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Monday, 5 July 2010

Seek and Lilleshall Find (part 1 of 2)

Promises, promises. Given the alarming state of English football following the Euro 2008 qualifiers, its return to square one in South Africa 2010 makes the FA’s promised ‘root and branch’ investigation look more like ‘foot in mouth’. Or ‘head up arse’. Since Euro 2000, in fact, reform has perennially been just around the corner.

The timing of England’s ignominious World Cup exit marks near enough the mid-point of former chief executive Brian Barwick and then-FA chairman Geoff Thompson’s much-vaunted strategic review and consequent five-year plan. At a news conference to announce Fabio Capello’s appointment in December 2007, Barwick stated: “A direct part of [the strategic review] will be to work out how we take the England situation forward in a positive way.”

The FA have been attempting to achieve three ‘strategic goals’. They are:

• Being ‘Trusted to Lead’
• Seeing ‘England Teams Winning’
• Making football the ‘Nation’s Favourite Game’

Fast forward from the publication of this report in May 2008 to now and these goals – or at least the two that pertain to the health of English football on a competitive level – look further from attainment than ever. The appointment of Capello was supposed to be the foundation on which the ‘England Teams Winning’ part was built, especially when the FA removed the non-compensation clause from his contract ahead of the finals in South Africa. Three weeks later, they have had to give themselves a two-week cooling off period in which to decide whether or not to pay out £12m to get rid of him. Trusted to lead?

The FA’s strategy promised to ‘foster the growth and the sustained success of English football’. One of the objectives inherent to this was the opening and operation of the National Football Centre (NFC) at Burton in Staffordshire, scheduled for 2010. The project was originally an attempt to resurrect a national hub for young footballers, the likes of which the FA had closed down at Lilleshall in 1999, at the behest of Howard Wilkinson, in favour of a regional elite academy system. However, the NFC project in this particular guise was abandoned in 2004 following an investment of £25m and a series of delays, primarily caused by the FA's Wembley-related financial problems.

Eleven years after the closure of Lilleshall, the NFC at Burton is being rebranded as a centre for the education of coaches rather than players, largely thanks to expense – not normally an issue – and a lack of support from Premier League clubs, who are becoming more insular than ever. It will become a base for national football, but not an educational establishment for players. Closing Lillehsall in the first place makes progressively less sense the more the FA try and establish an appropriate venture to replace it.

In closing one academy in favour of several regional outposts, Wilkinson had the right idea, but he took power for player development away from the FA and placed it solely in the hands of the clubs. The then Premier League chief executive Rick Parry decided that clubs should have their own academies, though these became occupied by progressively fewer English players. Wilkinson’s aim for a few academy centres developing players turned into over 40 clubs operating their own academies with no obligation to be mindful of the interests of the national team. To counter this, quotas for English players were eventually introduced, as were restrictions on the poaching of foreign players under 18 years old. However, English player development, certainly for those elite enough to play internationally, had been significantly decentralised.

Lessons can be learned from the continent, as ever, though with Lilleshall the FA were the first protagonists. France’s model for the regional extension of academies, the first of which was the famous Clairefontaine complex – opened as an academy in 1988 – was based on the English set-up. At a time when the French were implementing their own version of English football’s last great innovation, the English were closing their facility down. And how do their records compare since their respective divergence in the mid-1990s? France – one World Cup win, a second World Cup Final appearance and one European Championship. England – well, we all know already. The perceived sense in closing Lilleshall, or forgoing the opportunity to replace it, continues to dwindle.

Clairefontaine is now just one of twelve French regional academies, distinct in that it houses the senior national side. English football’s best chance of progress now is to follow suit and establish a national centre for elite players at all ages, fed by a system of regional academies. The painful irony is that for most countries, this would constitute an innovative step forwards, but for English football it would be a recourse to the practice of a decade ago, for some reason deemed insufficient just as it was inspiring the rest of Europe.

Former secretary for Culture, Media and Sport Andy Burnham may overegg the pudding somewhat in opining that English football faces a choice between “whether we want the best league in the world or the best national team in the world”. In the wake of the farce in Rustenburg however, it is clear that things can only get worse for a country whose manager could only potentially call on 34% of the players in its leading domestic league when taking over in 2008. Rob MacDonald

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