When the Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, delivered a passionate address just a few months into the job, he claimed England were at risk of “failing to compete seriously on the world stage” and should aim to win the 2022 World Cup. As he picks through the wreckage of England’s exit from the 2014 tournament, it is clear which of the two seems more likely.
England’s demise, and the inquest that will accompany it, will give new life to the debate over the development of homegrown players and whether the huge success of the Premier League as a global product has stymied our young talent.
When England qualified for Brazil, and amid a surge of enthusiasm surrounding the younger players in the squad, there was an undercurrent that suggested things might not be as bad as we had feared. If nothing else, England’s early exit will act as a reality check on that point.
The familiar questions over players, facilities and coaching that bubble to the surface after every major tournament humiliation will again be aired only to be pushed to the depths again once the new domestic season starts.
Dyke can at least profess to be ahead of the curve this time. The report delivered last month by the FA Commission convened to look into the issue starkly outlined the problem, chiefly the “blockage” between the ages of 18 and 21 that stops the best young players developing.
But the proposed solutions were more problematic. Dyke’s “big idea” – a new League Three featuring Premier League B-teams – has been roundly denounced from all sides and appears dead in the water. As if to illustrate the point that the Premier League’s gold-plated talent factories are producing raw material, England’s Under-17s won the European Championships on the eve of the World Cup. And as if to show that potential is not translating, their older brethren promptly failed at the Toulon tournament and on the biggest stage of all.
On a micro-level, the former England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce eloquently outlined on Friday the glaring lack of strategic thinking that runs through the age groups – a problem the FA director of elite development Dan Ashworth is supposed to be addressing. “The Under-17s are the only team over the last five years that have been successful. I asked myself the question why and it’s because our best young players are available at that age group,” he told Talksport.
“It is when they go beyond the Under-17s that the clubs start pulling them out. We start upgrading them because our pool of players is that thin. We drag them up age groups, so in the end every player in the senior squad that doesn’t actually play is being taken out an age group below so it makes that weaker and weaker. It waters down the whole process and at the end of it we get results like Uruguay.”
On a macro level, it is a complex problem and needs a multi-layered solution. The Premier League and the FA would argue that the sins of the past cannot be atoned for overnight.
In truth, there has been progress since the 2010 Bloemfontein debacle. The £340m Elite Player Performance Plan, the overdue opening of St George’s Park as an elite performance centre and hub of coach education, the overhaul of youth coaching to focus on small-sided games and technique over brawn, the hope that the pressure of Financial Fair Play may require clubs to produce more of their own talent.
But there are as many worrying signs. While the FA and the Premier League are muddling along better than at many times during their acrimonious recent history, the relationship remains one-sided and dysfunctional. Equally, it is hard to see what can be done to alter the centrifugal force that drives Premier League owners and managers towards short-termism. And things may get worse before they get better.
Maybe we should also look to ourselves. Within a few weeks the helter-skelter Premier League soap opera will return to centre stage and England’s structural failings will be pushed to the margins. Listening to Luis Suárez, Óscar Tabárez or Gus Poyet talk about how important their side is to their national psyche, it is hard to push aside the heretical thought that ours no longer matters as much to us as we like to think it does.
Ultimately it is difficult to escape the hard truth that for all the navel-gazing that will accompany England’s untimely exit, we may have the means but not the will to change things. Or, in the words of Pearce: “Other countries must look at us and laugh at times, they really must.”