David Bernstein kicks a ball at a child (presumably), yesterday
As half of the universe was hanging on the future of potentially the most significant export to come out of Belgium since waffles, waffle makers and confusing instances at Magic Spongers HQ when realising the difference between ‘Belgian’ and ‘Birds Eye’, something else was going on in the bowels of England’s national stadium.
The FA announced yesterday that the ‘shareholders’ (the county football associations) had voted to bring in “a new player pathway for football” with an 87% majority. After doubtless asking ‘what?’, the likelihood is that you’ve joined our initial response on these fair pages which was – quite reasonably – to ask the FA what the FUCK took so long?
Now, we shouldn’t expect the governing body, an organisation with timing and fluency that wouldn’t look out of place at the Gloucester Cheese Rolling, to be on the money with this, taking as it has an inordinate amount of time from the famous ‘root and branch’ reform for them to a) admit there was something of a problem with the way England were producing young footballers and b) work out that selecting the boys that can kick it furthest and shout loudest were appropriate prototypes only for a style of football, not so much bordering on the prehistoric as actually pre-empting it.
Being formed in 1863 is no excuse for the FA to be quite so far behind the times. While it would be no surprise to see a stegosaurus roaming the corridors of Wembley with David Bernstein perched on top trying to keep his monocle in place, it was at least refreshing to see them attempt a more pragmatic, less sensationalist approach to appointing Fabio Capello’s successor. The irony here, of course, is that the new England manager, whether by choice or design, finds himself wedded to a ‘two banks of four’ 4-4-2 and a big man up front that unapologetically constitutes a throwback.
At least there are some concrete measures following so many false dawns. It feels like ages ago (oh wait, because IT WAS) that the ‘inquest’ was beginning after Steve McLaren’s tenure as national team manager. Admittedly, this blog has been seizing upon shortcomings ever since and not just because Rob is a Scot and Bushers simply hates everyone, but also because there is a reluctance on the part of the senior team – whether under Capello, Hodgson and, one imagines, ‘Arry as well – to engineer change at the very top level; the level that is meant to inspire the generations that follow. The first team will be so risk-averse this summer that it would be no surprise to see them exit at the group stage following two goalless draws and a 1-0 defeat to Ukraine. Which wouldn’t actually be a bad result.
It’s not as if the under 21s are setting the world alight, of course, but the senior XI has been stale for a while. Should Gareth Barry be involved in another squad following his recent injury? Hodgson has said he will have a role to play after the Euros. Why? A decent season, yes. A future mainstay for England? No. Whether because of excess of age or shortage of talent – take your pick.
A paucity of options, which we’ve heard all about, is of course a valid excuse for Hodgson’s limited squad, but there is no harm in giving new faces experiences. Pointless friendlies shouldn’t be the only outlet for experimentation, especially given the general calibre of England’s opponents in the great Wembley payback internationals, but they often are. Moreover, through the fallacy of the FIFA rankings, their World Cup qualifying groups often appear to leave the team and its newer recruits woefully underprepared for the rigours of a tournament.
Anyway, while the seniors have put looking to the future on hold so the usual suspects can get another chastening tournament campaign out of the way, the FA’s grand plan for the country’s young players comprises a mandatory 5v5 format of football for U7s and U8s, while U11 and U12s will play 9v9. At all these age groups, pitches will be smaller, as will goals, which previously (at full-size) not only favoured players with the biggest boots and lungs, but also were completely impossible to defend. You’re going to train to be a goalkeeper when you can’t reach the crossbar? I MEAN COME ON.
The thing is though, players will still graduate to full-size pitches aged 13. Which, for most kids, is still pre-growth spurt and before most have reached anything resembling an appropriate level of maturity. And is therefore still completely pointless. What’s more, these changes are being ‘phased in by season 2014-15’. Which sort of begs the question what will be happening in the meantime – surely the changes are just down to the coaches running two practice games at a time instead of one big one? Just playing on smaller pitches? In smaller goals? This is going to take another TWO YEARS?
The temptation is to say ‘still, progress is progress’ and leave it at that. But, what is utterly mystifying is that this ‘new player pathway’ needs phasing in at all, when the only innovation is what most right-minded coaches have been saying (and no doubt trying to put into practice) for years anyway – the problem with that scenario being that there is absolutely no way of knowing if it’s having any effect or not.
Of course, part of the delay to something that might well already be happening is that FA initiatives and bureaucracy go hand-in-hand like an onion in apple face paint, wrapped in red tape like a horrible shit vegetable present that at first glance looks like some delicious fruit.
More pertinently though, the reality is that at elite level, despite the national football centre (at which the onus will now be on coaches rather than players) seemingly nearing completion, there doesn’t appear to be such an appetite for change. The trappings of top level clubs’ control over their academies and numerous vested interests elsewhere mean that help at the top, from the top, is unlikely to be forthcoming.
There’s no quick fix of course; everyone knows that (by now, we hope). Copying Spain and Germany is clearly the popular motivation and seemingly the easiest thing to achieve. Small players, small pitches and an emphasis on technical skill. Fine. But the key for England is to find its own philosophy – not ape someone else’s – and that is something that requires a far more cohesive collaboration than currently exists across the spectrum.