The failure of the next generation of English talent in the recent Under 21 European Championships has again led for a need to discover the root of the problem, and just why it’s still going wrong.
On Sunday, Stuart Pearce’s England side crashed out of the Championships in Denmark at the group stage, having failed to win a single one of their three group games. Pearce looked to defend himself and his youngsters by claiming England had been unlucky to come up against one of the best Under 21 teams in the world in Spain, a team who set out purely to defend – Ukraine, and a very well organized Czech Republic side. Is this a valid excuse? Or should his team have been capable of adjusting their game in accordance to their opposition?
Much in keeping with the senior side’s performances in big tournaments, Pearce’s team looked distinctly flat and jaded. Often appearing short of ideas, and showing signs of technical deficiencies. But where does the blame lie? Are too many English players incapable of following instructions under the pressure of a tournament? Is the coaching and development of players in England failing, and if so why? Is too much importance placed on club football in England? Or are England simply not as good as they (fans and media included) think? All of these aspects certainly seem to carry some weight.
The English media is arguably the most invasive around, even more so around the time of a football tournament. Players are micro-analyzed and have their every move followed by journalists hoping to stumble across the next story or revelation, often obliviously at the detriment to the squad’s preparation and stability. The recent World Cup in South Africa provides a fitting example. The amount of non-football related media attention surrounding the squad was un-paralleled, and eventually reached the stage where the squad struggled to train and prepare for games in a manner they would have liked. The media hype becomes inescapable and as such it becomes abundantly clear to the players that anything short of winning the tournament is deemed failure. The weight of expectation increased further by the media appointed title of the ‘Golden Generation’, apparently signifying to the players that a country’s main hopes for years to come are placed firmly on their shoulders.
An excuse that has become popular in recent years is the fatigue of players due to the Premier League (PL) season being too demanding. The league is arguably the most physical around, and the schedule when coupled with two domestic cup competitions, European football, and the lack of a winter break is demanding. However, the league is very cosmopolitan, and indeed had more representatives at the last World Cup than any other league – yet no excuse of fatigue is used from any other nation with players playing in the PL.
With the evolution of the PL into one of the biggest leagues in the world, and by far the most financially lucrative, the importance of the top clubs players being fit for their clubs has begun to outweigh that of playing for England. Whilst players still claim that it is a real honor to play for their country, unfortunately their clubs feel differently. PL clubs are reluctant to release players for international games (particularly friendlies) as they feel it may hinder their own chances of success – a risk they feel is unwarranted when it’s them paying big fees and wages for the players.
It is this English desire for success at all levels of club football can be deemed another potential reason why England falls short. Such is the demand for glory that other important aspects are neglected in an attempt to fast track players for success. This mantra is deep-rooted in the English system and is noticeable even at grass-roots level.
Whilst all countries recognize the importance for success, at youth level, most countries also appreciate the value of training players the fundamentals of the game. Take Spain as an example. At a young age importance is placed on improving player’s technique, ball control, basic skills etc – all aspects that will provide a player a solid basis with which to develop within the game. Compare this to England, where from a young age players are thrown into matches with league systems in place, the focus of priority shifting towards winning matches at the cost of improving a player through proper coaching. Not all blame should be placed at these local run clubs however. The English FA’s lack of adequate funding for decades has left the grass-roots football in tatters, with facilities and coaching schemes not being able to match up to that of most of their neighbours in western Europe.
Thankfully in recent years the need to change this grass-roots philosophy has been identified, and the addition of foreign youth coaches at professional clubs has helped speed the process along – although a hangover period is still present. Clubs changing coaching styles at youth level was implemented in a fairly short space of time, however with the talent pool from England not up to scratch immediately an influx of young foreign players arrived to bridge the gap. So whilst the current generation may struggle, there are promising signs for the future.
At present, the bottom line, and something that English fans widely refuse to acknowledge or entertain, is the fact that the current batch of England players (and their processors) may simply not be as good as people think. The rarity of a talented English player often leads to an initial period of hysteria surrounding the individual, who often can be subject to a degree of bias praise. English fans hold their players in high esteem; they are heroes to millions of people. The masses are unable to live out their own dreams of playing for England and as such look to the players to live out their dreams for them. With thinking like this it’s easy to see why people can become blinkered, believing the players to be better than they in order to fuel their hopes of success.
England gave the game to the world – but there is still plenty of work to be done before it ‘comes home.’
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