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England’s schoolboy success only adds to sense of confusion

Were FA’s ‘old school’ methods the right approach all along?

ATTARD, MALTA - MAY 21: England celebrate after winning the UEFA Under 17 European Championship 2014 final against Netherlands (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Bongarts/Getty Images)
England celebrate after winning the 2014 UEFA Under 17 European Championships (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Bongarts/Getty Images)

With a swing of Jonjoe Kenny’s right foot, English football’s ills were cured.

The England Under-17 side, in capturing their second European title in five seasons, were able to showcase the merits of a grassroots system that had shunned modern thinking and ploughed straight on with traditional means.     

Greg Dyke’s controversial plan to introduce a ‘B team’ competition into the English football league structure disappeared to the cupboard containing the Premier League’s ‘39th game’ proposal and Richard Scudamore’s custom-made golf clubs.

The parents screaming from the touchline on local playing fields every week were vindicated. The ham-fisted youth coaches who habitually used the stronger, taller kids at the expense of their smaller, snappier peers, were victorious. The dinosaurs that had ensured the acquiring of a UEFA ‘A’ coaching qualification cost five times as much in the UK as in Spain, saw their pricing plan justified.

It was enough to make you wonder what the fuss had been all about.

At the same moment as England’s youngsters were completing their penalty shootout triumph, esteemed Spanish journalist Guillem Balague was hosting an evening with colleagues from Sky’s football magazine show Revista de la Liga. The panel dissected the merits of the English and Spanish games – two pyramids often heralded as being amongst the most exciting and dynamic in the world.

I had expected Balague and guests to have a set of ready-made steps for English football to take to ensure their successes in the international arena matched those of their Iberian cousins.

Instead, the author of A Season on the Brink was forced to defend the controversial Spanish television rights arrangement – a package notorious for benefiting the nation’s biggest clubs – Real Madrid and Barcelona – apparently reinforcing the superiority of the two giants at the expense of a competitive top flight. Hadn’t this been something cited as a reason for England’s international poor fortune?  

Instead, the panel were far keener to talk about the concept of Spanish ‘B’ teams and how a similar infrastructure would work in England. To reinforce his point, Balague invited onstage a former Watford scholar - Austin Eaton – forced to ply his trade in Chile and Spain due to his lack of opportunity on these shores.

Whether or not Eaton is able to turn his career around working at second division side Cordoba is as much of a mystery as how many of England’s under- 17 squad – by now celebrating on the giant screen behind Balague’s head- will go on to represent the full national side. What is clear, however, is that the concept of ‘wasted’ youth is a powerful weapon. 

In that respect, the decision to jettison Ashley Cole from England’s World Cup squad for this summer’s tournament in Brazil is illuminating. Cole, a veteran of 107 caps for his country, seven FA Cup winner’s medals and three Premier League titles must have been incredulous as he replaced his handset after Roy Hodgson’s call to effectively signal an end to the Englishman’s 13 year international odyssey.

Cole, despite a reduced role at club side Chelsea this season, could still argue to be amongst the finest full backs in Europe, yet there were few condemning Hodgson for picking 18-year-old Luke Shaw – an international novice - in his stead.

It is representative of an English desire to roll different dice, even if better dice are already in hand.

English football, much like many of the nation’s other sporting pursuits, is a box of contradictions. Dyke’s England Commission report published last month seems unsure if we are too hard or too soft on our young players.

For all the trendy criticisms of the footballing infrastructure in this country, England have, three times in the last five major tournaments, been a set of penalty kicks away from a semi-final berth. Had those shootouts ended in triumph rather than heartbreak, England’s competition resume would be one dwarfed only by Spain and Germany across the same period.  

Conversely, during the same era, and with a largely identical set of players, there have been extraordinary failures too.  In the 2007-2008 Champions League season, the Premier League laid claim to three of the four semi-finalists, yet the national side were unable to qualify for that summer’s European Championships. The division in the successes and failures of the period is stark.

In the aftermath of Germany’s surprise 2010 World Cup showing, former coach Jürgen Klinsmann talked about how, after Germany’s footballing nadir in 2004, he had sat down with future manager Joachim Löw to discuss the restructuring of the nation’s football setup. 2010’s semi-final run was, he claimed, a vindication of that policy.

It was the sort of sound bite that drove the English press into raptures. The idea of being able to combine the most precious of sporting commodities – youth - and the chance to rail against an out of touch football administration was an opportunity too good to miss.

The nature of the sport dictates that judgements are made of infrastructure and managerial decisions on the basis of one kick of a ball, stroke of fortune or moment of stupidity.

The reality of so many British successes in a catalogue of sports across the last decade shows that management flabbiness is not endemic.

And so, if England’s senior side do follow their schoolboy counterparts in celebrating success this summer, expect the national game to be trumpeted as a hybrid of ruthless commercial endeavour and competitive self-interest.

If not, however, Messrs Balague and Dyke might be knocking on the door with a few questions.

 

 

 

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