As the past week brought exciting news of the impending releases of both FIFA 17 and Football Manager 2017, the biggest two games in terms of relevance of the footballing genre around, a fan of either of the franchises, or both (as I passionately am), could have been forgiven for thinking Christmas had come early. A defining aspect of the modern day, games in the sporting genre surely couldn’t have dreamt they would’ve got to the point where millions gather just to revel in the pre-release hype for their much-loved £40-a-year disks, while YouTubers, bloggers and national journalists cover breaking news regarding new features or graphical revamps. These are games that have gone from glitchy, graphically laughable cult heroes to cutting-edge, box office-smashing cornerstones of lad, and footballing, culture in the modern day, with unimaginable amounts of fans right across the globe, breaking records and pushing boundaries with every single release. But how, and why, have games such as FIFA, Football Manager, PES, Top Eleven and Flick Kick Soccer have become so popular (and financially successful) across the platforms of PC, Xbox/PlayStation and iOS/Android in the age of technological revolution when they have so many competitors in the video game market with higher quality products? How much further can they now go too, given that they have a formula that is proven as successful, and we are starting to see their influence at top clubs with official FIFA players, and in the Premier league with noticeable sponsorship from EA?
Starting off with clunky graphics, hard-to-master controls and fondly remembered titles such as International Soccer, Kick Off, Match Day, NES Soccer, Atari 2600 RealSports and Goal! over the course of the 1980’s, the culture of football video games rapidly grew from a few hundred sales to (partial) worldwide success, without any company ever sustaining off of it. Each game brought new and interesting niches, capturing the imaginations of a vast market of young football fans, carrying onto the early 90’s with this pattern. But many game producers were under pressure to keep producing new concepts to stay in business, so couldn’t afford to risk returning to their once-successful games to reproduce annual editions, and as a result, there were no real dominant players in the market.
But this all changed when the world football governing body leant their name and approval to a burgeoning American video game brand, Electronic Arts (for no small fee on EA’s part), and thus the FIFA game legacy was born with FIFA 94 being released in the late weeks of 1993. The game only contained International teams, with no genuine player names, but it had everything that was required to succeed, improving graphics and gameplay (other than a glitch from which you could score by standing in front of the goalkeeper). Most importantly though, it capitalised on the interest in the 1994 World Cup, hosted on EA’s home turf, possibly a player in the global federation’s decision to hand them the rights to their name. EA never looked back from that point on, with ever-growing sales year on year, breaking the mould of football games with everything they did, and winning the hearts – as well as hard-earned cash – of millions.
New players came onto the scene at this point, sensing the potential of a franchise boosting notoriety and profits with increasing annual sales corresponding with improved quality for the customer, as Championship Manager (growing after its 1992 release) and Goal Storm (originating in 1997) began on their paths to glory. By 2001, the latter had become the now world-famous (as a result of the FIFA vs PES debate) Pro Evolution Soccer, while after an unceremonious break-up with Eidos Interactive, the creators of the former, Sports Interactive, merged with Sega to form Football Manager in 2004. Ever since, all three games have had incredible success, employing more and more talented game mechanics and graphic artists every year to produce the most up-to-date and streamlined editions of these beautiful games there can be. They each have their competitive advantages, their unique aspects which allow them to keep drawing fans back, but there is no doubt that they have become titans of not just the sporting genre of video gaming, but of the entirety of the gaming industry, winning over the hearts and minds of many a football fan, from 6 years old to 60, with enduring appeal, much like the game itself they all parody.
But why do we all (well, many of us at least) love them? Well, in my opinion, I would say it is because they are an escape from the reality of both football and everyday life; taking away the nitty-gritty, petulant imperfections to the beautiful game and instead creating a world which focuses on the one important aspect of it; the actual football. It puts us in the positions we would love to be in; the managers, the players and the chairmen, making all the decisions which seem so simple to us and transforming the fortunes of clubs like Accrington Stanley, FC United of Manchester, or in my case Forest Green Rovers, giving us the power to shape the game we want. If there is a more immersive and wonderfully unrealistic gaming experience out there which can still parade itself as a ‘simulator’ of real life, I’d like to know about it, because I don’t feel games like FIFA and Football Manager can be beaten on this. If there was a tagline for these games to run on, for me it would be ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous; the power is in your hands to shape your footballing world’. Seriously, in the year 2036 in my current FM16 save (yes, another instalment of what’s happening in Football Manager for me), Lionel Messi just became manager of Swansea, sitting 19th in the Championship. You just cannot make this stuff up.
One of the things that these games get so right is the emotional journey. If you are like me, über-competitive, you will get truly involved in the path to possible glory for your club, and will share the kind of joy from a win or despondence from a loss for your side as you would in real life, even if you were managing a side you had never heard of before. To be able to get so emotionally wrapped up in the story of a football club, one which you are writing yourself, is a magical experience, and in all honesty hard to explain as to how it happens every single time, as maybe it is just one of those biological things about sport; how it brings out the rawest emotions in anyone.
Other than being emotional rollercoasters, these games also play a vital role in lad culture, perfectly summing up the phenomenon of the man-child, as we all revel in the social entertainment they provide, bringing mates together of any age to reminisce, have a chat and get competitive to become the unopposable champion of the art of gaming. If you think about it, playing the video game version of the beautiful game has become the new going-down-to-the-park-with-your-mates kind of ritual, a way to connect with others who have a passion of our sport, and I very much doubt that will change over the next few decades. It has become the social norm for any football fan to be an avid player of all the computer games based on the sport, as many companies have capitalised on a gloriously untapped market and delving into the depths of possibility to gauge how deep the market really is for these types of games. Luckily for EA Sports, as well as Sports Interactive here in the UK, they have found mind-boggling success from their partnerships with the various clubs, leagues and federations of world football, and I think that success can go a lot further, as they have both already survived the tests of two, maybe even three, generations who have all been firm favourites of the games.
But the profiteers of the growing sales EA, Sports Interactive and many more game companies are seeing are not just the producers themselves, rather the actual football organisations themselves. The best analogy I could give the relationship between the big cheeses at these top footballing federations and the ambitious salesmen of these flashy new products is that it is similar to that of the African Rhinos and Cattle Egrets, stork-like white birds who perch on the backs of large mammals in the savannah. I’m sure you must have seen it on a David Attenborough documentary, where the egret sits on the back of the rhino and feeds off the numerous ticks which disturb and wound the rhino, protecting the short-sighted beast from predators with high-pitched calls and performing a vital role to its survival, while the horned creature provides the food which the bird needs to be successful. This is one of the most basic examples of a mutualistic relationship, in which both sides get no more than they give and are both rewarded by the achievement of one another. The way this works with our game producers and Premier League representatives, let’s say, in the human world, is that as the Premier League strikes a deal to allow the game to use its name, club and league logos, player identities, stadiums and rules, the game company can make a more realistic in-game experience, therefore selling more copies, and bringing profits into both companies, as the Premier League gets a cut of the revenue.
This isn’t all though, as the success of a video game bringing in new fans to the sport, as well as retaining the interest of millions of fans who could potentially be lost in between game weeks, can result in higher ticket sales for real life matches, higher viewing figures on Sky Sports and Match of the Day and healthier merchandise sales for clubs. This combination of positive things for clubs and leagues can then result in droves of new sponsorship deals falling their way, as more companies will spot how big a deal the league, or each club, is in society, and decide they want a slice of that pie. Results on the stranger side for clubs around the world from FIFA and Football Manager might include new fans from half way around the globe that have never attended a match, but heard about them through the game and got swept up in the emotion. I know I’ve definitely felt like a fan of the likes of Forest Green, Gainsborough Trinity, St Mirren and Deportivo La Coruña during my stints managing them in various editions of Football Manager. I also know of many stories where fans have travelled the world over to witness their adopted club play and get involved in the story, whether that be purchasing a share, organising a fan club, or volunteering at the club on match days, proving that amazing things can happen just from loading up FIFA or FM one day and discovering something totally new.
The point is, these simple computer games can create commercial opportunities that were impossible and unimaginable 25 years ago in the days before the world wide web (first booted up in August 1991), linking people from each corner of the globe together, allowing them to share stories and research anything they like in a matter of seconds. This is the future of football; and clubs have to join in on the freight train or risk being left behind in the shadow of a commercial paradise. Global partnerships are what are making football so interesting, compelling and fantastic in the modern day, linking people together who otherwise would never had even been aware of one another, and this is partly thanks to the FIFA/Football Manager-led revolution of instantaneous fandom.
It’s important to note then, that one of the most significant changes these games have seen from their birth up to now is the variety of leagues and teams that you can manage and play for, vastly broadening the footballing spectrums of millions around the world, and becoming part of the education of new football fans. For example, who knew of the teams in the Spanish Liga Adelante, Dutch Jupiler League or Welsh Premier League outside of their home nations before they spotted them on the databases of FIFA or FM? Who memorised hundreds, if not thousands, of club badges, from scrolling through the options of clubs to take over, and has since become an expert in naming each? Who has since gone on to become a true connoisseur of the beautiful game, a footballing hipster, ever since they picked up these life-changing games? Millions of people, that’s your answer. These mere games have altered perceptions, expanded horizons and brought people together by just being masterpieces of creation, ambitious enough to try different things and take risks in introducing new leagues which might not bring vast commercial income, but sticking to their guns in pursuit of perfection. I can do nothing but love games like FIFA and Football Manager for whetting my footballing appetite and allowing me to roam free with football, learning so much and honestly inspiring me to do what I do today, as I was playing FIFA far earlier than I was running around in the playground against those who actually had a bit of skill with the ball. Honestly, I don’t think you’d be reading this blog right now if it wasn’t for my endless hours spent playing various editions of FIFA or Football Manager.
How far can these games go in the future though? Well, they can continue to capture the imaginations of millions of young fans for a start, while sharpening up graphics and the reality of their gameplay, working with the platform designers at Xbox, PlayStation, Apple and Steam to really make these games second only to actually playing or watching a match of football. Virtual reality may be the next big step, but the heart of the game must remain in giving the gift of football to generations of new fans, with the chance to just have fun with the most popular participation sport around the world. Sometimes we can get too carried away with the sad reality of modern day football, but it is impossible to hate games like FIFA and FM (even if they do charge £40 for one copy of their software) because they strip away all the lamentable and regrettable aspects about the game, focusing on what really matters; the actual game. That is why these titles do so well, because we would all rather focus on that part of the package, the human part where we can just have fun, that crux of any sport which has enduring and endless appeal to (almost) everyone who gets involved in it, that one special thing which keeps us sticking around for more and more of the crazy game. Let’s just hope that we can continue to be blessed with that one thing for many moons more, rather than being blinded and misguided by the rest, as we all need a bit more enjoyment from a sport, which like any other, was invented for the rawest of human emotions; fun.
While this may not seem the most relevant topic for me to focus on this week (considering no more games are being played in the competition until 4th October), I felt something had to be said on this subject in response to all the negativity surrounding the tournament during the first round of matches. Also, I do have to admit I found little inspiration from any other topics in my judgement this week, so this was in a way the subject that found me. Anyway, I’ve heard a lot of arguments against the reformation of what was previously the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, into what is now the EFL/Checkatrade Trophy, in recent weeks, stating beliefs that it could only be a bad thing for English football, but I see a totally different situation to these sceptics. Maybe it's because I’m an outsider to the tournament, I haven’t attended any matches, I haven’t seen any on TV, nor have I been involved in the creation of the competition, but one thing I do hold is being a passionate fan of the English national team, as well as Brighton and Hove Albion, whose under-23’s are taking part in Group G in the Southern section of the Trophy. From my perspective, then, the changes only seem a positive thing, but I definitely understand the points put forward by opposition to the new version of the Trophy, and have put them into consideration before forming my own opinion on what the EFL Trophy could mean for English football, from the senior national side to the lesser sides of Leagues One and Two. Sticking up for the money men and providing a positive opinion of something they’ve done for once; here I am declaring my support for the new EFL Trophy.
First off, I think I might as well clear up what the aforementioned changes are to what was previously (to me, anyway, considering I’ve only known it ever since I first played FIFA, in what must’ve been 2009) the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, although strictly speaking it was the Football League Trophy. Just to make sure there are no doubts, the FA introduced the concept of a 64-team group stage, in which there are eight sets of four sides, in both the Northern and Southern sections, including a total of 16 academy sides, most of which are under-23 sides. Prior to this, the tournament ran on a set-up of immediate knockout football with the 48 clubs of Leagues One and Two, with the Northern and Southern sections very much in place. So, basically the change is that there are far more sides competing; there is an extra round to the competition and, biggest of all, academy sides, with no history of competitive senior matches, no independent stature, nor any budgets of their own to bring players in.
Naturally, then, there was bound to be a slight (bit of an understatement) backlash to the alterations, as the cynics and stereotypically rigid fans crawled out of their holes in the ground at the opportunity to lambast the changes on Twitter, club forums and blogs, much like this one. It’s these kind of people (although I could be classed as one myself, oh the irony) who really tarnish the reputation of football fans everywhere (well, more than it has already been), as they seem to only want to discourage brave and forward-thinking change in favour of keeping things regimentally as they currently are, in an ineffective and backwards system. It’s as if they feel it is their duty to protect the sacred ways of old from the changing times of the 21st Century, holding onto even the smallest, most insignificant things in their lives until they realise they really have no say over the matter. Or maybe it’s just a hipster way to think; going against the grain, with ‘edgy’, ‘retro’ opinions, shrugging shoulders and spilling hummus in their finely-shaped beards as they get across their totally ‘individual’ beliefs, man. Yeah, right, mate.
Back to the blog, please. Alright, Will, let’s do this. Before I get into the benefits that my (usually) unspectacled eyes can make out, I’ll run through the main points that the doubters of this new age put forward as their main objections. Primarily, my understanding is that the overall lack of young English players in the academies of the sixteen sides was the main weapon in their arsenal in their pursuit of something – oh yes, it must have been reversion back to the old system, which altogether appears ridiculous and totally unrealistic. And yes, this is definitely an understandable point to use to get an advantage over the side of the debate that those at the FA, as well as people like me, back up, as without the right statistics it is pretty difficult to come back from, glancing over the results and line-ups last week. Well, after some extensive research on my part, I have discovered that this argument may actually be a little redundant, especially when you compare the figures against the precious League One and League Two sides of these ‘standing up for the little guy’ artists. On average, in the Northern section, in the first round of matches, academy sides fielded a total of 2.375 non-British (for this, I’m defining it as anyone not of English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish nationality) players in their starting XI, while their opponents responded with an exactly identical average of 2.375. In the Southern section, however, academy sides started with a mean of 2.75 foreigners, whereas their League One/Two counterparts (the ones they played, anyway) had a very similar 2.625. I must add, as well, the likes of Chelsea, Southampton and Middlesbrough, all Premier League clubs with highly developed academies that would imagine are packed full of foreigners, only started one overseas player each, whereas League One sides Milwall and Bradford both selected five, yes five, foreigners players, representing a surprisingly high 45% of their starting elevens.
Many were also quick to point out some notable use of the rather lax rules to the advantage of academies as well, as Leicester used Luis Hernandez, Marcin Wasilewski and Yohan Benalouane, whilst Stoke played Marc Muniesa and Charlie Adam, Sunderland used Jan Kirchhoff and Jason Denayer, and Swansea started Marvin Emnes and Gerhard Tremmel. Yes, all of these players are senior professionals and shouldn’t be playing all that often in their clubs’ under-23 sides, but they all required match fitness, and this was the best way to get it for them. All they needed was the one match to get back into their stride, and they will not have to bother with the competition again, there’s nothing too bad about that, surely? Anyway, who hasn’t moved a few of their senior players who aren’t getting a game into the under-21’s or under-18’s in Football Manager? You can’t have it both ways you know…
But I suppose the wider point I should be honing in on is the development of young British players, the whole point of this new format, and whether it is working. Well, honestly, you’d be foolish and short-sighted to look at the system already and comment on whether young players are coming though, because, after all, there’s only been one round of matches played so far. Looking over the academy squads entered this season though, I’d argue that there are many decent options that, if they performed well against senior Football League teams, could definitely stake down places in the youth set-ups of England (or Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). For example, Chelsea’s academy featured ten Englishmen in their XI against Swindon, of whom one was 16, three were 17, five were 18, one was 19, and their substitute goalscorer Mukhtar Ali was also English, and 18. If such promise, demonstrated by a side losing only 2-1 away to a League One side in their first professional match, is there at such a young age at clubs with incredible world-class facilities such as Chelsea, surely there is a future for the England team.
Admitted, it’s not as if every one of them will go on to represent the senior national team, but each of them do have the experience of playing for their country at some youth stage, ranging from under-17’s up to under-21’s, and also now have the string to their bows that they have competed to the very end against senior professional sides, which can only be a positive for their development. Learning to play in different situations, against players of different builds, and being the underdogs, these players are getting the workout they honestly deserve if they are going to progress through the ranks at club and international levels. And it’s important to stress that this isn’t just the case for Chelsea’s youth players, this is the case at a lot of the top youth academies across the country, and could be for so many more if they were accepted into competitions such as these, as well as the possible future addition of B Teams into professional leagues.
Now, I know that as soon as I have said that, the vehement and uncompromising doubters of the system will have made their minds up about my mental state, stating that anybody who believes in the future of B Teams in the English football league structure is crazy and wildly optimistic. But I see the possible opportunity for the introduction of youth sides into professional senior leagues as a purely positive thing, for so many reasons. First off, the ‘hipster’ fans - only really as hipster as the moaning octogenarians who share their views of a return to the ‘good old days’, which ironically, are also crazy and totally unrealistic - will be lamenting the structure of the Premier League and it’s astronomically fast growth into the biggest league in the world. As you could probably guess, they aren’t fans of the league with the widest array of foreign talent in the world, as if representing the jealous neighbours, peering through their curtains at the party next door, where waves of rich business partners have been invited by the flashy family next-door, and are feasting on a delectable platter of nibbles sourced from every corner of the earth, purely for the entertainment of the guests. They then start to complain to each other in their own front room, whilst also ironically tucking into a dinner made from ingredients which have travelled half the world to get to the plate. If you hadn’t guessed, the food represents foreign players, and how those who are sticking up for League One and League Two clubs are actually creating the problems they later criticise by overanalysing the ways others (in the Premier League) do things, without looking in the mirror as they do the exact same, proven by the statistics I dug up earlier on how many overseas players Football League clubs did use. Maybe they do it just to provoke a response, or to gain views, or to stick to the unbending philosophy they set themselves up to follow (by the way, the main blog I am pointing the finger at here is the Stand Against Modern Football article from almost two months ago now, from a website and cause I’d usually be supporting, but not on this matter).
Aside from this, one of the most mind-bending and genuinely laughable contradictions to their argument is that they would never actually care about the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, or now the Checkatrade Trophy by sponsorship reckonings, unless the Premier League, or the militarily-imposed dictatorship of modern football, as they might call it, actually got involved in the first place. They would toddle along, not giving the tournament a second thought, as their sworn enemies hadn’t given it a glance either, instead attacking modern football on any of a spinning tombola’s-worth full of subjects. But as soon as those ‘in power of the game’, the FA, who can do no right in their eyes, touched their now-sacred tournament, oh they just had to do something to stand up and get their voice heard. It doesn’t change anything; it wouldn’t make those at the FA tremble in their boots and rethink their whole lives overnight, and it most certainly won’t revert things to how they were in the golden days of… oh yes, 2015, the time that those against modern football are supposed to hate.
Besides the points those writing these articles make, it’s not as if the clubs who actually competed over the past few years, those county towns and historical settlements of around 100,000 inhabitants in the modern day, say your average Crawley Town’s, Chesterfield’s, Colchester’s or Oldham’s (the four sides I could find best representing 100,000 people each), actually cared for the tournament anyway. Of course, they respected it and put out reasonably acceptable excuses for their best teams, but for those in the boardroom, manager’s office, or the dressing room, it was never the first priority of the season for which they would focus their resources, rather the fourth, after the League, FA Cup, and the similarly renamed EFL Cup (League Cup). So why the sudden backlash by supporters, many of whom have decided to take part in a ‘#bteamboycott’ (idiotic, as nothing has really happened with the introduction of B Teams yet), leaving stadiums half full for EFL Trophy matches? Well, I suppose it’s a bit like the vote to leave the European Union by British voters really, as they just want a way to display their anger with the establishment, even though their lives have probably been improved in the wider picture by it, and a simple protest seemed the best way to do it. They think they’re being smart, but honestly they are an embarrassment, and more than anything a sad testament to the backwards thinking and overall lack of wider social progress in this county over the past 50 to 75 years. They want out of a system that is working, but is clearly imperfect, as they have been tricked into thinking the grass would be greener if they voted with their feet into a fluffy and non-existent future by ‘edgy’ and ‘relatable’ rebel rousers. Wow, I never realised the #bteamboycott was so much like the EU Referendum, now that is shocking. The only difference is, I suppose, that the former is being performed by hipster millennials.
If these misguided people actually admired the facts and statistics of the debate, I’m sure they minds could be made up a different way much quicker than they believe. And no, you are allowed to swallow your pride if you are proven wrong, you can change your opinion, it’s not shameful to do so, as our society would like to suggest to you, with newspapers for people of different social classes to further divide every one of us. You don’t have to be influenced by anyone, just, if you were smart, by cold, hard facts, which better present the situation better than any politician ever could with clever word-play and techniques of speaking which have been drilled into them with hours of relentless media training.
Right, so the facts are, on the B Team debate, that the very system of youth teams in senior professional leagues is used in (amongst others) Spain, Germany, Portugal, Japan, the Netherlands and most recently the USA, which allowed academy sides into their third tier, the United Soccer League, from 2014, but not currently, nor ever in the past, by England. So, the winners of the last five tournaments available to European nations in the first three, the side that has been champions of Asia in four of the eight Asian Cups they have entered, the nation that has been second and third in the past two World Cups, and a rapidly growing homeland for modern football which have gone further in the past two World Cups than England. Hmmmm, something seems to be going on here, doesn’t it? Some sort of pattern emerging? Well, it’s not by chance, as the youth of these nations have been allowed to prosper by testing themselves early against the talent of senior, bulkier, more experienced professionals, whilst in England they are held back like toddlers from the real world, only to be thrown in after an injury crisis, in which they are judged to fit the bill or fall out the back door after just 90 minutes of action. Something about our approach doesn’t seem all that fair, does it? Obviously, the debate for B Teams is something for another day, for both me and the FA, but I think it would be unwise to back such a move towards keeping up, honestly, with the rest of the cutting-edge world, rather than trying to prove we are the best with our embarrassing, outdated style.
Those who criticise the changes to the EFL Trophy this season by using the simple tagline that ‘it will lead to the introduction of B Teams’ as if it is some evil, never to even be mentioned in conversation, let alone suggested as a real possibility, are the ones who infuriate me the most though. They play to the theme that everyone is like-minded to them, just sat there complaining about ‘football these days’ with a sigh and a scrunched up nose in anger of the very cheek of these youngsters to come along and ruin our game, when they are the ones that are holding back football from what it could be.
The potential in introducing a ‘League Three’ as some believe it will be – in which the Football League system becomes split into five divisions of 20 sides, with eight academy sides (or more) to supplement the 92 league clubs – would be immense for the future of football in this country, as it would give our youngsters serious opportunities to progress. These sides wouldn’t be focusing on making money (as their senior sides would be the businesses), but just playing football and improving skill, some of which would accordingly turn out on the international stage for England, adding to the options in the National Pool for future national team managers, some of whom might even begin their careers in charge of academy sides. Worried about too many foreigners getting in the academy sides of each club? Campaign for changes from the FA, who will, I’m certain, get it sorted, as it is in their interest, and their complete control, to improve opportunities for English players. When you put it like that, it doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Granted, everything wouldn’t be 100% perfect, but nothing ever is these days. Honestly though, you have to give these things time, as five to ten years will be the time period in which change is clearly seen, and surely we as fans can’t be the ones to get in the way of positive, forward-thinking change in society? Even if it doesn’t quite bring wide-scale changes to the fate of the English national team in a decade’s time, at least giving these constitutional changes to the EFL Trophy, and possibly support towards the involvement of B Teams, would be worth the risk? Or are we too set in our ways, too resistant to change, too brainwashed by history, to ever see things in the way they should be; with hope? I seriously hope, for the sake of English football, that the latter isn’t the truth.
Their national team has been on a soul-sapping wane ever since the 1980’s, one of their big two sides has been missing from the top flight for almost five years after mismanaging finances and the world seems to have given up on the commercial future of the sport in the nation, but it’s hardy inhabitants have remained admirably loyal to the system. No, it’s not some dilapidated Eastern European country or a principality in deepest, darkest South America, this is the story of a nation rather closer to home, in fact just north of the border (as I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title) if you live here in England, a veritable ocean of cash and prosperity for football in the modern age. While one UK territory is counting its stacks of billions, sitting pretty on a golden throne paid for by foreign investors, its brother-in-arms has been left to a life of scrimping and dreaming of a brighter future whilst stuck with an outdated and stale system. On the weekend of both the Manchester and Old Firm derbies, I don’t think these two fixtures have shown so many glaring opposites in their considerable histories, and it is painful to witness, especially considering how good Celtic and Rangers, amongst others, actually were in the past. What better build-up, then, to a blog about the past, present and especially the future of Scottish football, and how it is struggling to keep up in a world that is considerably different to the one which Kenny Dalglish, Ally McCoist, Paul Gascoigne or even Henrik Larsson graced during their vastly impressive footballing careers.
Let’s get it clear, the Old Firm derby is still a season-defining fixture for all involved in Glaswegian, as well as Scottish, football, but it doesn’t quite boast the big names and high-quality offerings that would engross viewers from around the world and force the likes of Sky Sports and BT Sport to really offer them the type of air time and build-up they would, for example, ironically hand the Manchester derby. Basically, Scottish football is being ignored, with the exception of possibly just this fixture, by the world’s sporting media, for a number of obvious, and a few less glaring reasons, which seriously hamper any thoughts the heads of the SFA (Scottish Football Association) or the SPFL (Scottish Professional Football League) may have of drawing in the investment like their English cousins have. I’ll take you through these reasons, detailing how each has restricted the roaring lion that could be Scottish football, in a straightjacket from joining their English, Spanish, Italian, German and French counterparts on the other side of the prison bars, and how they could possibly be fixed. So follow me over the border and into the land of – forgive the cultural stereotypes - William Wallace, Haggis, Irn Bru and Kilts as we go from the Old Firm to Queen of the South vs Stranraer, Hearts vs Hibs to East Stirlingshire vs Stenhousemuir and of course East Fife vs Forfar on a whistle-stop tour, exploring the upsides and drawbacks of being a small nation in a big footballing world in 2016.
Well, first off, as we enter Scotland, it should be said that this is only a micro-nation (inside the UK, but more than likely soon to be outside of it) of around 5 million people, which has overachieved culturally and economically on the world stage, much like the rest of the UK, over its considerable history. Given it’s rocky, dramatic and challenging terrain, especially prevalent in the vast Highlands and numerous isolated islands in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean, it is plain to see why, despite being only 1.63 times smaller than England in land mass, its population is only one eleventh of the English total (of 55 million, in case you were struggling). From a population of 5,000,000 (or just above), then, I should imagine that the cut of those who are fit, youthful and willing enough to become semi-professional (male) footballers is fairly small, especially compared to England, around 100,000-250,000 people I would assume (this is including a number of players who might turn to other popular sports such as Rugby, Tennis, Golf, Athletics or Tossing the Caber). From this, only 30,000 or so will ever make it far enough every decade, with the requisite skill, to reach the squads of SPFL clubs, most of which will be in League Two or League One, rather than the actually professional (as England would rank them, a study showed Ross County players in 2013/14 earned £692 a week despite being in the top division) Championship or Premiership. So, summing up, the talent pool is pretty small for Scottish clubs to prosper with, so they do, at the top level, have to import overseas talent to cover the needs of the managers, who have pretty high expectations (especially Brendan Rodgers, considering he’s had the budget of Liverpool to work with before), as well as the fans, who want to see a high standard of football.
As if a lack of quality home-grown players wasn’t bad enough, the lack of professional or semi-professional clubs to go with it, limiting the opportunities for the small number of players, is a terrible shame for any chance Scottish football may have of making a prosperous path for itself decades down the line. Seriously, in the SPFL, which consists of four leagues, there are only 42 sides, with 12 in the Premiership, and 10 each in the Championship, League One and League Two. This means there is only an average of one ‘professional’ club every 1907 km2 (about the size of West Sussex), whereas in England it would be every 1417 km2 (slightly less than Greater London). But while all of England’s clubs only have to play each other club in their league home and away every season, Scottish Premiership clubs have to either play each side three or four times a season, depending on where they finish after 33 games (as the league then split into two halves), and Championship, League One and League Two sides have to play each other four times. The only reason for this is fulfilling the fixture quota and drawing out a season on par with other leagues, which is honestly not a good reason to segregate sides, when it could be (in theory) so easily changed. You must get sick of the sight of some sides if you have to play them four times every season, maybe even five if you draw them in the cup, especially if you lose each time. It can’t be a good thing for clubs, nor for supporters.
Linking in to my next point, it certainly hasn’t had a wide-ranging positive effect on the commercial side either, as which self-respecting company would want to invest in such a drawn-out, tedious and stale competition? Aah yes, Ladbrokes of course, who paid what, in comparison to Barclays, EA, Nike, Carling and TAG Heuer in the Premier League, would seem a measly fee of £4 million for two years’ worth of sponsorship of the entire SPFL. In all probability, they were the only serious candidate for the sponsorship in the end, as their whole business relies on sports fans using them, and in comparison, it would be useless for large global brands to invest in a league that fails to capture even the imagination of some of the fans inside Scottish borders.
Why doesn’t it though? Well, there is a palpable lack of competition between clubs, most prominently in the Premiership, for the title, and also for the top three places. The disparity between Celtic, their nearest challengers Rangers and Aberdeen, and the rest of the top 12 sides in Scotland, is horribly wide, to the extent where you can literally guess the placings in the top league in the space of a minute, and probably be one or two teams off it being perfect. To have the same champions of your nation for the past five years is embarrassing really, and in England it would be lead to wide scale changes (maybe not by the league, but clubs would look to foreign owners to provide an injection to put them in contention), but the SPFL just doesn’t seem to want to discuss the matter. What is the point of clubs with proud histories like Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Dundee and Inverness CT actually existing if all they are going to do is remain mid-table for half a decade, maybe win one of the two cups by nature of Celtic’s lack of rest forcing them into rare slip-ups, and just fail to ever challenge the best two or three sides? What is the motivation for supporters to come back every week right now, considering they are very aware they don’t stand a chance against particularly Celtic or Rangers?
Honestly, I think I would give up if I were a fan of a club in the mid-table obscurity of Scottish football, as other than loyalty to your hometown side, and getting together with your mates every week, I don’t see any benefits. You could argue the same about clubs like Stoke, West Brom or Swansea in England (or Wales, if you’re being picky about the geography), but I’m sure the response would be that they all have a fair chance of beating any of the top seven clubs (who all stand a chance of winning the title), whereas those in Scotland only ever rarely come out victorious against the Hoops or the Gers.
This whole combination of problems creates a vicious cycle that harms the progress of clubs in all four top divisions in Scotland in the 21st Century. First off, if clubs can’t keep producing young players it will lead to there being fewer clubs competing, less competition and therefore greatly shortened chances of sponsorship offers flying in, which means clubs can’t invest in the top talent, as other leagues keep upping prices for players. Whilst Championship clubs in England can afford to pay up to £15 million for a leading players (if you are Newcastle, Aston Villa or Fulham rather than Burton Albion), even Celtic rarely break the £5 million barrier. In fact, only last summer, the Bhoys set the new Scottish transfer record by signing Jozo Šimunović for what is, in the 2010’s, a reasonably pathetic £6.38 million, especially for a player who has only made eleven appearances for them so far, and was only a matters of hours (and an agreed final fee) away from leaving for Torino this summer. It’s sad to see Scottish football in such a state after its glory days in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, when it had all the best Scottish players at some stage in their career (other than Denis Law, who escaped to Huddersfield and then Manchester without ever playing in his homeland), as they can’t even attract players of the calibre of mid-table Premier League teams to Celtic or Rangers these days.
Going into this weekend’s Old Firm, the best battles fans were hoping to see were seriously Scott Brown vs Joey Barton, Scott Sinclair vs Lee Wallace and Kenny Miller vs Kolo Toure. The first two are a failed Scotland captain and a man more famous for his Twitter musings rather than his steely play, the next battle is between a prodigy who never made his way in the world and a humbly loyal captain who has spent the past four years working up from League Two, and the latter duo are washed up from the glory days of their careers. Having these kinds of players as your main draws to the biggest match of the season in the entire Premiership is pretty poor on the accounts of the league system, which fails to support clubs with funding. I bet these clubs are dying to be given the opportunity to bring in higher quality players, as seriously foreign owners won’t want to be investing in the SPFL in its current state, as it won’t reward them with notable profits if they do succeed.
Let’s be a bit more upbeat though. Looking at the league on paper, it has everything it should need to succeed financially; three very competitive top sides, plenty of great stadiums which are effortlessly filled every week with thousands of passionate fans, considerably history and continental opportunities for those at the top. But somehow, the equation of adding all these aspects together doesn’t seem to fit. Why that is, when the clubs seem to have everything sorted, has got to come down to the SPFL and their organisation of the not only the Premiership, but all four professional leagues, and the SFA for their governing of all football in the nation, failing to produce more footballers or professional/semi-professional sides. I’m not sure Celtic and Rangers could do more as clubs if I’m honest, as they sign the biggest names they can for their small budgets, and provide rocking atmospheres, ranked as some of the best in Europe, drawing cameras from BT Sport and Sky Sports to Glasgow for their matches, even if they are rarely paid the same amount of attention as any Premier League match, even Hull vs Burnley.
But how do you fix so many problems that seem so entrenched into the Scottish system, especially since the SPFL is unlikely to change any time soon, having adopted its current regime in just 2013, after merging the broken-off SPL (Scottish Premier League) with the rest of the national leagues? In truth, there has never been much certainty in Scottish football; they change the system more often than Jack Wilshere gets injuries (well, maybe not quite, but they have made five adaptations, appeals and drastic U-turns over the past 40 years in order to reach the current conclusion). Considering all the downsides to the SPFL in 2016, including most dramatically a complete lack of serious, financially all-rewarding, sponsorship to help grow clubs, their academies, facilities and grounds, not to mention add to wage budgets. If clubs don’t have enough money to do this, surely you as the organiser of that very sponsorship should be doing a better job, going on a charm offensive across the world to find some decent sponsors who would have the optimistic foresight to buy into the dream, which would afford clubs the budgets to become competitive again and grow the league.
If clubs had a larger starting budget, then they could play attractive, camera-friendly football, which engrosses fans from the most obscure corners of the earth, encouraging new sponsors to invest in individual clubs, which would vastly increase competitiveness in the league, as Celtic and Rangers are the only clubs with brands big enough right now for big companies to pour their money into. Just imagine what would happen if the likes of St Johnstone, Hamilton Academicals or St Mirren (I mention them because I just resigned from my role as manager of them in FM16, in the year 2034) had sponsors on par with Magners, Dafabet, 32Bet and New Balance like those big boys in Glasgow. Maybe I’m thinking a bit too far ahead, but I seriously believe the SPFL have to be this optimistic if they want to succeed, and they have to instil that self-belief into the money men if they want their system to succeed, and Scottish football to be revitalised and brought into the modern age. In truth, it needs a shock to the heart to give it the hard-to-stomach truth that it has fallen at least 20 years behind the times of the big leagues like the EPL.
They haven’t got the know-how, the tech-savvy, charming attitude towards football and any possible sponsors that they need if they want to make Scottish football a real force to be reckoned with, up there at least with the Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish and maybe even Belgian leagues (yes that’s how far they’ve fallen for me) in 2016. They haven’t got world-famous stars, clubs competitive in the Champions League or the battles in their own domestic division to rival those others I’ve just mentioned, and that is where they are failing. But there’s no doubt though that Scotland has the scarily passionate fans on par with, or arguably far superior, to these other nations. So, to paint a picture for you to simplify the subject, they have the fertile earth to plant the seeds of success in, it’s just those at the SPFL aren’t very good farmers, and all their crops keep dying on them. Certainly what they need to do now though is assess their situation; are they actually happy with it, and if not why? Where can they improve things for the better of the game, for Scottish fans and overall for the future of the sport in such a complex and fast-moving nation? Well, that’s for them to say I suppose, but I’ve assessed the situation, as I’m sure many fans and journalists have, and I don’t think Scotland is getting the best deal for its national sport in the 21st Century. We just have to hope the SPFL can take their rose-tinted glasses off and see things the same way.
It’s been a while hasn’t it? No, not since we last met up, but since England won their sole international tournament back on home turf in 1966. Half a century on, and the closest we’ve come since is when Gazza shed his tears in Turin at Italia 90’ and Gareth Southgate leathered his penalty into German hands just six years later, when football almost came home. Ever since, those representing the Three Lions have faced heartbreak, woe and shocks, and that was just in Roy Hodgson’s reign. But throughout these disappointments, we’ve always kept our expectations high and our belief intact, with at least some sections of support repeating like a broken record their unfounded views that their beloved England will end up victorious at each tournament. Even the bookies keep their options open by placing us 4th or 5th every two years, fooling us into thinking they know what they’re on about and that we could stand a chance. But those players running out for the land of the red rose always let us down, and our pundits have been left to lament our inevitable early exits with criticisms of managers, players and the media, of whom should be laid to blame for the failure. Every once in a while though, some smartass comes up with a master plan to fix our problems, and this week I thought I might as well take that baton and lay forward my formula for success. So sit back, let me be your Mary Berry and allow me to share with you my recipe, which uses expensive ingredients more commonly found overseas in such nations as Spain, Germany, France and Brazil, but ensures a good bake and world class results. Let’s go ahead then, and hope the FA listen!
You will need:
1) An effective and youth-friendly coaching system
How does the FA deliver this?
Well, things are definitely improving on this front, and are likely to keep going on an upward curve with more money being pumped in. After once having young players coached by old-fashioned and dogmatic 4-4-2 worshipers, the FA have allowed open-minded, patient and positive coaches to flourish with their new training programmes, which encourage more modern approaches to the game, including the importance of the mental side, motivating and managing different situations for different individuals, as well as the physical aspects. Coaches these days are much more rigorously tested in order to aid the development of players at all stages of the game, encouraging more and more youngsters to carry on their progress rather than drop out after becoming disheartened. The Respect programme has played its part too, with parents and managers attending games now learning not to throw abuse at each other or their children, as education about the psychology of footballers comes into play, creating a more positive environment in which to play.
Game organisation has improved too, with youth sides at different levels, for example under 10’s, under-12’s, under 14’s and under 16’s all playing on pitches and in goals of the right size for their capabilities, rather than having to trudge around a full-size semi-professional surface. Instead, they now have their own areas on which to hone skills and learn the game in a more realistic style, helping everyone. This is one thing that the FA has learnt from and copied from their more open-minded, creative European counterparts, and it seems to be working, with England’s youth sides doing fairly well and continually improving on the world stage.
2) High-quality facilities for player development
How does the FA deliver this?
Another ingredient to the mix which the FA has made great progress with, no England fan can complain that the national side doesn’t have a high-tech, flashy, modern mega-facility to call home, as St George’s Park has been all of these things and more ever since it was opened in late 2012. At the time, many thought it would immediately improve the fortunes of our national side, but with £105 million spent on its assembling, and only group stage and round of 16 exits from the following two tournaments to show for itself so far, that has proven not to be the case. With 12 outside pitches, a single wide-scale indoor 3G pitch, a running track, an indoor hall, a Sports Medicine Centre, the ‘Peter Shilton Goalkeeping area’, five Sports Pavilions, an ‘Outdoor Leadership Centre’ (complete with climbing walls, an archery range and a ‘powerfan’) and a pitch dedicated just to warming up, I think it’s fair to say the FA have put everything in place for future success. The problem is, only a small section of professional players, and even fewer groups of young players, get to actually grace the pitch(es), so the money isn’t spreading out to everyone who needs it if we want to progress. Even the players who do get the pleasure of training there haven’t made much of a statement for the investment, so it’s vital many others get to use it, otherwise it’s just going to waste.
But a single 330-acre facility doesn’t fulfil the needs of a nation, so the FA needs to get down to work on spreading their wealth across all areas that need it. Granted, they have been working on this and have promised over £100 million more of investment across the nation into improving pitches, training grounds, changing rooms and county FA bases, and this is starting to come to fruition. Locally to me, Lewes FC couldn’t have built their state-of-the-art 3G pitch without help from the FA, the Sussex FA used their funding to build a hub for the county in their new 3G surface at Lancing, and just (literally) down the road from that, Brighton & Hove Albion recently bore fruit from their move to a new training facility, basically a mini-St George’s Park. Personally, I believe 3G pitches are the way forward for the development of the game, as it means it can be played in all times and in all weathers, and no irreversible damage can be made to the earth from them. I’ve been hearing that 3G is the way forward for clubs at County League level too, and that my village club Ringmer FC is planning a move next season to a new artificial surface on my college field, and that other clubs are investigating this sort of idea too. It could be a life saver in terms of not having to pay the council for pitch hire as well as a training ground, and also not having to run the risk of games being postponed and fixture congestion playing a part in the late season, but they have to raise the funds for these pitches, and they don’t come cheap. Lewes FC had to raise I think £200,000 just from fans and local investors to complete their build, and county league clubs don’t have the capabilities or resources to do this, so FA funding would be a godsend. All those at the top have to do is say yes, and our grassroots game could bring through a whole new generation of top footballers, think Jamie Vardy and Michael Antonio, who both made it out, and then multiply it several times. It’s worth a gamble at least, don’t you think?
3) A League structure which allows home-grown talent to flourish
How does the FA deliver this?
Well, this one has been probably the hardest to control for the FA, especially over the past few years, with clubs claiming more and more ground by exploiting overseas player caps to the absolute maximum. The top clubs, now overwhelmingly owned and managed by foreigners, believe more in the abilities of their countrymen and more, imported from Europe and South America, partly because they are cheaper than home-grown players, and partly because they can cherry-pick the best rather than risk performances with local players. They want results now, rather than five years down the line, so they’d rather sign experienced, strict professionals from elsewhere, but it has got a bit out of hand. For example, the Champions League restrictions only require sides to fill their squads with eight home grown players out of 25 (god knows how Man City do this when the only senior British players they have are Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Fabien Delph), a shocking 32%, when I think it should be closer to 50% if nations want to actually develop top quality players. But the FA can force the Premier League and Championship (the only two leagues where the influx of foreign players actually risks the development of young English players) into imposing fresh regulations in the hope it will improve the turnout of young English talent, as honestly these clubs owe it to the nation to produce future England players, as otherwise the use of the Premier League as a training ground for our best players is pretty redundant. If the FA want to sit back and let clubs buy in a ridiculous amount of overseas players (more than any other top league in the continent for sure), wasting away any chances of future English success, they can, but they would be doing a disservice to everyone in this country.
Realistically, the FA need to significantly lower their caps for foreign players over time from 17 to 15, and then maybe even 12 if they really did need to change things. I believe Burnley and Bournemouth are the only sides this EPL season with more than half of their squad made up from home-grown players, and I have to say good on them for going beyond the bare minimum to produce players for contention, and that many others could learn from their example. But then again, the sponsors and owners would complain that the Premier League no longer showcased all the best talent in the world (bar the players Barcelona and Real Madrid nab first) and would move away from what was once an easy market for them to latch on to, and Richard Scudamore would be pretty upset with that, losing money from his extensive pockets. At the end of the day though, I think Scudamore should honestly put the fortunes of the England national side above his own £2.5 million yearly salary.
4) World Class players to face at a domestic level
How does the FA deliver this?
If you think this is a bit hypocritical considering my last point, hear me out. Yes, the FA should bring down the amount of overseas players allowed into each club in the Premier League, but they should only do it to a level at which clubs can still bring in high quality players from around the globe, who can make the sponsors happy by ensuring quality, and also test home-grown players by pitting the best against those who could be England’s best. You might argue this is the situation we are currently in, and that things couldn’t get any better without any potential ramifications on the rest of the league, but if this was the case, surely England would be doing better at international tournaments and producing more quality players (Phil Jagielka somehow being our 4th best centre back for example)? It’s a proven fact that young players develop in longer strides when they have either the influence of experienced, truly world-class in the dressing room, or if they face off against them on the pitch, as they can learn how to cope with high-pressure situations and how to play against certain opponents. You might say the Premier League is the perfect division in which to do this for young players, and I would agree, providing there were actually a decent amount of young players to actually come through, but there aren’t.
In fact, I’d say La Liga is the best league right now for home grown players, as the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Pique, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes developed under the tutorage of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Patrick Kluivert and Deco (and nowadays Munir, Sergi Roberto and Sergi Samper do the same under Messi, Neymar and Suarez). This proves that having such world-class training partners allows young players to flourish and, even if they don’t make it into Barça’s side, they can make it elsewhere at, or near, the top. Just imagine what a few English youngsters could do if they made it into the sides of Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal or Jose Mourinho’s Man United (I hesitate to say van Gaal’s, as he gave Rashford, Fosu-Mensah and co. their debuts, as well as Spurs, Liverpool and Everton as they have produced Harry Kane, Josh Onomah, Kevin Stewart, Cameron Brannagan and Tyias Browning recently).
5) A manager with a winning and clear mentality
How does the FA deliver this?
While I did say Sam Allardyce would be a good England manager in a blog over a month ago now, and that I thought he would at least be an improvement over Roy Hodgson, Fabio Capello and Steve McLaren, I don’t personally feel he has the charisma and aura of unbeatable confidence that would see England through even to the final of a World Cup or Euros. Without telling him, I seriously think the FA saw Allardyce’s era, or whoever else they might have picked, as a stop-gap, as they bide their time for Gareth Southgate or Eddie Howe, or possibly even a foreign candidate, to build up the experience and mind-set required to be a winning manager on the international stage. And if you take the careers of Vicente del Bosque, Joachim Löw or more recently Fernando Santos into account, they all patiently added up their experience at top club sides before their times came to take the top job in their nations. By this point, they had seen everything in the game needed to succeed, and had refined their mentality into one which could work against the best nations in the world.
Del Bosque utilised the tiki-taka which a majority of his players learnt from Pep Guardiola at Barça, and his Real Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla, etc. players had learnt to counteract, so his side didn’t have to learn much different from club level. Elsewhere, Löw developed an all-around style where he could use the power of the counter-attack with rapid players up front, but also control games with his side’s superior physicality in midfield and defence, working harder than any other side to prepare meticulously and then carry out their jobs to perfection. Santos, on the other hand, did the best with what he was given, building his side around Cristiano Ronaldo to work into his strengths, drawing away the focus from their questionable defence by flattening the side into two defensive lines of four, who worked hard to win the ball back from opposition attacks. From this, they broke quickly with the pace of the two makeshift strikers, Nani and Ronaldo, who played the roles of Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, to take advantage of any chances which came their way, and use their undoubted ability to strike fear into the hearts of backtracking defenders.
England needs a manager of their own who can produce such an original and effective tactic and mentality for a squad with so much talent, so he can banish any mental fragility, which is just the bi-product of a side which isn’t aware of which system it should operate in. Some thought that Hodgson’s unwillingness to stick to one tactic would prove an advantage to England, but once 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 were all rolled out, none of the players actually knew their jobs and as a result they faltered when it mattered most. If we had one single tactic (I personally feel a 4-2-3-1, similar to the Germans, would suit us best going forward) which our manager would stick to and work from, I believe our players would have a much clearer mind when it got to a tournament, and they would be confident and clear in their roles to be able to go much further than they have recently.
When you have a clear plan, it’s much easier to focus on carrying out the human side of your mission, as was proven by Team GB at this summer’s Olympic Games, as many British athletes found their A game, and proved their funding was worthwhile by winning a record number of medals, taking pride in the opportunity they had to represent their nation. Maybe it was because it was more of a personal journey for each of the athletes, the culmination of four years of literal blood, sweat and tears, but they had far much more visible pride and determination to succeed for their nation, while England’s overpaid footballing divas seem to give up whenever the chips are down. If they had a manager who could motivate, care for and give straight instructions to them, I’m sure those same players would give a whole lot more in return for their nation when it mattered, rather than just in qualifying.
6) A bit of luck along the way
How does the FA deliver this?
Well, you might argue that this one is impossible to deliver from the FA’s perspective. But when you add up all of my previous points, the last piece of the jigsaw any good team needs is a little help from lady luck along the way, and you can only get in the position to take advantage of that luck if you put everything in place to get to that point. Games can turn on one single moment, and if that moment is a penalty save, or a vital tackle in the box when you’re defending, that’s when the luck kicks in. That very moment could lead to us counter-attacking, scoring a match-winning goal and progressing to the next round. One moment of luck could be the catalyst to a winning run, a run that could go all the way to the final of a tournament, and even a win. Portugal’s moment in Euro 2016 was arguably their shoot-out win against Poland in the quarter-final, when Ricardo Quaresma’s match-winning penalty was touched by the fingertips of Lukasz Fabianski, but could not be saved, sending them through to the semi-finals, and eventually on to their only 90-minute win of the tournament against Wales, and a tight extra-time victory to overcome France and lift the trophy. They earned that luck through sheer desire and grit, working as hard, if not harder, than anyone else at the tournament, and if England did the same, they could be in that very position, because let’s face it, we’d need some luck to win a tournament any time soon. But then again, we have had our fair share of bad luck in the past, haven’t we, with the Hand of God, Ronaldo’s wink and Lampard’s disallowed goal? We need the footballing gods to smile down on us for once if we are to succeed.
So that’s it, my recipe for success for the England national football men’s team. Leave to bake in the oven that is international football and wait for the results at just the right time (we can but dream that it could be as simple as that). Let’s start a movement and get it onto Greg Clarke’s desk (no I’m not being stupid, Clarke has just taken over from Greg Dyke as Chairman), so he might actually understand where things need to be fixed, as Dyke clearly didn’t fix much in the short run. If I had to put a date on when all these things will come together, and when the England psychological team will fix the open wounds, carved open by very public failures and continually rubbed with salt by the uncompromising British media, I’d say the golden date definitely won’t be 2022 as Dyke insisted he wanted it to be. Depending on who hosts the tournament, what conditions the side has to play in, and the quality of the opposition, it could be anything up to the next 50 years. But I have a sneaky suspicion we will get things right before then. My magic date I’m going to take a punt on is 2036, so mark my words (it will happen at the next tournament now I’ve said that, won’t it?). Euro 2036 it will be, and I’m going to say it will be hosted in Germany, or the Netherlands, or Belgium. Somewhere in the economically prosperous North-Western area of Europe is what I’m saying. This might all seem a bit like gibberish (and I’m beginning to think it is myself), but the serious point is that England don’t stand a chance until they put things right with this 6-point plan (or any other plan, as long as it sticks to these basic principles), and that won’t all fall into place until realistically 20 years’ time. Oh well, we can but dream until that time. For now though, we’ll just have to bide our time and wait for the FA to do the right things, because until that happens, England can’t start thinking about success.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!