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!