Friday 6th July 2012
As Englishmen there are many things that get on our goat and whether it is traffic wardens, too much milk in our tea, the Go Compare man, or Jordan (the person not the country), there is not much more that infuriates the emotions of an Englishman than what our national football team conjures up roughly every two summers (sometimes it can be four or more) . Once again, the majority of people within football in England are discussing where exactly we go wrong in failing at major tournaments. Many agree that it starts at the bottom at grassroots level where youngsters as young as 8 may regularly play on full-size pitches with full-sized goals that their double-in-size footballing heroes contend with. But if that’s the case, why is it that at Under-17, 19 and 21 level we often perform very well and get further at the majors that those age groups compete in?
OK, we didn’t qualify for this year’s Under-17 European Championship, but don’t forget that we won it last time round two years ago, and are one of only two countries to have made it to 8 of the first 10 tournaments. The other side were glorious Spain who appear to not put a foot wrong when it comes to nurturing young players.
It was they who we beat in the final two years ago and they who also didn’t make this year’s finals. We are currently the most successful country in the Under-19 equivalent with 9 titles. We also reached the semi-finals in 2010. Spain follows closely with 8. Mind you, we’ve never won the Under-20 World Cup (a competition where the top sides from Under-19 contests around the world qualify), unlike less illustrious or historic names such as Ghana and Yugoslavia. Our Under-21s were in the final of the 2009 European Championships, but were hammered 4-0 by Germany.
Having said all this (saying ‘having said that’ or ‘this’ I win either way), England – specifically the Under-19s who are the successful country in their tournaments with 9 titles – have not won one since 1993. At that time, Spain had only won 2. Since then the Spaniards have won 6 – one in 1995 – and the rest are as follows: 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2011. So obviously, judging by this and of course, the senior side’s wins, they are doing something right.
Understatement of the century so far that is. Spaniard, Roberto Martinez, who has implemented a very attractive brand of football at both Swansea City and his current club, Wigan Athletic, feels that it’s at the ages of 18-21 where England go wrong. He says he hates it when people say English players cannot be as technical as Spanish. He also said that pivotal Spanish players such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta would never have made the grade in British football six years ago. ‘‘The first selection,’’ he says, ‘‘is ‘Not tall enough, not strong enough’. That’s not right.’’ (Source: The Guardian)
Although the ‘problems’ at grassroots level is an issue that has rightfully been taken into consideration, and will no doubt help in preparing young players for the way they will play the game in future, I do not think that it is the fundamental problem at hand here, because judging by our aforementioned youthful exploits on the international stage it does not appear to be a stumbling block in attaining success. Often enough they leave their youth teams behind, start training with the first team and despite being world-beaters at national level, many of them find that they are then forgotten by their clubs who may have paid substantial amounts of money for players in the same positions.
This may lead managers to feel that they have to reap the benefits their bosses would want for delving so low and hard into their pockets. There is also the insane situation whereby managers look abroad for cheap youngsters to purchase when our very own starlets have more than likely beaten those very same players on their way to the latter stages of a major tournament. Or sometimes, instead of waiting for a player to develop into one with the attributes they desire, they buy one ready-made and reared to perfection.
It also has a lot to do with foreign managers coming over and not knowing who members of the first team are let alone the youth and reserve team squads. This would no longer be a problem if young players were nurtured like their counterparts in Spain and Germany where youth is now the main priority, particularly in the current economic crisis that is preventing many clubs from splashing the cash and instead opting for their home-grown talent. Ironically, many, many clubs now find themselves in debt due to their insistence that buying players from abroad saves money, but if the managers and chairmen had even bothered to study the benefits for teams that have put youth near the forefront of their plans in the past, it appears they would have been better off putting the funds into their own academies rather than searching overseas.
Whereas countries such as Germany and Spain build on their success our players seem to squander their talent. On what? The temptation and the trappings of fame such as girls, flash cars and parties thrown by P.Diddy or whatever he’s calling himself these days? Whether they are the reasons or not we would do well to take a leaf out of Germany and Spain’s book in changing the way we nurture our young players – particularly between the ages of 18-21. There are a host of ideas we could supplement into the English game and it may mean that we will have to stop being so proud of doing things the ‘English way’. It is an ignorant and arrogant attitude to say that we cannot take some tips from how other countries play the game and how they deal with matters off the pitch as well as on it such as the popular idea of incorporating a winter break. It is also foolish to suggest that we cannot play any other style apart from our own.
Players of different attributes come and go, but according to some, because we invented the game we should play the game like we have traditionally played it – the opposite to what Martinez thinks we can play. We have got to move with the times and maybe installing a winter break and many other things that people are suggesting will rectify our game. At least if we do try it there will be no excuses this time. The relatively recent set of rules stating that a Premiership club has to name at least eight home-grown players in a 25-man squad is a start but that can mean anyone – English or otherwise – who has been registered with an English or Welsh club for three years between their 16th and 21st birthdays.
To some this is a positive sign, but it may very well result in clubs adopting exactly the same approach that they are pursuing now; buying young players in the same age group from abroad at the expense of English ones or, as Peterborough United manager Darren Ferguson has pointed out, it could mean young hopefuls not being given the chance to experience first team football in the lower leagues because they are needed in the 25 man squad to warm up the bench. It may mean top-flight clubs being reluctant to send out their players for invaluable first team matches on loan to lower league clubs which has paid dividends for players such as David Beckham and Jermaine Defoe in the past. Whatever impact it has be it positive or negative at least it’s a start to trying to sort out the problem, which is better than nothing. We will not find out if it works for a few years yet, but win or lose we can be sure of one thing, we’ll have a good old moan on the way.