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David James and Fabio Capello: The Biggest NFL Fans in England

Those of you living in America probably couldn’t stop hearing about last weekend’s big National Football League game in London, the third such contest in three years, in which the New England Patriots tonked Malcolm Glazer’s hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers — who have cut costs to the bone this season, and we can all have a guess as to why.

Despite the NFL’s talk of how quickly their showpiece sells out Wembley Stadium each year and how the league could add more London games in the future because of that success, the truth is that England doesn’t really care all that much. Far more sports fans in that country (and its press) were more concerned with Liverpool’s win over Manchester United and the swine flu scare at Stamford Bridge on Sunday than they were about two random NFL teams ripping up the sod in Wembley. As a sporting event, the London Bowl is mostly manufactured hype, an NFL specialty.

Two rather notable figures in English football, however, seem to believe their colleagues have quite a lot to learn from American football.

In his recent column for The Guardian, Portsmouth goalkeeper David James revealed that England manager Fabio Capello sat down last weekend with Mike Holmgren, a former NFL head coach who’s been to three Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks and won one of them, to discuss coaching ideas and techniques. Capello, James reveals, has borrowed several ideas from the NFL for the England squad — most notably increased film study of training sessions and opponents’ tendencies.

James in particular seems to be a big proponent of film study:

I’ve taken to doing my own video work with a psychologist. Video analysis highlights the gap between perception and reality – your awareness of space and time during a game can be so distorted you are unable to assess accurately every detail on the pitch, a problem that can affect managers as much as players.

James also admitted that his visits to several NFL teams in 2003 made “a huge impression” on him, and that he was stunned by how much emphasis was put on individual aspects of the game. He noted how much time players spent together studying in the film room and how closely Jim Zorn, then a quarterbacks coach for the Seahawks, worked with the team’s QBs to improve their skills. He went on to write that he’s never seen any English football club do anything similar:

I’ve never been at a club where we sit down as a formation – a defensive or offensive group – and spend time working out systems. That’s just not the culture in England, where we seem to have this idea that sitting in a video room for any amount of time is boring and the wrong thing to do.

James finished his column by stating that if he ever gets into management, he plans on borrowing even more ideas from NFL than Capello has — beginning with a more robust coaching staff:

Imagine if we had kicking coaches, heading coaches, attack coaches, defence coaches. Why not? We have keepers who can’t kick the ball properly, and strikers who can’t head. Why wouldn’t you want to give them additional coaching to improve their all-round game? … Whatever you would spend on these specialist coaches, it would be a drop in the ocean compared to players’ wages. Not investing in them seems a false economy.

What I would like to know is this — why haven’t most EPL clubs done this already? Or have they? Do the clubs that haven’t simply assume that this sort of training only works at the youth level, and that adult footballers no longer need it? Are players tasked with finding their own instruction outside of regular training? Are managers simply holding on to archaic traditions because they fear other coaches would attempt to usurp their authority? Or do they simply think that too many cooks will spoil the broth?

It seems almost abhorrent to suggest that the beautiful game would somehow be less beautiful if clubs paid more attention to details, group tactics and specific skills like heading and free kick accuracy. Perhaps the only question is which club will be first to invest in the heftier coaching staff and enhanced video suites necessary to focus on those details. Arsenal already has the latter at its London Colney facility, which Capello uses with the England team for film study. So perhaps Arsene Wenger is slightly ahead of the curve. On the other hand, Arsenal hasn’t won any trophies since 2005, and that’s the true measure of success, isn’t it?

Chances are little will change at the club level until one club that takes a chance on these ideas wins some real hardware. Perhaps it will be left to Capello and James to prove that the beautiful game might actually have something to learn from the gridiron game after all.

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  1. sucka99

    July 17, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    1. all sports share the same concepts. moving into spaces, drawing defenders, etc. and can benefit from sharing concepts. even if they’re not directly applicable, they may be indirectly applicable regardless of where the sport is or isn’t played.

    2. anyone who would denigrate one sport over another has an inferiority complex. to say that it doesn’t interest you is one thing. to say there’s nothing to learn from a sport played at the highest level is just ignorant.

    3. basketball is not a national (number one) sport anywhere including the US. NFL, college football and baseball are still king here.

  2. coachie

    October 31, 2009 at 1:59 am

    I’m with Kartik’s point regarding basketball. Of course it’s popular in South America and parts of Europe, but there is no country outside the US where basketball is bigger than football. Maaaaaybe in Lithuania, Serbia or Crotia.

    On the pitch, I think baskets has more to offer football than the NFL. Moving without the ball, drawing defenders and anticipatory passes are skills the sports share. If I had to draft a football team amongst players from the NBA, the NFL and MLB, is there any doubt that basketball players would comprise the bulk of players chosen?

  3. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    October 30, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Guys I was in London during the NFL game. I do believe as I wrote in a piece on my personal site that the local media gave the NFL the short end of the bargain because some local interest was present.

    But as someone who religiously watched the NFL for 25 years, I can tell you American sports writers completely exaggerate the interest in all American sports, particularly the NFL abroad. I have twice been abroad during the Super Bowl and could not even find it on the TV? I have been told the actual numbers of viewers outside the US is less than 5 million for the Super Bowl. Simply put nobody cares outside the US, except for small numbers of niche fans. The sport is simply not understandable to the large masses of people. Again, I feel the British press underreported the story, but they don’t understand the game and probably felt a photo spread was safer than actually analyzing the game.

    Contrast that with the NBA, whose regular season games are aired globally and have developed an interest. Again, I stand by what I have said- Basketball is not the national sport anywhere, but it is a relevant sport almost everywhere, except in ironically enough on some college campuses in the US where College Basketball, for my money the most compelling American sport is treated like Lacrosse or Badminton. (particularly schools in the South and Interior West).

    Baseball, as I have stated is a national game in many countries, and the scouting networks MLB teams must employ abroad are intricate and stats based. I am not a Baseball fan, but it is very easy to see where Football board rooms and managers could learn alot from a week with the Dodgers, the Red Sox or the Marlins.

    So again, I believe Baseball is far more relevant and useful for European football to develop an understanding of than the closed, insular shop of the NFL.

    • Dave

      November 6, 2009 at 10:34 am


      Which South are you talking about? Because I live in the South, and trust me, they take their college basketball VERY seriously around these parts.

  4. eplnfl

    October 29, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Wow, we are at it again boys. From what I saw of the English media from this side of the pond it looked like the game had a large amount of local press. I will note a good segment of highlights on BBC Tv that night and a 5 live radio broadcast. Ok, Kartik is correct that the NFL has a large and well oiled media machine that goes into overdrive for the London game, but the fact is the place was sold out. So, someone did care.

    AP, is right in his advise to soccer-centric English fans. BEWARE of the NFL. you could easily catch the fever! What is even more relevant to me is the NFL London game v. 39th game. NFL fans have no personal crisis over the game being played in London. Maybe English Prem fans learn a thing or two from NFL fans who are willing and proud to share. Isn’t the whole island a bog anyway so stop blaming us Yanks about your poor field conditions! (sorry had to get that one in, lol). Lets face facts that while a London NFL teams may draw fans to what would have to be a Sunday late game local time, it will be stocked with American players and take no talent or real money away from soccer. So enjoy, it will be ok if it happens, the island won’t sink due to bad drainage if the NFL plays 8 games a year in London.

    As to the training issue, I am shocked to hear that NFL film techniques are not already in use in Europe. Maybe this could be the subject of another post but it seems a real lack of modern coaching to me.

  5. thomas

    October 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Kartik you are an idiot.

    Just because YOU do not like American Football doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve respect in it’s own right. It’s just as stupid as most American’s hating “soccer” for no good reason. I don’t understand the logic behind one sport having to be bad in order for another to be good. Like there is a fixed pie?

    Great article btw. When it comes to player preperation, no sport compares to American Football. Granted it is a more situational game than Football, Basketball, or Hockey.

    I’ve always wondered, how much film study is done in Football (soccer). Do they break down player tendencies, etc.? Seems if you watched enough tape on a player, you would see what he does in a given situation, when he likes to shoot, etc.

  6. Chris

    October 29, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    I agree with Jay about Kartik , South America plays Basketball and are getting into and now England are trying to start…I seen something on Sky Sports where Lebron James was in London teaching kids how to play Basketball and the kids said.” I LOVE IT” …one day England will be playing Basketball much like most parts of the world…and maybe NFL football also hopefully the rest of the world will plays sports the USA does …the USA plays sports the rest of the world does I believe the rest of the world should play sports like the USA does…hell even Italy has a womens national softball team. We are way off topic here but I see where NFL and other sports can relate to football (soccer) in some ways. And Its nice that it does.

  7. Panda

    October 29, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Jürgen Klinsmann was known for using American training techniques for the 2006 German squad. I believe I read somewhere it almost got him fired cause it seemed so foreign to the Germans.

  8. Martek

    October 29, 2009 at 1:32 pm


    I think that techniques in one sport that work and even some that don;t, can be useful when applied in other sports. David James is on the money when he talks about the value of specified coaching and training. It can only help players be better in their all-around game.

    As for video of games and performances, the value is self-evident. If teams do not use video for scouting and to assess and grade performance then they get what they deserve. Furthermore, video can be used at half time, to point out weaknesses and flaws in opponents that the players on the pitch may or may not have seen.

    Football is unique in that it all comes down to the creativity and skills of players on the pitch. But information can enhance that, which is the point I think James was trying to make.

  9. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    October 29, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    The NFL has little relevance to football in that it is non competitive with few nations beyond the US sharing much passion for them. the same can be said for Basketball ( while other nations are competitive in this sport, Spain and Greece were both much more excited about winning the Euros than the Basketball titles they have recently won, and no other nation beyond the US would call Basketball a national sport- it is a second or third sport everywhere.)Baseball on the other hand is relevant, but few if any countries outside the US would consider American Football or Basketball their national sports.

    In many respects, Americans are scared of competition and thus create phony trophies and titles to feel good in American Football, which despite not being the national pastime, is the #1 national sport.

    But what football can learn from American sports, particularly Basketball is the analysis of player movements off the ball, positioning and conditioning.

    Statistical analysis of some sort is also useful, but that comes from Baseball. Football also is fighting an uphill battle in some nations that are passionate about Baseball in the way the rest of the world is about football- take Korea, Japan, Venezuela, Panama, etc. So Baseball is relevant to football in the greater sense. Additionally, the type of analytical based scouting Baseball teams do in Latin America and the Pacific Rim to find players in local leagues is something big European football clubs could learn from as they scout Africa, Asia and the rest of the world.

    I see nothing that the NFL in its insular, self contained world can provide to Football which is a world game of use. Baseball and Basketball are different stories. The NFL may entertain some, but it has little relevance beyond entertainment. It’s like a Hollywood thriller which has no historical or social context- it feels good to watch but is not worth thinking about afterwards as you apply your knowledge to improving football.

    • The Guvnah

      October 29, 2009 at 1:55 pm

      Hockey is more global than American football. There are also a number of similarities in defensive strategy between soccer and hockey. Playing the puck (or soccer ball) into space is equally important in both sports.

      The Scottish Claymores played in two different stadiums during their seasons (Edinburgh and Glasgow.) Neither of which ever had solid attendance. The Amsterdam Admirals were closer to London (221 miles as opposed to Edinburgh’s 332) and didnt have stellar attendance either.

      The NFL has no need to have a team in London or any other European city. Mexico and Canada are just as favorable locations and Roger Goodell is simply playing into the hype. It make no sense (or dollars) to even contemplate the reality of such a team. Flight times are ridiculous as they are and aside from Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban, I dont think there are any owners looking to buy used Concords to ferry their teams across the globe.

    • Jay

      October 29, 2009 at 4:42 pm

      Kartik again you have no idea what your talking about when it comes to basketball….

      “no other nation beyond the US would call Basketball a national sport”

      ….it couldn’t be any clearer than from what you just said.

  10. man99utd

    October 29, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    I don’t watch much American football, but anything football can pick up from it is cool with me. I would even like to see a NFL team in England. The more the merrier. We can’t whinge and moan when people have a go at the beautiful game and turn around and have a go at theirs.

  11. Nnanna

    October 29, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Soccer truly has a lot to learn from the NFL (and even the NBA), even though I suspect some of the top teams already (secretly) employ some of the techniques David James talks about.

  12. The Guvnah

    October 29, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Capello should use any coaching techniques he can get his hands on so that England can match their “talk of greatness” with “actual greatness.”

  13. Chris

    October 29, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Im just waiting for a bunch of fools to get on here and smash the NFL because they dont watch it or dont care about it and dont know anything about it. Each sport should be shown the same amount respect as the next. But this is an interesting article…..

  14. AtlantaPompey

    October 29, 2009 at 10:57 am

    On behalf of your former colonies, I would like to apologize for needlessly destroying the pitch at Wembley every fall. What’s worse is that the NFL is apparently discussing an expansion team for London in the not-to-distant future. For your sake, I hope not.

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      October 29, 2009 at 1:08 pm

      When I arrived at Heathrow last week, I began discussing with the immigration agent Man U-Liverpool and he asked me about the NFL. I told him, I stopped watching years ago and could care less and apologized for Americans destroying the pitch.

      He told me while he has no love for Wembley being used for non England Nat’l Team or FA events, that the grass was laid poorly, the drainage is poor and that the problems were not caused by NFL games.

      Interesting, because I have spouted my mouth off for two years saying it was the NFL’s fault. Maybe that’s just what I wanted to believe.

  15. Brad

    October 29, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Allardyce has adopted plenty of the techniques used in the NFL to his respective sport. He lived near the Buccaneers for a while and was impressed by all the coaches there.

    • Dave

      October 29, 2009 at 12:02 pm

      Was that while Tony Dungy was there, or Jon Gruden? I could almost see Big Sam and Chucky trying to start drunken fistfights with random dudes in the Banana Joe’s parking lot…

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