England: Now that the dust has settled

Credit: TheFA.Com

The dust has settled and although it seems like a lifetime ago it has only been one calendar month since Iceland knocked England out of the European Championships. Going into the tournament in France the majority fans and media alike shared the attitude that England couldn’t win it, but would “have a good go” and do the nation proud. For once, and refreshingly, the attitude wasn’t one of demanding expectation. Some of the older and more established players had retired or been ditched, and Roy Hodgson was putting his faith in exciting young talent such as the Spurs quartet Walker, Dier, Kane and Alli.

It didn’t take long for it to all go pear-shaped. England were embarrassingly dumped out early doors, with manager Roy Hodgson reading from a hastily-prepared/pre-planned (delete as per your levels of conspiracy theories) statement following the Iceland defeat. The media, and fans, came out swinging. Poor Roy and the “academy generation” got it in the neck.

England managed just one win in four games, that win coming courtesy of a late goal against a spirited Wales. Those wearing England-blinkers claimed that we had “been the better side” in each game. If being the better side is having a large majority of possession without actually doing anything with it then I agree, England were the better side. However, I don’t recall the opposition ‘keepers having an awful lot to do in any of the four games. At time comical defending and blunt, possession-based nothingness were to become characteristics of England’s short spell in France. Hodgson paid with his job.

So what now? The usual inquest is demanded and, as usual, it revolves around the Premier League and what the self-proclaimed “Best League in the World” can do to support the national team. First of all, the Premier doesn’t care about the national team. The whole raison d’etre of the Premier League is to be self-serving, hence the split from the rest of English football in 1992. It’s aim is to grow the Premier League brand and make its shareholders rich, not further the fortunes of the national team. The rest of the pyramid then have to beg the big boys for scraps off their table.

I am wholly opposed to the idea of B Teams entering the Football League Trophy, and eventually, the league pyramid. It is argued that if the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United were able to field B Teams against the likes of Mansfield Town then England will benefit. Where is the proof for this? And why should teams lower down the pyramid, teams with fans and history of their own, be used as a guinea pig so that the top clubs can hoard potential future stars? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if each club had a cap on the number of players it could have on its books, therefore forcing clubs to either give them game time or let them go somewhere where they would be able to flourish? Look at Dele Alli as an example. Granted, he had a poor Euros, but he was superb for Tottenham last season having previously learnt his trade in the lower leagues with MK Dons, whilst pampered academy boys his own age were playing behind-closed-doors friendlies on pristine pitches, with no cameras, fans or pressure on their shoulders.

Another genius solution is the introduction of a Winter break. Germany have one and they won the World Cup in 2014 so it must be the answer! They also had a break this season and performed poorly at the Euros by their standards. I’m convinced that the introduction of a Winter break would lead to teams jetting off to Dubai for “warm weather training”, also known as a jolly. If players are knackered one idea could be to stop these ludicrous pre-season and end-of-season tours to China, Australia and the United States. The shambolic cancelled Manchester derby scheduled to take place in Beijing underlines the ridiculousness of these tours. I understand the marketing and economic arguments, but all I’m saying is don’t be surprised when the players are running out of gas come March. There is also the argument of tradition, with fans not wanting to lose games on Boxing Day and New Years Day. I’m in agreement and love the festive football. However, we could lose the fixture in between, roughly falling on the 28th, and retain the others. The problem then though is when to rearrange the extra fixture, in an already packed calendar.

The next target, then, always seems to be the domestic cups. It is pretty ridiculous that we are one of the few countries on Planet Football to have two domestic cups, but they are clearly here to stay so we need to look at solutions as to how to improve them. There is the talk of scrapping replays, and whilst I’m not a huge fan of replays, it does provide a lifeline to less affluent clubs, those that don’t have the luxury of record TV deals and have to survive hand-to-mouth. Could an option be to scrap replays for all-Premier League ties then, considering these sides don’t need the money? Would it be an idea to ask each team after the cup draw is made whether or not they want a replay or to settle the tie on the night? If both agree to a replay fair enough, but if both decide it is against their best interests then what is the point? With regards to the lesser regarded cup, the League Cup, a suggestion could be to remove teams that have qualified for Europe the previous season. This would lessen the load of the “big” clubs whilst simultaneously providing a new route to a trophy, and into Europe, for the less traditionally successful clubs. It may devalue the competition somewhat, but could its standing get any lower, given that even trophy-starved sides field weakened teams?

Last week Sam Allardyce was appointed as Roy Hodgson’s successor, given an initial two-year contract to lead the team to the World Cup in Russia in 2018. Many have been disparaging of Sam Allardyce’s credentials because he “plays bad football” and is a “relegation survival expert”. People forget that he had a superb Bolton side which could play great football but also do the ugly stuff when necessary. Ask Arsene Wenger, whose brilliant Arsenal side would regularly come unstuck at the Reebok Stadium. Allardyce is noted for his meticulous statistics, and the majority of players whom have represented his sides talk of his superb man-management. I’m not saying Allardyce is the answer, but I always think he is an easy target. Is it because he is northern, hardly athletic in appearance and doesn’t fit the mold of what an England manager should look like, a position that is more akin to a political appointment?

Then again, does it actually matter who the manager is? England have been down the highly regarded foreign manager route before. They’ve been for the brash characters and the reserved yes men, and neither have worked. What is more important are the structures and styles put into place. Let each manager throughout the age groups know what is expected of them and their players. Let each player know that there is a pathway for them from the age groups to the senior team, assuming they work at it and fulfill their potential, as opposed to having one man deciding the fate of players. A selection committee may work in this instance, as it does in cricket, to ensure that players aren’t falling through the cracks of the system or falling foul to the whims of one individual.

Spain and Germany over the past decade have both proved that having a vision works. Both rebuilt their structure and philosophy from the ground up and have promoted youth players en masse after succesful age group campaigns. Both won the World Cup. Coincidence? Iceland, the smallest nation to ever qualify for the European Championships, won the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere with their performances this year.  They realised their shortcomings and created a plan. They built better facilities to ensure football could be played 365 days a year, and they increased the number of qualified coaches.

Coaching badges must be cheaper to attain. The first couple of levels are fairly cheap but above that you’re talking thousands of pounds. That may be nothing for ex-pros such as Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry, but for part-time grassroots coaches looking to better themselves that is a prohibitive cost. We need to build from the bottom up. Grassroots football is suffering due to expensive pitch fees and poor facilities, the result of cutbacks by local and national government. Because of this well-renowned amateur leagues and teams are folding. Are promising footballers therefore giving up and falling out of love with the game?

My ramblings may be problematic, and I may have posed more questions than answers. This complex issue will run and run and don’t bet against the same scenario bearing fruit after the World Cup in Russia in two years.

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