual cycle of attritional football. Fresh ideas from abroad; a different style of play; alternate methods of coaching, diet and man management; and the overall influence of simply an non-English perspective on the beautiful game.
The likes of Chris Waddle, Glen Hoddle and David Platt have always been bemused by English players’ hesitation to broaden their knowledge of the game by moving to foreign leagues; this approach ends that ignorance by bringing the ideas of the foreign leagues to them.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be some unknown from the Real Betis academy or the footballing guru in the background of Germany’s recent international success. There are copious amounts of managers already in circulation that can bridge the gap between England and abroad, such as former West Ham and Watford boss Gianfranco Zola, by all accounts an exceptional coach but an unexceptional tactician, ex-Barcelona forward Oscar Garcia, who has spent two years overseeing La Masia – the most successful academy in the world – and two spells in the Championship with Brighton and Watford, or former Spurs boss Martin Jol, a well-proven member of the Dutch management master race.
Are those aforementioned names readily available and raring to go? That’s impossible for me to tell. But after so many years of hoof ball and resulting head scratching when we’re eliminated from the group stages of U21 tournaments – which is now three times in a row and five times from the last nine Championships, two of which we failed to qualify for – clearly a drastic, revolutionary change is needed. It’s time for the FA to go foreign.