BY MARK HARGREAVES
1966: Neil Armstrong won’t be stepping foot on the moon for another three years; JFK was assassinated in Texas the same amount of time previous; and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. In everyone’s mind these would be considered notes from a bygone time. Irrelevant points of trivia to be noted with interest, but not really pertinent in 2017. Why is it then that the greatest glory of the England national football team, the winning of the world the World Cup, has managed to dominate the psyche for so long
To this day, the outlook of England’s fortunes in international competition is tempered by the belief that somehow Bobby Moore and co. still have a seat at the table when we sit down to discuss how to go about being successful.
Is this purely an English obsession? A delirious triumphalism reserved only for the dreamers of these shores, or can it be found elsewhere? Are there Hungarian fans in Budapest unable to resolve the confusion of how their possession of the great Puskas sixty years ago doesn’t somehow entitle them to present glory?
Are there schools of Uruguayans who think it bizarre that after winning two of the first four World Cups, the path to the top of modern international football isn’t a little less rocky?
It may lead to the revelation of a shocking truth to some of you, but let us construct a little thought experiment if we can. Imagine that a reality exists in which the game owes you nothing. Titles are won through forethought, talent and endeavour. Legacy is a currency that buys you very little when it comes to the next game and the next tournament. A worryingly dystopian reality I’m sure we can all agree.
Irony aside, this is the reality we live in. The two most successful international teams since the turn of the Millennium – Germany and Spain – have achieved glory due to a multitude of factors, none of which have been waxing nostalgic about the great sides of yesteryear.
The greatest realisation these teams made and the initial catalyst in their resurgence was their humble admission that, at the time, they simply were not up to scratch and changes needed to be made throughout their entire infrastructure if they were to move themselves back to the top of the football food chain.
Jurgen Klinsmann was the man enlisted to perform the post mortem on a German side that had been embarrassed at Euro 2004. Klinsmann’s greatest attribute during that time was his lack of reverence for the German football establishment. With no regard for tradition and humility he set about dismantling the slightly rusty VW Beetle and rebuilding it into the top of the range Mercedes we know today.
In Spain, it had been 44 years since La Roja had won an international competition, after their success in the inaugural European championships. Their victories in successive European championships in 2008 and 2012, with a World Cup win sandwiched between them established Spain as the greatest team in the world, some argue, of all time. The Spanish revolution came from slightly different origins, it was the Camp Nou and legendary youth academy La Masia under the watchful eye of Johann Cruyff, that birthed their irrepressible style of play.
And then, we look at England. A nation that can boast as respectable an arsenal of players as you are likely to find, and yet disappointment has followed frustration in their endeavour to once again wear the crown of footballing royalty. But how can this be? We invented the damn game. We sired players like Bobby Charlton and Paul Gascoigne.
Admittedly, Charlton was one of the greatest to ever grace Wembley’s turf. Gascoigne was a prodigious, if shortly lived talent. Add to that in more recent years, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes and you can start to understand the cognitive dissonance England fans feel when they see their team lose, so regularly and to seemingly inferior opposition.
One of the core problems is a dogmatic refusal to believe that nothing more than a good manager and a lick of paint is needed to restore the grand old ship. Spain were not so self-righteous. Germany didn’t look back. FA chief, Greg Dyke described England as “a tanker that needed turning”, back in 2013. More realistically the tanker needed scuttling and a racing yacht built in its stead.
A fair acknowledgement needs to be given to the English FA for finally addressing this issue. In 2003 an announcement was made that a new centre of excellence was to be constructed to not only develop players in a world beating facility but also train the legions of FA coaches operating at the grassroots of the game. There was going to be a change.
New guidelines were drafted outlining a strict development structure for players of all ages. Smaller players needed smaller games with smaller balls and smaller goals. Attitudes about the pressure younger players where under from parents and coaches were to change; no more “I could have been a pro, you know?” dads on the sidelines screaming themselves hoarse when 6-year-old Jonny doesn’t show the clinical finishing ability of David Villa.
Kids were going to enjoy their football and through their relaxed enjoyment, grow more passionate about the game and be allowed to develop naturally into better players. “Look at that Ronaldinho, he plays with a massive smile on his face and he’s the best player in the world. Let’s teach our kids to be just like him…”
Well intended initial efforts you have to agree. It seemed England were on the right path, bringing their football into the 21st century and it was only a matter of time until the golden generation would emerge and show those upstart foreigners how it’s done.
It is worth noting, Klinsmann’s overhaul of the German side bore fruit after ten years, they were crowned World Cup champions in Rio de Janeiro, beating Argentina in the final thanks to a goal by one of the products of Klinsmann’s labours, Mario Gotze.
England’s new football development centre opened, after some drawn out planning and budgeting, 9 years after its inception, in October 2012. St George’s Park, was the saccharinely patriotic title for the FA’s jewel in the crown. Nestled in 330 acres of Staffordshire, it boasts 12 external pitches, state of the art training and rehabilitation facilities and even a Hilton hotel.
All there was to do now was wait.
Bringing us up to the modern day, we’re now almost 14 years down the line and England have a trophy cabinet bulging at the seams…erm, not quite.
There have been signs, more recently, that the prophetic golden generation might just be breaking through. Euro 2016 saw England’s youngest ever squad in an international tournament. Players like Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling were just a few of the players barely old enough to vote, but with the weight of a nation’s expectations on their back.
Fans and pundits alike commended Roy Hodgson for his bold, yet astute, squad selection. Harry Kane picked up the golden boot that season, partnering Dele Alli in Tottenham’s best league run in Premier League history. Marcus Rashford had exploded into public view with five goals in just eleven appearances for Manchester United and Raheem Sterling had recently become the ninth most expensive player in the world after his transfer to Manchester City.
It was, predictably, to lead to yet again more frustration for fans, the FA and Roy Hodgson when England were humiliatingly ejected from the round of 16, being beaten 2-1 by lowly Iceland.
This was quite a turn up for the books. The FA had done everything right. New facilities, new coaches, emulating the successful style and infrastructure of other nations. So why had nothing changed?
The problem was, well…nothing had changed.
St Georges Park was, as mentioned, the jewel in the FA’s crown. The problem was the crown itself was made of tin. At an entry level, the coaching tactics and general view of the game hadn’t changed. The £125million invested into the Staffordshire complex was like trying to light up a dark room with a laser beam.
What the FA most crucially overlooked was that which Germany and Spain got so right. They stripped the institution bare and rebuilt from scratch, changing tactics and procedure and in the meantime changing the public view of the team. They did away with any preconceived notions of doing things the German way or the worry that somehow a change would be disrespectful to Spain’s old guard. It was a genuine revolution, not just a quarter turn of the rusty old tanker.
Throwing money at the issue was never going to solve anything in the long term, even less so when the bulk of investment is focused at improving players who have already reached maturity.
For all the chatter of affecting the game at a grassroots level, the FA’s director of development was quoted as saying “The teams have a framework from which they will work from U21s down to the U16s, concentrating on a possession-based game with creative attacking play”.
Sounds good, but at 16, a player’s core philosophy is already cemented in place. Barcelona’s La Masia academy holds open days once a year for future academy players, the cut off age for admission is 8, any older and, as far as Barca are concerned, you’re already a lost cause, having absorbed too many external influences and habits, making it impossible for them to truly indoctrinate you.
With the unveiling of St George’s Park, Greg Dyke set out a calendar for the progression of the England first team, the 2022 World Cup is intended to be the final mark on that timeline. As that tournament inches closer, confidence has stagnated. The recruitment of Gareth Southgate and the intense public scrutiny of players like Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley are just signs of the rolling on of the mundane England Football machine. Replace the names of Gareth Southgate, Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley with Terry Venables, Alan Shearer and, well, Gareth Southgate and it would be a disturbingly familiar picture. The old tanker has tacked but not turned.
Time will tell as it always does but the promises of metamorphosis now seem hollow and unsustained. While the FA’s publicity team frantically try to focus our gaze on their expensive new toy, those of us who take the time to look beyond it will see that as a nation we are still sadly some distance behind.