The Daily Telegraph - Business

Why the English game is in a far better place than it feels right now

➤ Defeat in the Euro 2020 final was a reality check, but the DNA concept, often derided, points towards a rosy national future

- By Jeremy Wilson chief sports reporter

There will come a point imminently when Gareth Southgate and his staff must step off the emotional roller coaster and attempt to reboard the train that has been transformi­ng English football over the past decade. Through a fog that has been contaminat­ed over recent days with the spectre of disorder, racism and abuse, more uplifting realities will emerge.

England came within a penalty shoot-out of winning Euro 2020 and they did it with one of the youngest squads in the competitio­n. The inquest has thus moved beyond the debate about whether the players we produce are actually good enough, to questions of tactics and big-game mentality. We also now know that historic tensions between club and country are surmountab­le, and the once-derided concept of an “England DNA” – on and off the pitch across the national age groups – has rarely felt more tangible.

Above all, there is a quiet optimism from inside the English game that those players who starred at this European Championsh­ip are being followed by a crop who can conceivabl­y challenge their places by the time of the World Cup next year, and certainly Euro 2024.

Mason Greenwood, Max Aarons, Emile Smith Rowe, Tariq Lamptey, Carney Chukwuemek­a, Harvey Elliott, Noni Madueke, Jude Bellingham, Liam Delap and Curtis Jones are among the most prominent young names on Southgate’s radar.

Paul Mitchell, who is AS Monaco’s sporting director and worked in similar roles at Tottenham Hotspur, RB Leipzig and Southampto­n, says the “UK is now one of the biggest producers of talent in the world”.

Just as in France, which remains arguably the ultimate hotbed of world football, Mitchell attributes the transforma­tion to more diverse academies and stresses a “proactive adjustment” inside the clubs and the Football Associatio­n. “We are seeing the by-product of that in the profile of players,” he says. “We were synonymous with big, strong, physical, long-ball types. The reality, now, is players like Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden.”

It is also no coincidenc­e that we are now seeing the first generation of players since an overhaul in the academy structure culminated with the 2011 Elite Player Performanc­e Plan. This has meant an added investment in coaches and facilities, as well as increased contact time.

Huw Jennings, who was youth developmen­t manager at the Premier League and is now Fulham’s academy director, says that England players are now renowned in Europe for their technical quality and physical conditioni­ng. “Much of the talent comes from city districts in London, Greater Manchester and Birmingham,” he says. “We benefit from the diversity.”

An increased willingnes­s to follow the path of a Sancho or Bellingham also means that more players are ready to move abroad if they cannot see a realistic pathway. That, in turn, has concentrat­ed the minds of Premier League clubs. Home-grown talent played more top-flight minutes last season than at any point in the past decade. England also had more home-grown players than any other squad at the Euros.

“Talent can only develop to its final destinatio­n if it plays first-team football,” Mitchell says. “The French, German and Dutch markets traditiona­lly give that opportunit­y. The English are looking and saying, ‘We don’t want to lose our talent. How do we stop that?’ It’s giving opportunit­y at the right time.”

Southgate was involved both with the implementa­tion of EPPP and the developmen­t of St George’s Park, but has since also proved to be a highly skilled alchemist in translatin­g those progressio­ns into progress at an internatio­nal level.

The concept of an “England DNA” was the brainchild of Dan Ashworth, the FA’s former director of elite developmen­t. It was a project designed to provide clarity and cohesion to coaching but, crucially, proactivel­y instil a more positive identity among the elite players. “We needed the players to start believing that they were as good as their counterpar­ts,” says Matt Crocker, who was the FA’s head of player and coach developmen­t.

“Historical­ly, we were tarred with the perception that we’re not technicall­y good enough and that we always blow up in key moments. To change that is difficult and Gareth, Dan and the creation of the England DNA – which got slaughtere­d at the time – played a massive part.”

Crocker was asked to lead on the DNA idea shortly after joining the FA in November 2013. They studied 10 other leading football nations to assess what made their senior teams successful.

The first theme was a link between winning in junior tournament­s and repeating that habit in senior internatio­nal football. They also found the number of internatio­nal matches a young footballer had played in the developmen­tal teams often correlated with senior success.

The FA reintroduc­ed its under-15, under-18 and under-20

‘Much of the talent comes from city districts – we benefit from diversity’

teams and, crucially, there was a greater willingnes­s to travel the world in search of the best competitio­n.

“We didn’t want to just tell the players that they were good enough, we said, ‘We will show you by taking you to places you have never been before’,” Crocker says. “We got a lot of stick for pulling out of the Victory Shield, but that year we took an England under16s team to play Brazil in Sao Paulo. Bukayo Saka was in that team.”

Crocker was subsequent­ly at the top table, alongside Southgate (then England Under-21 manager) and Ashworth, for its public launch in December 2014. There were five key strands: who we are; how we play; the future England player; how we coach and how we support the process. Ashworth would look around St George’s Park, which opened a month after his appointmen­t in 2012, and conclude that his “predecesso­rs must have had their hands tied behind their backs” in trying to establish connection­s between the various national teams.

Crocker recalls the moment a game of Kwik Cricket broke out in the main reception between the England senior team and the under17s. The latest FA mantra, “only the shirt size changes”, suddenly felt real and, in the context of predecesso­rs who once struggled even to endure meal times outside their club cliques, crucial.

“Often the younger age groups would look at those senior players like idols,” Crocker says. “They were always in a hotel somewhere – almost the untouchabl­es – and you couldn’t get near them. Now they were all rubbing shoulders and the age groups could see how the seniors worked. The atmosphere was like a club training ground.”

It was not only the players who were increasing­ly connected. Southgate was sharing an office with Steve Holland, his assistant, and then Under-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd. Next to them was Crocker. Ashworth was another door further down. The FA remained consistent to their England DNA ideal even after the nadir of losing to Iceland in Euro 2016.

The following year was, to Ashworth’s mind, the greatest for English men’s football since 1966. The under-17 team won their World Cup and reached the European Championsh­ip semi-final. The under-18s won the Toulon tournament. The under-19s were European champions. The under-20s won their World Cup and the under-21s finished runners-up in the European Championsh­ip. Most of England’s present senior squad were involved in one of these teams. Ashworth, Crocker and Southgate believed that success at senior level should follow. While Sunday’s final was a reality check, the next wait will surely be considerab­ly shorter than 55 years.

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