There are three questions that I am asked on a regular basis: what is your favourite flavour of crisps? What were you doing when you pointed at your eye and looked at the bench when Gazza cried in the 1990 semi? And why do England always disappoint in major tournaments?
This is no place for brand endorsement but: salt and vinegar. Second, in the West Germany game, I looked at Bobby Robson and pointed at my eye, meaning “Watch him” because I knew that Paul was a very special and vulnerable footballer and needed care.
Finally, before I begin with my reasons why England disappoint in major tournaments and the possible fixes, let me point out that this is not going down the “Things were so much better in my day” route. They weren’t!
We have never produced, proportionally, as many technically efficient players as most other countries. There was a time when our indomitable spirit and work ethic saw us through. Alas, the rest of the world now more than matches us in the less than beautiful side of the game, while we still linger exasperatingly behind when it comes to skill, flair and that most necessary of footballing basics – maintaining possession.
Yes, there are exceptions, and some eras are more productive than others. Italia ’90 immediately springs to mind, with Gascoigne, Waddle, Beardsley et al; 1996 was another vintage group, with Gazza still hobbling around alongside Teddy Sheringham and friends. Then there was the “golden generation” that never quite managed to grab even bronze.
These wonderfully gifted individuals came through in spite of the maligned and archaic system of development we’ve had in this country, certainly not because of it.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. Until very recently, we never taught our youngsters properly. We have never taught our coaches to teach our youngsters properly. And we wouldn’t have had enough coaches, even if we had taught them how to teach our youngsters properly. Countries such as Spain, Germany and the Netherlands (the ones that consistently produce fine footballers) all have ten times the number of qualified coaches as England.
I am writing not to crush you with pessimism but to offer some degree of hope. Change is afoot. In very recent times, the FA has made some long-overdue but crucial changes that should make a drastic difference to the kind of player we develop.
In this country, since footballs made from pigs’ bladders were whacked into goals without nets, we’ve played on full-size pitches. Whatever our age. This is ludicrous. Sevenand eight-year-olds valiantly trying to cover the same acreage as those grown-up chaps in the Premier League is absurd. To add to the lunacy, a little goalkeeper, barely out of nappies, has to stand between posts that are eight strides apart – adult strides – and under a crossbar more than twice his height.
It’s obvious, then, why we have a long-ball culture: the big lads who can kick it furthest are the ones that stand out. What chance for the diminutive yet gifted midfielder? No chance of him developing his tiki-taka football. The only way to get to the other end of the pitch is to belt it and then belt it again.
This madness is only exacerbated by the maniacal parents on the touchline spouting nonsense at their children. The competitive nature of most mums and dads is astounding. The fear they instil in our promising but sensitive Johnny is utterly depressing. We need a parental cultural revolution. If we could just get them to shut the fuck up and let their children enjoy themselves, you would be staggered at the difference it would make.
Having four boys myself, I have stood on the sidelines of countless games, spanning many years. Oh, the drivel I have heard, the abuse I have witnessed, the damage I have seen done. Promising young players barked at by clueless dad. “Don’t mess with it there.” “Just kick it.” “Stop fucking about.” I could go on. I have seen a father pick his son up by the scruff of the neck and yell in his face: “You’ll never make it playing that crap.”
Occasionally, I’ve intervened and expressed my view that they are being a hindrance. The reactions have varied from acknowledgement and genuine interest to complete disgust that I should stick my nose in.
Incidentally, I never shouted anything other than encouragement from a touchline . . . to both teams. My father was generally reserved on the touchline but he did lose it once after I swore at a referee when I was about 14. He got the coach to take me off. I learned a lesson that day.
Some of the academies around the country have introduced a rule that parents must be quiet and only applaud. This has allowed talented young players to express themselves on the field, to take people on, to try a trick, all without the dreaded, predictable rubbish cascading into their ears. This is a very good thing. Who cares who wins an under-eights game? Who cares if a youngster makes a mistake? It’s how we learn.
We are creating a generation of players who are living in a world of Fifa pixels, who think they know everything about the game, yet who have never enjoyed the explosion of joyful emotions that comes with the scoring of a goal, the immense satisfaction of a defencesplitting pass (midfielders assure me that this is true), the feeling of power that comes with the winning of a crunching tackle (I made that bit up), or the agony/pleasure – depending on your disposition – of standing in a wall and getting one in the bollocks.
Things are gradually changing. Academies are silencing Mum and Dad; the FA has brought in smaller-sided games with smaller pitches and goals (oh, how the parents moaned at that); the coaching is improving. The revolution has begun.
We must keep an eye on the delicate aspects of the beautiful game, the nuances that make it beautiful: the inexplicable moments of grace created by vulnerable geniuses such as Paul Gascoigne. We need to view our young players like Sir Bobby did Paul, with patience, nurturing and understanding. Then perhaps we will see a revolution in the way England play and we might get beyond tearful semifinals against well-nourished Germans. One day, one day, we shall rise again.
Now where did I leave that packet of salt and vinegar?