Eng­land’s chronic short­age of tal­ent

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - MICHAEL WALKER

LON­DON: Of the 220 play­ers who started Premier League games last week­end, 84 qual­ify to play for Eng­land. That’s 38 per­cent.

Should Eng­land stum­ble at next year’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship the fo­cus will be on the na­tive tal­ent short­age, its causes and what to do about it.

In La Liga, by com­par­i­son, last week­end’s per­cent­age of play­ers avail­able to Spain man­ager Vi­cente del Bosque was 60.5; in the Bun­desliga the do­mes­tic player fig­ure was 53 per­cent.

Sta­tis­tics such as these may alarm Fabio Capello’s suc­ces­sor and the FA, but as Ged Roddy, Di­rec­tor of Youth at the Premier League, pointed out: “If we don’t do some­thing, it won’t be 32-38 per­cent in five years’ time, it’ll be 20 per­cent. We have to move now.”

The fear of a wors­en­ing ra­tio for the next Eng­land man­ager to cope with is one rea­son why Roddy and academy man­agers such as Brian Mc­clair at Manch­ester United and Alan Irvine at Ever­ton are part of a two-year con­sul­ta­tion with nu­mer­ous par­ties, in­clud­ing the FA that has pro­duced EPPP – the Elite Player Per­for­mance Plan.

The plan is con­tentious be­cause, as the word elite sug­gests, the in­ten­tion is to stream­line the academy sys­tem. This is a his­toric cross­roads.

Clubs of the scale of United and Ever­ton are as­sured of Cat­e­gory 1 sta­tus, and there is anx­i­ety in the Foot­ball League that these clubs could poach young play­ers for far less money than they can now – which is why 22 clubs voted against EPPP. Clubs such as Leeds United are out­raged.

Roddy said: “In the next four years we will be spend­ing £320 mil­lion on youth de­vel­op­ment di­rectly into the clubs. I don’t care whose sta­tis­tics you look at, that is a lot of money, a seis­mic shift in the way we ap­proach youth de­vel­op­ment.

“Clubs will still be able to sell play­ers on, by the way, if it’s mu­tu­ally agreed.”

It is the lack of mu­tual agree­ment on the value of a teenager that trou­bles the Foot­ball League. The new pay­ments are in ac­cor­dance with Fifa, the hope be­ing that this will en­cour­age a do­mes­tic club to re­cruit a 16-year-old English player over a – pre­vi­ously cheaper – for­eign coun­ter­part.

From one an­gle this is about boost­ing do­mes­tic per­cent­ages; from an­other it looks some­thing like theft. Mc­clair noted that 70 clubs voted for EPPP. As a United em­ployee, he could be said to be par­tial, but, like Roddy, Mc­clair’s per­spec­tive is si­mul­ta­ne­ously nar­row and broad.

“Thir­teen or 14 years down the line from the be­gin­ning of the academy sys­tem it’s right to have a re­view,” Mc­clair said.

Howard Wilkin­son was then the FA’S tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor.

“Howard Wilkin­son was the orig­i­nal power,” Mc­clair added. “He had the FA be­hind him. They did a first-class job. They looked at the French sys­tem and what Howard en­vis­aged was that there would be 10- 12 elite acad­e­mies through­out Eng­land. Right away that got di­luted. There were about 40 who ap­plied and 40 got the li­cence.

“Lille­shall worked in that it pro­duced Michael Owen, Jamie Car­ragher, Alan Smith, Wes Brown and oth­ers, with the added value that it had some aca­demic cur­ricu­lum.

“Howard’s vi­sion was that you have Lille­shall re­gional – 8-12 of them. But you had 40. Other clubs had cen­tres of ex­cel­lence. You end up with ev­ery­body chas­ing the same boys.”

Mc­clair’s ar­gu­ment is that, rather than have the best 200 boys di­vided into eight acad­e­mies, over 1,000 boys were spread across Eng­land.

“Had Danny Wel­beck, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, for ex­am­ple, been to­gether in a work­ing and ed­u­ca­tional environment since they were eight, then there’s no doubt they’d be bet­ter than they are now,” Mc­clair said.

Irvine agreed: “The in­di­vid­u­als de­velop the group and the group de­velop the in­di­vid­u­als and the qual­ity goes through the roof.”

Medi­ocrity does not pro­voke such spikes, and Mc­clair said: “That was Howard’s vi­sion. He had two things: to im­prove the qual­ity of English coach­ing, and with­out doubt that has hap­pened. We have more qual­i­fied coaches at all lev­els.

“The sec­ond part was a ‘bet­ter qual­ity of English player’. I’m not sure if that has hap­pened. It’s been bril­liant for the av­er­age player. But it’s not been elite.

“You could say phase one has im­proved the av­er­age player – and the fa­cil­i­ties. There’s also a cul­tural change in that you can have a coach­ing ca­reer – it amazes me that nearly ev­ery time I’m in­ter­viewed I’m asked if I want to be a coach in the Premier League.

“It’s a bit up­set­ting be­cause at United I’m work­ing with the likes of Tony Whe­lan, who’s been do­ing this for 30 years, and Jim Ryan, Paul Mcgui n n e s s . This is im­por­tant work.”

Elitism, ed­u­ca­tion and Eng­land – this does not ex­ist in a vac­uum. Glob­al­i­sa­tion has helped make the Premier League rich enough for its clubs to buy any for­eign player they want.

There was 1995’s Bosman rul­ing too. At the same time Bri­tish so­ci­ety has be­come more seden­tary, PE in schools is dis­ap­pear­ing and the mo­tor car has killed street foot­ball.

Other aspects of tra­di­tional work­ing-class foot­ball cul­ture are van­ish­ing: the Bolton Com­bi­na­tion once had 10 di­vi­sions; now there is no young-adult Satur­day league in Bolton.

At Un­der-7 to Un­der-18 level the Bury and Bolton District League is boom­ing, but it is reg­i­mented to the ex­tent the head of the Lan­cashire FA, David Burgess, de­scribed it as “not pure foot­ball the way we once un­der­stood it, but dif­fer­ent for­mats of the game – not the con­ven­tional male 11 v 11 Satur­day for­mat”.

Wayne Rooney was called the last of the old street foot­ballers who once pop­u­lated English foot­ball and those skills, nous and phys­i­cal­ity are hav­ing to be im­ported into acad­e­mies. “The kids don’t play it now,” Irvine said. “We are hav­ing to cre­ate the environment for street foot­ball, for run­ning, jump­ing and climb­ing, things that you did be­cause you didn’t have Playsta­tions or tele­vi­sions with 400 chan­nels.

“No­body plays 15- a- side on a postage- stamp pitch any more. That’s what we used to do, that’s why Glas­gow had so many drib­blers – if you passed it, you didn’t get the ball back for half an hour.”

Irvine, and even Roddy, have reser­va­tions about EPPP and they await the Premier League vote on its adop­tion. But fu­ture Eng­land man­agers will be grate­ful there is se­ri­ous think­ing about why only one of the top eight scor­ers this sea­son – Rooney – is English.

“Cul­tur­ally, the environment into which all of us go fish­ing, the tal­ent pool, is un­der threat,” Roddy said. “School sport is in ter­mi­nal de­cline where it is most im­por­tant – pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion, ju­nior school. For foot­ball that’s a dire sit­u­a­tion.

“That’s why the ‘foot­ball fam­ily’ will have to look af­ter their own. Other­wise that pool will con­tinue to erode.”

These are big is­sues, some big­ger than foot­ball. But then 38 per­cent is a big is­sue. – Daily Mail

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