by Luke Irelan-Hill
Put your hand up if you still think English players are amongst the best in the world.
There are quite a few of you. Well you all have a bit more faith then I do.
With less than fifty days to go until the European Championships 2012 kick-off in Poland and Ukraine, I offer my opinion on why England continually fail at major tournaments and why I have no doubt they will fail again.
There was a time when I was like all of you. I believed that the England team was bursting at the seams with countless numbers of world-class players waiting to be propelled onto football’s biggest scene. Players that could match the legends that have appeared in the French, Brazilian and Italian national teams over the years. I always saw a team capable of winning the World Cup, the European Championship and establishing itself as the number one side in the world. A team that could add to the solitary World Cup win of 1966. (Did that actually happen? I have to ask myself the question).
I have watched England since France 1998 and followed them in every tournament since – apart from the one they failed to make in 2008. With each failure I say to myself, next time. Next time we will come good. Next time we shall win.
But of course the next time comes and goes. 14 years since I started following England, 46 years since that World Cup win, and now just weeks before the next big tournament, or failure, it seems the right time to give up.
I always looked at the likes of Campbell, Ferdinand, Scholes, Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Owen and Rooney and believing that the constant dreams of England finally performing on the biggest stage would come true. But as always I was left feeling the usual anti-climax.
Why is this? Why do we constantly fail?
I would offer the simple reason that we have a severe lack of world-class players. However no-one ever settles for that conclusion. So let’s look at the development of our youngsters.
Young English talent from the age of eight or nine are brainwashed that passion and belief will bring them success. This has never been true. Learning the basics of football and building on skills is often put to one side, or in some cases completely forgotten about. Also at this age it is also not unusual for boys and girls to be playing football on full-size pitches that to be honest most of us would struggle to run about on. They are taught to run everywhere quickly even for tackling. The focus is not on the ball but the player.
At an early age young English talent are not taught close ball skills, or to pass and move, retain possession or to think about how they are retaining possession like many foreign countries. This is something that the Spanish and Brazilians illustrate perfectly. Fitness work also seems to be second-best compared to countries such as Germany and Holland.
There are all-too-few players that are hand-picked from the poor-grass roots set-up in England and placed into the capable hands and tutorage of a professional clubs. And fewer still then good enough to make the transition successfully enough to make the international stage. These are usually the ones who are picked by the professional clubs that follow a ‘European’ model.
Away from skills and fitness English youngsters learning the game see on the TV from a very early age that anger and belligerence are acceptable, examples being Wayne Rooney’s behaviour on and off the field or the Chelsea team surrounding referees. This behaviour is often mirrored by parents on a Sunday morning who happily and loudly abuse the officials.
Let’s also look at the players that currently make up the England team to see if the problem is there.
The team is made up of mainly ‘experienced’ players, those who have appeared in multiple matches at international level for several years or more. Apart from the most recent friendlies it is very rare that any youth breaks into the team. Capello, unlike those before him, made it clear that it was his intention to pick players based on form instead of experience, but this was clearly never the case.
Yes Capello does hold the highest win percentage of any England manager. But there is no denying that he controlled and managed a group of desperate, last chance saloon players who are, or nearly are, on their last legs.
Did I say last chance saloon? The 2010 World Cup should have been their last chance, however there is no doubt in my mind that whoever takes over for the European Championships this year and in to the future will continue to play the same players.
Whoever takes over will inherit a group of players with egos that are difficult to control, especially as the FA are not paying their wages. Many managers have tried to control these egos, and until the World Cup 2010 Capello seemed to be doing so but as always the egos proved too big for the team. I don’t think it is entirely possible unless we start all over again. The current players do not feel the need to perform on an international level. Player’s retire early, such as Paul Scholes. Why? Club football is simply more important.
Problems do not just exist in the England national set-up though. Raymond Domenech failed completely to control his players when he was in charge of France; their egos were all far too big for the team. Age may also play a part. Both the England and France squads were old when they caused problems, however Joachim Loews young Germany squad are giving him no problems at all.
There needs to be a balance. Unfortunately England can never quite find that balance.
The alternative view seems to be that the presence of foreign talent in the English Premier League leaves very little room for English players to play at the highest level. I do not agree with this, the view is absurd. If English talent was good enough it would get into England’s top sides. It is that simple. Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole all appear in the Chelsea side as regulars and Wayne Rooney is in fantastic form for Manchester United. Both sides have won the league with these players in the team. But arguably the next ‘generation’ of English talent is not talented enough. They are not nurtured enough from a young age to make the jump to Premier League standard like our international counterparts are.
Why do these players, with a mix from other clubs such as Liverpool and Tottenham, fail to perform on the international stage? They cannot be said to have ‘failed to break through’ – after all they are playing for the biggest teams in the country – so it certainly cannot be said that they do not have the experience at the highest level. Is there a behaviour that is drilled into them at club level that once these restraints are moved they fail to play football as it should be played. I find this difficult to believe.
For those that watch the Premier League every week you will see much of the same style that England have employed other the years – inflexible, aggressive and with a focus on tackling the man instead of playing the ball. And let’s not forget the long ball! Those few teams in the Premier League who try to be different, try to play like other European clubs are often kicked off the field. Something which is tolerated in England, but not across the continent.
This does pose a problem though. There is no getting away from the fact that English teams are among the elite in European competitions. Apart from this current season, English teams have dominated the Champions League for some time. Incidentally these are the same English teams who have a large number of foreign players. The same English teams who try to play a less traditional English style.
So what is the answer?
I don’t have one, so sorry if you were expecting one. If change is so happen then the FA and the Premier League need to work together and not against each other. Otherwise we will be dreaming of more glory like 1966 for many more years to come!
Good luck to whoever takes over as England manager, but I don’t think it will help them much.