Shout Out From The Stands – The Future Of English Football

England crashed out early on in the World Cup (Image from Andy Hooper)

With England’s recent failures in the 2014 World Cup, questions are again being asked of the ability of young English players as world-class footballers, and also of the Academy and National Team development models that are producing these players.  England’s record at major tournaments in recent years is not impressive:

Team Tournament Played Won
England First Team FIFA World Cup 2014 3 0
England U21 UEFA U21 European Championships 2013 3 0
England U20 FIFA U20 World Cup 2013 3 0

Observers may point out the fact that England U17 won the European Championships earlier this year, however the U17 also won the Euros in 2010 and many players progressed through to U21 but did not continue in the same vain. In contrast, football nations Spain and Germany, whose player development models are looked on enviously by many coaches within England, have recent youth victories to add to their prowess in these elite tournaments:

Team UEFA U21 European Championships FIFA U20 World Cup UEFA U19 European Championships UEFA U17 European Championships
England 2 (last won 1984) 0 9 (last won 1993) 2 (last won 2014)
Germany 1 (last won 2009) 1 (last won 1981) 2 (last won 2008) 3 (last won 2009)
Spain 3 (last won 2012) 1 (last won 1999) 9 (last won 2012) 8 (last won 2008)

So what are we doing as a nation to address these recent failings on a European and world stage?

In May this year The FA commission produced a report that aimed to improve the performance of future England teams and create players that could compete on a world stage. The review, headed by The FA Chairman Greg Dyke, stated only 32% of starting players qualified to play for England in the 2012-13 Premier League season, compared to 69% 20 years ago. The commission sets “ambitious but realistic” targets of increasing the number of English players in the Premier League to 45% by 2022, which would still be lower than figures already achieved in Spain and Germany.

The FA commission identified four perceived problem areas in the game in this country that included;

1. Inadequate competitive playing opportunities for 18-21 year-old elite players at top clubs

2. Ineffective regulation of the player market in England

3. Coaching and coach development, especially at grassroots level, not at satisfactory level and

4. Quantity and quality of affordable grassroots facilities.

However what The FA commission failed to recognise is that England’s NGB, and the Premier League and Charter for Quality structures they approved in the 1990s, have significantly contributed to these problem areas. Howard Wilkinson’s ‘Charter for Quality’ set out to address the coaching standards for young English players, however 20 years on The FA commission are laying some of the blame at the coaching, and in particular coaches at grassroots level. The FA is the organisation that delivers the coach education courses to these aspiring coaches therefore the content, methods and strategies projected through these courses have the power to influence and shape the grassroots coaches. Furthermore, The FA spent £750 million on Wembley stadium; a venue that is used for football no more than 20 times per season and has no impact on player development whatsoever, and the commission then concludes that there is a lack of quality football facilities at the disposal of players in this country! How many quality 3G facilities would £750 million have produced and more importantly how many players and coaches would have benefitted from said facilities? These issues are past failings of the footballing authorities in England and they also belong in the past. It is now time that people involved in the game in this country, at all levels, are proactive and united in addressing the underlying problems of player development to ensure our youngsters can compete on the world stage in years to come. Firstly as a country we need to produce and deliver on a national Identity and philosophy. Spain have tiki-taka, Germany have gegenpressing, the Dutch have total football yet England are void of any identity and playing style that runs through the core of all football clubs and national representative sides. The FA’s attempt at producing a vision through ‘The Future Game’ document was underpinned by the following statement by Director of Football Sir Trevor Brooking; “We must ensure that we are producing English players for our national side who have the same technical ability as players from other major football nations.” Why do we as a nation want to produce players who are as good as players from other nations?

The issues raised in Howard Wilkinson's 'Charter for Quality' have not been addressed properly by the FA  (Image from Getty)
The issues raised in Howard Wilkinson’s ‘Charter for Quality’ have not been addressed properly by the FA
(Image from Getty)

Belgium’s resurgence on the world stage and production of world-class players owes itself to the formation and delivery of a national identity and philosophy. Belgium FA Technical Director, Michel Sablon, developed a ‘Belgium Blueprint’ in the early 2000’s and targeted three groups; clubs, the national team and school coaches. Sablon asked all three groups to adopt the same vision and asked them to play a certain way below U18 levels (4-3-3 with wingers and three midfielders and a flat back four). Sablon faced stiff resistance from some areas but was armed with academic research to underpin that the development model in Belgium at the time was flawed and called for a unified approach to develop players. The results speak for themselves with Belgium currently in the last 16 of the FIFA World Cup having produced a golden generation of Belgian players including  Kompany, Hazard, Fellaini,  Benteke, Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele, Nacer Chadli, Vermaelen and Romelu Lukaku. Furthermore, SFA Performance Director Mark Wotte has recently adopted Sablon’s blueprint in an attempt to improve player development in Scotland. To deliver on a national identity and philosophy, players need to understand and be immersed in the countries vision through Regional Talent Centres. Again, this would involve collaboration between clubs and the National Governing Body, with talented players at each age group being released on a monthly basis to attend a regional centre and train alongside other elite players. This would have numerous benefits as players become engrained in the philosophy and understand roles and requirements at every stage of their development. Also training alongside other talented youngsters on a regular basis will stretch and challenge the players. Both Germany and Belgium operate Regional Talent Centres, with elite clubs sending players to receive further training and guidance. Players like Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger were educated in the German FA’s Youth Centres, and as a result German clubs don’t need to spend millions of euros on foreign players!

Germany continues to produce quality players  (Image from PA)
Germany continues to produce quality players
(Image from PA)

As highlighted in The FA’s commission report, there also needs to be a substantial investment in grassroots facilities & coaches if we are to have a large talent pool of players to develop. Across England, grassroots fixtures are constantly cancelled, young players have to play on waterlogged, muddy or dangerous surfaces where skill and technique are even harder to acquire, and some players are discouraged from turning up at all as they often have to change in car parks rather than adequate changing facilities. This has a detrimental impact on not only the number of young people playing football but also the way the game is played. The number of potential players football has lost due to inadequate, or even worse, no pitches nearby that support the development of young players is immeasurable. Finally, the area of The FA’s commission that has caused the biggest debate in football circles is the proposal of ‘League 3’ to address competitive playing opportunities for elite 18-21 year olds. The biggest barrier that is preventing young English players breaking into first teams is potentially nothing to do with talent and ability, more the pressures and time constraints Chairmen put Managers under to deliver success. The average tenure of a professional football manager is 17 months, therefore why would a manager take a chance on a talented 18 year old prospect who may need 6 games, 8 games or a full season to settle in when they can purchase an average European player who is ‘proven’? The quota of English players in each Premier League squad needs to change in order to allow talented youngster to train and play with first teams rather than be sent out on loan.How does a talented young player at a Premier League club benefit from playing against other U18-U21 players (who he has probably competed against at junior level season on season) or by playing in League 1 or League 2? The talented youngsters biggest benefit in terms of development and learning the game would come by training and playing with elite professionals day in and day out. In Italy, AC Milan have 15-year-old Hachim Mastour training and playing with the first team. Whilst it is imperative that the youngster is allowed time to grow, develop and make mistakes, clearly his ability dictates that in order to develop he needs to be challenged and that this challenge comes through playing with experienced pro’s.

Hachim Mastour is being given first team exposure despite his young age  (Image from PA)
Hachim Mastour is being given first team exposure despite his young age
(Image from PA)

England’s recent performances, never mind results, on a European and World stage have highlighted our deficiencies as a football nation but rather than criticize and point the finger of blame at The FA, the professional clubs or the Coaches and Managers, now is the time to be unified and address the issue of player development using a collaborative approach. Egos need to be put aside and it is time to be proactive and not reactive. It is up to the governing bodies to get the right people around the table and demand and drive change in order to give future generations the chance to hold their head up high and announce they are an English footballer!

Article by Paul Bright (Academy Manager at FC United of Manchester) – On Twitter @BrightyFCUM

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