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Friday, 24 May 2013


"More of the same lads."

A swing of David Beckham’s (RIP) right boot, a flash of Alan Shearer’s not-as-bald-or-boring-back-then forehead and that was that. England one goal, Germany no goals. GERMANY KEINE ZIELE! And so a delirious nation decamped from the pubs they were watching in to… erm, some more pubs to sing inappropriate songs about German aircraft and Lothar Matthäus’ parentage, celebrate England’s victory over the arch enemy and make bold predictions about the destination of the Euro 2000 trophy, before going home to re-enact the match on their brand new Playstation 2 (one for you there, research fans).

Rewind but two years previous to 1998 and, while the FA had been furiously ignoring Howard Wilkinson’s report on the development of English football for over four years, their German counterparts had just been presented with its ‘Charter for Youth’, the research for and publication of which was spurred by a 3-0 quarter-final defeat by Croatia at the 1998 World Cup. The new structure was implemented in 2002 and eight years later a fundamentally changed Germany team was born – with an average age of 24.7. In the 2010 World Cup, they beat England 4-1. They then beat Argentina 4-0.

Of the 23-man national squad that travelled to South Africa, 19 came from Bundesliga academies, with the other four from Bundesliga 2 academies. And as two German clubs prepare to contest this season’s Champions League final, it must be said that a little bit of long-term player development planning goes a long way. It’s not our place to say we told you so*, but we told you so.

Power for player development has long since departed the FA’s remit and has been solely in the hands of clubs; investing in the best talent from around the world (and dispensing with any boys not deemed good enough to make it – generally 99% of their ridiculously huge intake) since the turn of the century. Whereas the most significant change in the German model was insisting that at least 12 players in each intake of newbies at the club’s new academies had to be eligible to play for Germany. In England two years ago, the split was roughly 60/40 in favour of English players against counterparts eligible for other nations. But it’s hard to see these numbers doing anything other than reversing in the coming years.

So, really, we’re past the point at which we make suggestions to the FA on how to run their youth development affairs. But we can mark instead a denouement of the relentless struggle between a powerless governing body and an omnipotent domestic league. The FA’s war was lost years ago. Euro 2000 marked a fork in the road for two footballing heavyweight nations and they both strolled down markedly different paths.

And now here we are. Today’s England side is already seemingly reliant on the mixture of a white elephant (although the blame for this can most certainly be laid at the media’s door to some extent) and a potential permacrock (we hope not). Whereas England must put its faith in Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshire, the talent of Germany’s 2013 vintage knows no bounds: Marco Reus; Mezut Ozil; Mario Gotze; Toni Kroos; Andre Schürrle; Mats Hummels; Thomas Müller… even the veterans are young (Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger are not yet 30).

What’s frustrating is that that could have been England. Seriously. 2000-2013. That’s how long systemic change in football takes. And when one ponders the long-term benefits, surely a little forward planning isn’t a bad thing; IT’S A REALLY, REALLY GOOD THING.

Revisiting our archives, we were struck by this little apple from a piece entitled ‘Seek and Lilleshall Find’ from way back in July 2010, when David Beckham was still playing football and we had the time to actually write more than one article a month. ‘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.’

We went on to state: ‘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.’

And there we have it. Those words from July 2010 still ring true now. While the Spanish and the French and the Germans have proved adaptive to long-term change, the English continue to do their own thing. And throw lots of money at it in the process. To paraphrase The Fall’s frontman Mark E Smith, the English system seems to have been ‘made with the highest attention to the wrong details’.

*It is. We told you so.

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