Another tournament, another disappointment for the England national football team. The (twenty) Three Lions have performed at a low not experienced since 1958 by exiting the competition at the group stages, despite some positive performances.
Now that their World Cup is over, thoughts will inevitably turn to how to prevent such underachievement again.
Former FA chairman David Bernstein condemned his former employers in an outspoken speech about the state of the game this week, per Ben Rumsby at The Daily Telegraph.
Laying the blame for the failure of the national team squarely at the feet of English Football’s governing body, Bernstein insisted that the only way to see any change is through massive reforms in the structure of the organisation. He also cites the disproportionate influence of the Premier League as a key cause for concern.
The introduction of the home-grown player rule in 2010 was supposed to solve the problem of English players struggling to break into the Premier League. Clubs are no longer allowed to name more than 17 non home-grown players over the age of 21, and any deviation from this rule will lead to squad sizes being reduced.
That sounds excellent, right?
There should be at least 120 English players in their most competitive league and a minimum of 16 competing in the Champions League. What could possibly be wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, apart from the fact that homegrown doesn’t mean English, or even eligible for England. It means that they have been part of the club’s academy for at least three years between the ages of 16-21.
That such a rule had to be brought in at all is a damning indictment of the Premier League. England’s top league generates £3-4 billion annually, compared to the FA’s £300 million.
While the Premier League is a separate entity to the rest of the Football League, the pyramid structure of the league system means that the two have a symbiotic relationship. For there to be such a disparity in income and for the highest earner to dominate the national governing body on the basis of being the biggest rather than the best is a sorry state of affairs.
Football in England is fast becoming something that people watch down the pub rather than engage with physically on a rainy Sunday morning. If we allow children to continue being introduced to football as a television show while goalposts rust in the local park, the future will become even bleaker for the national team.
A good starting point would be to sort out the academies.
According to this 2009 piece from Sally Williams of The Daily Telegraph, youngsters can be signed up to a club from the age of eight. Although they are not playing full time for the club at that age, it does take up an enormous part of their lives, and the vast majority are doomed to failure.
One point of reform would be to increase the age at which young players can be signed to a professional club. Local community clubs and centres for excellence would bridge the gap, providing children a consistent environment in which to develop and hone their skills.
Professional clubs would still be able to monitor and scout the talented youngsters, but they would remain in their local setup until at least the age of 14. This would also prevent them from getting ahead of themselves—a problem identified by Steven Gerrard per BBC Sport.
The England captain thinks that the amount of money given to players at such a young age has a detrimental effect on their development, a sentiment echoed by Frank Lampard according to Neil Ashton at the Daily Mail.
During his time at the West Ham academy, Lampard had to clean the boots of senior players and earned no more than pocket money. He cites this position, starting at the very bottom of the hierarchy, as a key driver to his immense success.
Investment in facilities and community projects is key to this reform taking off. Grassroots football in the UK overall is a mess, and the FA are making all the right noises about improving this sorry state of affairs.
Their national facilities strategy, published in February 2013, is certainly encouraging, although the number of references to the difficult economic climate set alarm bells ringing about whether its aims are achievable.
The report highlights the need to revolutionise youth football, introducing small-sided games and futsal. At present, children as young as six are expected to play on full-size pitches for 90 minutes. Their little legs cannot handle this, leading them to hoof it and hope, and the perennially unsuccessful route-one tactic is perpetuated.
One area in which the FA are committed to investing heavily in is their new centre for coaching excellence at St George’s Park. The aim of the centre is to increase the standard of coaching in England across the board, from grassroots to the Premier League.
While it will take time to see the results from this ambitious project, it is something that should be supported by everyone involved in the English game.
However, there is one key aspect missing from the St George’s Park development vision: a national centre of excellence for players.
Lilleshall Hall was the national centre of excellence run by the FA in the 1980s and 90s. Players such as Scott Parker, Joe Cole, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher came through its ranks and all went on to play for England. The centre was closed in 1999 as the FA effectively turned over responsibility for national youth development to club-run academies, forgetting that in the modern age, football clubs are run as businesses to generate the highest return-on-investment possible.
For clubs like Southampton, producing top-quality England stars has become their bread and butter, as they nurture talents like Luke Shaw and Theo Walcott in order to cash in on their homegrown premium when they fulfil their potential.
However, there is no incentive for clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United to focus their efforts on ensuring that England’s brightest young talents get the best chance possible. Youth development takes time and consistency, and clubs competing at the very top have been unwilling to compromise on instant results thus far. Financial Fair Play may yet see a change in these practices, but it is likely to come too late for Greg Dyke’s 2022 World Cup target, per BBC Sport.
There is no quick fix to the problems that persist with the England team. The reforms suggested in this article would need a fundamental shift in the philosophy of the Premier League and would involve undoing the decentralisation and outsourcing of national youth development.
Jonathan Liew’s suggestion in The Daily Telegraph that market capitalism is to blame for England’s failure is an astute one, but it would be infinitely simpler to reform the Premier League rather than dismantle the global economic system.
At least, for now.