The England Debate: Part One | Fixing Grassroots Football

The England Debate: Part One | Fixing Grassroots Football

If you have paid any attention to the recently widespread discussion regarding the future of the England national team, you will understand that the outlook looks fairly bleak unless everybody involved within football in this country joins together to help implement big changes.

The Football Association (FA) chairman Greg Dyke gave a speech last week, detailing how drastic steps need to be taken in order to improve England’s nurturing of young talent and has set the huge target of reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2020 and winning the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

“The FA has to up its game, but all of English football has a problem. All of English football has to find a solution.”

Dyke on the need for a united assault on change.

Dyke and Hodgson

Whether you think that Dyke’s aims are too ambitious or that success in seven to nine years time shouldn’t even be discussed right now, it was always going to divide opinion but at least the former BBC chief looks as though he is establishing plans and that is something that has been extremely scarce at the centre of English football in recent times.

The extortionate premiums Premier League clubs now have to pay for young English flair, eager agents and the influx of foreign talent are three factors that have been blamed for the lack of competitiveness within the present England set up; but, an area that is also fundamentally killing our chances of tasting international glory once more is how grassroots football has been neglected over the last few decades – and it seems we are now all unanimous in pinpointing it as one of the rough spots the FA must start to repair under Dyke’s reign.

Grassroots Football, England’s Outdated Style of Play and the Need to Form a New and Iconic Philosophy on the Pitch through Better Coaching

Sky Sports produced a report following Dyke’s words that shed light on England’s dismal displays, at all international levels recently, compared to the undeniably best examples to follow in Argentina, Spain, Brazil and Germany.

Since 2000, England have only won 34% of their games and the U21, U20 and U19 teams only managed to produce one win in nine games amongst themselves in their respective major competitions this summer.

England are currently 14th in the FIFA World Rankings, behind the likes of Croatia, Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the reason for these worrying statistics lead all the way back to how grassroots education for our up and coming youngsters has been almost abandoned – with a recent survey, from the FA, showing that 84% of people believe that the current grassroots facilities are substandard.

Not only is the quality of coaching miles behind the best, with only 1,161 coaches in England owning a UEFA ‘A’ level badge, compared with 12,720 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany, but the Three Lions’ current philosophy is incredibly outdated and a newer, fresher style is desperately needed as football has kicked-on and changed.

“I still think we’re behind technically and we will be for some time unless we reinvent the will and get a new generation of players playing a different way from a very young age.”

Former England manager, Glenn Hoddle believes a new approach is imperative. 

England’s renowned “On me head, son!” tactics are redundant in the modern game because the sport, on the whole, is virtually becoming non-contact and more and more teams are now turning towards producing intelligent players, who all know how to conjure up chances from dominant possession.

Spain, for example, are educating their players in the age bracket 8-12 in: how to master the ball, how to remain patient and how to unlock any defence in the world. By the time those players are ready for the senior national side, they will have advanced through the U16, U17, U18, U19, U20 and U21 levels playing a certain way – the thriving 4-3-3 false nine formation, and that is why they have been so successful.

The current England squads at all levels lack composure when they have the ball, struggle to string together several passes and the Ukraine result on Tuesday highlighted the hankering to see more creative midfielders produced, who can decide a game through an astute pass.

The FA need to invest more in the manufacturing of better coaches to work in schools, who then have the skills to teach the next generation how to play the modern game, by taking responsibility on and off the field for England.

Teach the homegrown how to play with their head up, receive the ball, use the ball fluidly and the importance of understanding where their team-mates are on the pitch in order to attack with a lot more cutting edge.

There needs to be a new ideology of how to win a football match the ‘England Way’, imprinted on those players’ minds so that they have time to get used to it at a young age, and don’t look out of depth when they’re ready to make the step up to the senior stage; because, the current ‘way’, if there is one, clearly isn’t working with any vigour, but also because a new philosophy is essential.

The likes of Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and many more could be the future for England in some way.

Like Germany have in Oliver Bierhoff, the ex-player now turned general manager, these players could be used at youth level to educate the future stars on what it’s like to play for England after their retirement. Their expertise shouldn’t go to waste and ought to be encouraged into a career in management, much like Gary Neville, by introducing gifted youngsters into a bold and attacking ‘England Way’, whilst they would also be helping the coaches in the evident transitional period that would arrive.

Improving the coaching to get the overall scheme rolling is absolutely vital, as Spain’s current U21 coach, Julen Lopetegui for example has managed the U19, U20 and U21 national sides – winning the U19 championships in 2011 and the U21 in 2013 – and that’s where their success has been built from. Consistency in the tutoring.

In comparison, England’s U21 boss Gareth Southgate’s last job in football management came in 2009 with Middlesbrough. At present, there is no natural progression for the playing squads and nor is there for the managers and coaches from England. Unless this is corrected, players will continue to stagnate in major international competitions and coaches won’t fully develop – hence why Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were both appointed, due to the lack of promising English candidates available.

When the great Vicente Del Bosque steps down as Spain manager, there will naturally be about four or five solid choices who could all step up to succeed him, whereas when Roy Hodgson leaves England in later years, it’s difficult to say right now who would be a shrewd choice to fill his place in the dugout and that is another reason why the FA must ultimately look towards grassroots football.

Is It Currently ‘Too Easy’ to Earn an England Senior Call-up?

With no specific system in place throughout the core of English football on the international front, any player that shows a glimmer of spark or raw ability in the weekend fixtures of the Premier League, are then subsequently linked with a call-up to the senior team and that shows a lack of depth and gradual advancement.

Although Hodgson’s options became increasingly thin through injuries in certain areas, picking rookies Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling and Andros Townsend to fill the numbers ahead of two crunch games against Moldova and Ukraine caused dispute amongst some supporters.

Each player, despite their obvious talent, are only just trying to break into their club’s starting line-ups on a regular basis and are certainly not ready for the pressures of the World Cup qualification battle just yet.

The fact that these players (Townsend, 22, Barkley 19, Sterling, 18) have all made the fast-track leap thanks to a string a good performances in the Premier League doesn’t just put pressure on them so young, as they’re not currently receiving solid guidance in their age group, never mind amongst the big boys, but handpicking three of the England U21s best players has a knock-on effect for the rest of the national squads.

As a result of Ross Barkley being chosen to join the senior squad, Southampton midfielder James Ward-Prowse was called up to the U21 side, who was only a recent U20 pick by Peter Taylor for the FIFA U20 World Cup in the summer just gone.

By selecting these players (Townsend, Barkley, Sterling) from the U21 squad too early, Southgate then has to turn to the best of the U20s to fill his numbers, Taylor thus has to turn to the best of the U19s and so on, which confuses the players about what they think their level is, natural progression through the ranks gets discarded and unless it stops, more young talent such as, Will Hughes (18-year-old recent U21 call-up) for example will continue to be rushed and potentially damaged in the future.

Like what is happening with Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, already being dubbed as the next England captain not long after recovering from an 14-month injury with less than 15 senior caps to his name, the kids are put under extensive pressure to live up to their newly-found ‘Next Big Thing’ tag and a general backlash over their inclusions at the highest point doesn’t help their development.

Experienced players in the top-flight of club football such as Leon Osman and Rickie Lambert, have recently been tried and tested by Hodgson in a bid to ease the reliance on choosing kids too soon and it has worked, with Lambert scoring two goals and making two assists in three games so far.

When Spain began their trend of winning big international tournaments with victory in the 2008 European Championships, Marcos Senna, who was 29 at the time, was given his first international call-up in that tournament under Luis Aragonés and proved to be a stalwart in their team that nobody outside of La Liga saw coming.

jarvis 12-13 Dyer 12-13

Opting for the likes of Kevin Nolan, Nathan Dyer or Matthew Jarvis – players who are more knowledgeable about the Premier League and played well last season – wouldn’t throw up the same amount of pressure as fielding youngsters because they have more to prove and are hungrier right now for that coveted chance to pull on the shirt like Senna and Lambert, whilst England could then focus on producing the young influential players in the final third, bar Wayne Rooney, that aren’t here yet.

Rooney, 27, proved the old saying “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough” right in Euro 2004 as an 18-year-old by scoring four goals for England during the Eriksson years, but the current crop of talent aren’t at that quality and thus grassroots football must be given attention in order to help a new and recognisable style transform.

What Clubs/Managers are Trying to Help Improve English Football and Why the Premier League Mustn’t Lose It’s Shine by Reducing the Amount of Foreign Players

Although there needs to be some sort of onus on grassroots football, there are still football clubs in the English game currently trying to help tackle the problems and are not given enough credit for doing so.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has introduced the likes of Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Ibe and Jerome Sinclair into matches after only gracing the Anfield hotseat last summer, whilst massively improving the likes of Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge.

Steven Gerrard (Senior), Wisdom (U21), Henderson (U21), Conor Coady (U20) and Jordan Rossiter (U16) have all held England captaincies in the last two years and Liverpool are therefore an example club to the rest of the Premier League about how you can still bring talent through, teach them the necessary requirements that come with being a top footballer, whilst getting the correct balance by still spending money on the right overseas player that can improve the team now.

Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert also believes in young players: Matthew Lowton, Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood, Nathan Baker and Joe Bennett all combine to give his side a strong English spine, although only Baker has come directly from the Midlands club’s academy setup.

Each played regular games to help keep Villa in debatably the greatest league in the world – giving them a huge confidence boost and experience –  whilst other young English players such as Jed Steer, will be gradually brought into the first-team just like Rodgers is preaching on Merseyside.

Southampton are another Premier League club who have been doing the same for years with Theo Walcott, Nathan Dyer and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being top English products of the past, and the likes of Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse, Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw are now all mixing in with young native players that have been purchased such as, Jay Rodriguez, Jack Cork, Nathaniel Clyne and Rickie Lambert.

But an aspirational club to try and match in the lower divisions of England is Crewe Alexandra, who have reaped rewards by deploying several academy players such as Max Clayton, AJ Leitch-Smith, Kelvin Mellor, Luke Murphy (now of Leeds) and Matt Tootle into the first team fold, and still went on to win promotion to League One in 2012, and also lifted the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley in April.

These four clubs are meticulous in their youth work and are all living proof that success and good results on the football field can come from it. But the reason why more English clubs won’t follow suit is because of the amount of money now involved in the game means clubs will do anything to secure promotion to benefit from the better funding and don’t care about how they get there.

“I’m working for a chairman and a football club that I want to get promotion with and I want to be successful with to get my career back up and running. The national team, am I interested in it at the moment? I’m a million miles from it.”

Southend United manager Phil Brown explains that fixing English football’s problems is not his remit.

Football is now a business and chairman are becoming more and more trigger-happy, allowing hardly any managers the time to give English youngsters a chance, because they want immediate results for their beloved supporters and also to bring in the money now needed to compete.

The players need games at club level in order to try and flourish because they’re not ready for the national side, but with the vast number of foreign owners in the English game, too, it’s unlikely that they would be interested in helping another country solve its problems in a time when every club needs to pull together.

Managers are fearful of losing their jobs due to the modern chairman’s attitude towards football and as Phil Brown explained, it makes more sense to meet your targets as a manager – by hook and by crook – rather than looking to train young English players for what is only the national team’s benefit at the minute.

In Spanish football, clubs such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Atlético Madrid and Villarreal have ‘second sides’ or competitive reserve teams set up in lower divisions, where their pool of youngsters are introduced to the importance of three points, starting every week and the rigours of maintaining fitness levels.

These players go out on loan to these clubs (Barcelona B, Real Madrid Castilla, Atlético Madrid B, Sevilla Atlético and Villarreal B), which contain the same principles and coaching techniques as the senior teams, and understand that they have the opportunity to impress here and be promoted back to their competitive La Liga outfits when they’re ready – for example Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Cristian Tello, Isaac Cuenca, Martín Montoya, and Sergi Roberto have all done within the FC Barcelona structure.

Wigan boss Owen Coyle brought both Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge to Bolton on loan deals a couple of years ago and has done the same with the Latics through Manchester United’s Nick Powell, whilst just missing out on Liverpool’s Andre Wisdom.

MK Dons manager Karl Robinson, one of the youngest coaches to ever earn a UEFA Pro License at just 29, is also trying to produce and loan through Patrick Bamford (Chelsea) and Jason Banton (Crystal Palace) but not enough managers in England are trying, because the loan system basically doesn’t carry the same importance as it does in Spain.

Barcelona B duo Gerard Deulofeu and Luis Alberto sealed moves to Everton and Liverpool respectively this summer, whilst Spain U20 captain José Campaña joined Crystal Palace for £1.7m from Sevilla and is likely to start the most games in the Premier League, compared to England’s U20 captain Conor Coady, who is currently out on loan at League One side Sheffield United.

The problems are staring England in the face: Premier League clubs are now more interested in going to Spain and taking a gamble on their young talent because they’ve had the fantastic level of coaching, rather than signing an ignored English player – who hasn’t benefitted from the loan system like Deulofeu and Bojan Krkić (Ajax) at Barcelona will do this season.

More lower league managers and clubs, like Coyle and Robinson, need to be allowed the same relaxation towards the loan market and developing young players as there is in La Liga and the Bundesliga by their chairman.

Putting a quota system to protect the national team and reduce the amount of foreign players being fielded has been widely suggested, but that would be absolutely detrimental to the excitement and the brand that is the Premier League.

English football has some of the most talented foreign players there is, but if you put a tab on the amount allowed in, then they would leave and move to La Liga and the Bundesliga – only to make their leagues even stronger than they are now.

That would then put too much emphasis on England’s youngsters, and as they’re currently not good enough, the Premier League would then lose its taste and become troublingly boring.

Final Judgement

Overall, English football does need to amalgamate in order to help improve the national team but for all the reasons discussed, without even scratching the surface of other dilemmas, clubs aren’t interested in doing that at the moment and it has to be the long term goal of trying to establish a level playing field, rather than targeting World Cup success just yet.

The loan market must carry enhanced importance, whilst grassroots football for the encouragement of better coaches and players is something the FA should start looking into first.