FA rips up coach­ing strat­egy be­hind Eng­land’s suc­cess

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Sam Wal­lace

By De­cem­ber 2014, there had been so many re­cent false dawns that English foot­ball and the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion had very lit­tle in the way of rep­u­ta­tion to lose when it came to the for­tunes of Eng­land’s ju­nior and se­nior men’s teams.

That sum­mer, the se­nior Eng­land team had re­turned from a World Cup fi­nals in Brazil be­fore the first post­cards, and the fol­low­ing year, Gareth South­gate’s Un­der-21s did much the same at their Euro­pean Championsh­ip in the Czech Repub­lic. The Un­der-17s had won the 2014 Euro­pean Championsh­ip, with a team in­clud­ing Joe Gomez, as their pre­de­ces­sors had done four years pre­vi­ously – but, by and large, any no­tion of progress was still dif­fi­cult to see.

On that De­cem­ber day at St Ge­orge’s Park, the “Eng­land DNA” doc­u­ment was launched by South­gate, along with the FA’s for­mer tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Dan Ash­worth, imag­in­ing the fu­ture of Eng­land teams and English play­ers, to pre­cious lit­tle ac­claim. The cor­po­rate­s­peak DNA-trope clunked and the prom­ises felt old. Be­tween 1994 and 2010, Eng­land teams of all ages had failed to win a sin­gle tour­na­ment. Mean­while, the Ger­mans had un­locked the po­ten­tial of their new gen­er­a­tion and trans­formed their Un­der-21s from Euro­pean cham­pi­ons in 2009 to world cham­pi­ons five years later, a gleam­ing foot­ball ma­chine speed­ing away from the FA’s pony and trap.

No won­der the FA de­layed for an­other day its an­nounce­ment of a new cadre of na­tional spe­cial­ist coaches for “in-pos­ses­sion” and “out-of­pos­ses­sion” to be at­tached to all teams, in­clud­ing the se­niors.

On Mon­day, those same spe­cial­ist coaches, among many oth­ers, were sub­ject to a widerang­ing Covid-era cuts pro­gramme over­seen by Ash­worth’s suc­ces­sor, Les Reed, as the FA faces a short­fall of £300 mil­lion. Many will have to reap­ply for their jobs, the only con­so­la­tion be­ing that since 2014, hav­ing the FA on a coach­ing re­sume has con­sid­er­ably more cur­rency. Six tour­na­ment wins fol­lowed the Un­der-17s’ in 2014, in­clud­ing World Cups at Un­der-17s and Un­der-20s level in 2017, and then came South­gate’s se­nior team’s run to the semi-fi­nals of the 2018 World Cup. The per­cep­tion of young English play­ers can be judged in the num­ber now be­ing tar­geted by Euro­pean clubs.

What hap­pens now to the gains of the Ash­worth era is crit­i­cal to the fu­ture of English foot­ball. The man him­self has since gone, to be tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor at Brighton and Hove Al­bion, and the third mem­ber of that 2014 pre­sen­ta­tion, Matt Crocker, holds a sim­i­lar role at Southamp­ton. Reed was pre­ferred to Crocker by the FA to be Ash­worth’s suc­ces­sor.

Per­haps change was al­ready com­ing be­fore Covid. At a meet­ing of FA coaches this year, Reed told them he did not be­lieve the set-up was “world class”. Yet one only has to scan the FA’s tour­na­ment record to see that there has never been a more suc­cess­ful era for Eng­land’s ju­nior teams.

Cer­tainly, many were left to won­der how it com­pared to Reed’s pre­vi­ous two spells at the FA, the sec­ond of which, be­tween 1998 and 2004, also saw him ap­pointed tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor for the final two years. Eng­land teams reached one final in that era, the 2005 Un­der19s Euro­pean Championsh­ip shortly after his de­par­ture.

The FA is fac­ing some tough choices at a time when it has made progress with its men’s teams and, while cuts are in­evitable, it stands to lose so much. Un­der Ash­worth, the FA tore up the games pro­gramme, end­ing decades of rou­tine wins over the home na­tions in favour of fix­tures against the likes of Spain, Brazil and strong ju­nior teams from the United States.

It changed the tal­en­ti­den­ti­fi­ca­tion process for the ju­nior teams, opt­ing for a new breed who were con­fi­dent on the ball. The em­pha­sis was on pre­par­ing play­ers for tour­na­ment foot­ball, which meant han­dling the weeks away from home while win­ning in­tense games over a short time-frame in dif­fer­ent cli­mates. The sort of thing the se­nior team had failed at for decades.

Eng­land ju­nior teams would or­di­nar­ily win the vast ma­jor­ity of their games by virtue of hav­ing bet­ter play­ers – and of­ten those who were more phys­i­cally de­vel­oped. So, in­stead the fo­cus was on the jeop­ardy games in the knock­out stages of tour­na­ments that they rou­tinely lost. The plan was to ex­pose play­ers to dif­fer­ent styles of op­po­si­tion while also putting a pre­mium on win­ning un­der pres­sure. Against Spain in the Un­der-17s World Cup final in Kolkata, a side coached by the cur­rent Swansea City man­ager, Steve Cooper, were 2-0 down after half an hour. With the likes of Phil Fo­den and Rhian Brew­ster, they came back to win 5-2.

A dif­fer­ent mind­set was sought in FA coaches who met weekly at St Ge­orge’s Park un­der Ash­worth and Dave Red­din, the head of team strat­egy. The old ways of ad­mon­ish­ment and threat were gone. They sought to build the con­fi­dence of boys who had been de­vel­oped at club academies which had them­selves been up­graded with ma­jor in­vest­ment.

Many of the new gen­er­a­tion of young play­ers had multi-na­tion Fifa el­i­gi­bil­ity mean­ing the FA had to sell them a bet­ter de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme. In­stead of blam­ing English foot­ballers for fail­ing with Eng­land – the fa­bled “bark, b-----and bite” men­tal­ity – it tried to give them the tools to suc­ceed in the hy­per com­pet­i­tive world game.

Not ev­ery­thing the FA tried was suc­cess­ful but, given the decades of ut­ter medi­ocrity and worse that had pre­ceded it, this was ar­guably the big­gest coach­ing change the or­gan­i­sa­tion has known. Many coaches joined the FA as spe­cial­ists from club academies – the likes of Mark Rob­son, for­merly a player at West Ham and Charl­ton who went on to be a coach at As­ton Villa among other places. For­mer Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers de­fender Rob Ed­wards be­came an academy coach there, while Andy Ed­wards stepped down as Ley­ton Ori­ent man­ager to join the FA.

From the se­nior FA staff from that day in De­cem­ber 2014, only South­gate re­mains.

As a for­mer head of elite de­vel­op­ment, he knows bet­ter than any­one the progress the FA has made since then, al­though it re­mains to be seen whether ev­ery­one else does.

Im­prov­ing: Eng­land’s Un­der-20s and Un­der-17s won their World Cups in 2017, while the se­nior team came close in 2018

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