Wanna win the World Cup? Get on yer bike
England won’t win the Big One till its young players get first-team action regularly - and are hungry enough to go abroad to get it.
Greg Dyke has a vision. He wants England to win the World Cup in 2022. This is Big Picture stuff. But will he deliver his grand ambition? It’s a bit like saying you have a vision that pigs will fly within a decade? It ticks all the right vision boxes. It’s a glorious aspiration. It’s a SMART objective to boot. But does anybody seriously believe it’s possible? Of course not.
Visions used to be rare and, dare I say it, visionary things. They were the exclusive preserve of saints and mystics. The trouble with visions is that they’re ten-a-penny these days. Everyone’s got a vision. And a mission statement. And probably a narrative as well. All of this stuff is obligatory in the world of business. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with a business studies diploma or project-management qualification is churning out visions for whatever widgets they’re trying to flog. A vision for a world without hemorrhoids. A blueprint for tomorrow’s toilet rolls. Nose-hair trimming Nirvana. You know the sort of thing.
The problem is that the aspirational currency has been thoroughly devalued as a result of excessive visioning. Moreover, visionitis has spread beyond the world of business and is now infecting every nook and cranny of society. When I recently went to the physio after breaking my wrist, she asked me what my treatment goals and objectives were. You what? I just wanted my wrist to get better. Wasn’t that enough? Did I really need to draft objectives and KPIs?
Now it’s English football’s turn to undergo the visioning treatment. Every good vision needs a compelling case for change. Greg Dyke painted a catastrophic picture of the consequences of doing nothing. Pointing to the fact that only 32 per cent of Premier League footballers were eligible to play for England, he warned: ‘In the future it’s quite possible we won’t have enough players qualified to play for England who are playing regularly at the highest level in this country or elsewhere in the world.’ It’s a chilling prospect. ‘English football is a tanker that needs turning’, he declared. Stirring stuff. And who would disagree with him? We don’t like where the tanker is heading. We all want to turn the tanker round, Greg. It doesn’t take a visionary to figure out that English football is not in a good place right now. We’ve not been in a good place for a long time. We’re locked in a vicious circle of self-loathing, penalty-choking failure and hurt.
The challenge for Greg Dyke is convincing us that his vision can be achieved. Winning the World Cup in 2022? A fine sentiment, but it sounds more hallucination than vision. Did someone slip some happy pills into Greg’s tea? It’s no good having a vision if everyone rolls around laughing in disbelief. Dyke doesn’t explain how exactly he will lead English football to the Promised Land. Or to put it in management-speak, there is no roadmap. Dyke’s plan is to set up a commission – a tacit admission that he doesn’t have a clue how to fix the problem. Who will sit on the commission? All the usual suspects: club chairmen, the Football League, the League Managers’ Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association. Yes really. The very people who are responsible for the sorry state of English football are somehow expected to agree the magic formula for World Cup success. As I said, happy pills.
I hate to sound pessimistic, but I’m pretty certain that Greg Dyke’s vision will suffer the same fate as Pelé’s much-ridiculed prediction that an African nation would win the World Cup by the year 2000. Why? The club-run youth academies were meant to be a production line of talent. But the system simply isn’t working. It doesn’t matter how state-of-the-art their academy facilities are, the simple fact is that Premiership clubs are not giving their academy graduates regular first-team football. When was the last time a youth player came through the ranks at Chelsea? John Terry is the only first-team regular to graduate through the club’s youth system in the past 15 years. Talented youth players, like Nathaniel Chalobah and Josh McEachran, are perpetually loaned out to Championship clubs where the football is fast, frantic and direct. Little wonder that the England Under-21s flopped so abysmally at the European Championships this summer. English football is still not able to produce technical footballers who are comfortable keeping possession of the ball.
There are deeper cultural obstacles that the football authorities can’t overcome quickly or easily. In their illuminating book, The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti explored the reasons why Italian football produces artists whereas England produces battlers. The contrast in training methods is one significant factor. In Italy, there is far greater emphasis placed on drills to develop technique whereas in England more time is spent in practice games. The different approaches to training are a by-product of deeper cultural attitudes. As the authors point out, there are contrasting youth-development philosophies in the two countries: ‘In Italy, youth coaching is about turning kids into the best possible footballers. In England, it’s about using sport to understand teamwork and sportsmanship.’
Another cultural problem, which former England midfielder Ray Wilkins highlighted this week, is a lack of hunger. ‘In this country at the moment the English boys coming through are extremely talented technically’, said Wilkins. ‘But do they have the drive to become top footballers? I don’t know.’ Wilkins believes there is an attitudinal gulf between young English players and foreign imports. ‘The British players think they’ve made it far too early, most definitely, but the foreign player doesn’t. The foreign player wants to be a footballer. We can have as many National Football Centres as we wish to have, but unless we have the desire from the young men, there’ll be problems’.
I think Butch has a point. Of course, it’s difficult for young English players to make the transition from their academies to the first team. But there’s no law forcing them to stagnate in the reserves. If they want regular first-team football, why don’t they go abroad? In the post-Bosman era, players are no longer tied to their clubs like bonded serfs.
Greg Dyke’s vision requires Premier League clubs to put youth development before results and that ain’t going to happen. But even if the FA significantly increased the number of qualified coaches in this country – England has far fewer UEFA qualified coaches than Spain, Italy and Germany – the cultural barriers will be much harder to overcome. Put simply, if our young players don’t have the courage or desire to go abroad in order to play first-team football and better themselves, English football will remain in the dark ages. And no amount of vision statements or roadmaps or blueprints will change that.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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