FA rips up coaching strategy behind England’s success
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