FA chairman was right to raise concerns - but his hands are well and truly tied (From The Northern Echo)
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FA chairman was right to raise concerns - but his hands are well and truly tied
WHY does the England national team continue to perform so badly? In terms of intractable issues, it’s up there with determining the meaning of life. Greg Dyke is far from the first person to ask the question, and despite the new FA chairman’s well-meaning desire to enact changes, he is unlikely to be the last.
At least he is trying to tackle an issue that has dogged English football for at least half-a-century though, and for all that it is easy to reflect on his key role in the formation of the Premier League and conclude that Dyke is belatedly attempting to tame the monster he helped create, it is nevertheless pleasing to see someone at the top of the game delivering a few unpalatable home truths.
The statistics are damning – only 32 per cent of the players in last season’s Premier League starting line-ups were English, just 65 of the 220 players who started Premier League matches last weekend were eligible to play for England, 75 per cent of the players signed by Premier League clubs this summer were foreign – and the trend over the last ten years suggests things are only going to get worse.
It is hard to find anyone who does not agree that England’s national team is being damaged by the lack of English players getting a chance to experience top-flight football either at home or abroad (although the extremely low number of English players currently plying their trade in a leading overseas league is a slightly different issue).
To my mind, there are two key questions that need asking. One: Are English players good enough by the time they reach the age of 15 or 16, a point at which most coaches agree their core development is already complete? Two: If they are, do they have a realistic chance of completing their development in the first team of a leading Premier League side?
I’d argue that the answer to both questions is ‘No. But while the FA can potentially do something about the former issue, the organisation is completely powerless when it comes to addressing the second barrier to success.
As this summer’s failings at under-20 and under-21 level helped expose, England’s youngsters lag behind their rivals from other leading football nations by the time they are ready to make the step up to the senior side. Technically, they are often less proficient, and their level of creativity and spatial awareness is often way below that of their peers.
Why? Inadequate coaching has to play a part. The figures are slightly disputed, but England is reported to have 1,161 coaches at UEFA ‘A’ level, compared with 12,720 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany. England has 203 coaches with a Pro Licence; Spain 2,140.
The standard of coaching is youth football is not good enough, and to their credit, the FA have identified the failing and set about addressing it via the creation of an FA Learning programme at St George’s Park that is effectively a mechanism to coach coaches.
During his time as the FA’s head of elite development, former Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate persuaded the governing body to introduce changes making small-sided matches on smaller pitches, with smaller goals, mandatory for under-12s. It is a welcome move.
However, the FA’s remit over youth development effectively ends once players have been swallowed up by the new breed of Premier League academies, and for all that the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) has helped create uniform standards across the country, it is a major weakness that it is the clubs rather than the FA who dictate a young player’s development in their formative teenage years.
Are Premier League academies the best way to nurture the very top teenage talent? Given that they tend to be well stocked with overseas imports and have often been accused of looking to iron out any rough edges when it comes to flair and individual talent, there has to be a high degree of doubt.
But then that just underlines the inherent, deep-rooted problems that exist when the FA’s priorities are posited against those of the Premier League.
Quite simply, the two bodies are pursuing different, and often contradictory, goals. And thanks to the FA’s timidity and lack of foresight when it came to establishing the parameters of Premier League governance back in 1991-92, it is the Premier League that holds all the trump cards.
The Premier League’s mission statement is to maintain its status as the biggest and most profitable league in the world. At best, a strong England team is an irrelevance. At worst, it is actually a handicap because much of the league’s global appeal is derived from its multinational make up, something that would be constrained if English players were to be prioritised.
A quota system? Even if a host of legal barriers could be broken down, why would the Premier League agree to a change that would damage its global dominance? And why would individual Premier League chairmen restrict their ability to buy the best talent, secure the cheapest deals and thus maximise profits for themselves and their shareholders?
If the FA had a say over Premier League prize money, they could introduce financial rewards for clubs who field and develop English talent. A similar thing happens in cricket, but the FA has no say in the matter, so it won’t happen.
Are there other ways to encourage Premier League clubs to buy more English players? Not when Newcastle United are quoted more than £8m to sign Tom Ince, a 21-year-old with no experience of the Premier League, but are able to buy Yohan Cabaye, an established France international, for £4.5m. And pay him less wages.
The market for young English players is horrendously expensive, with clubs looking to recoup the money they feel they have pumped into a player’s development, and wages and transfer fees within the Championship outstripping those in the top division of most other European countries.
It is easy to see why the likes of Newcastle and Sunderland have decided that buying from overseas is the best way to get value for money, and given the FA’s lack of involvement in Premier League governance, there is nothing Dyke or anyone else at the organisation can do about it.
That is the reality of the league the FA chairman helped create when he met representatives from Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham at the offices of London Weekend Television in 1991.
Once the ‘big five’ decided to stage a breakaway, the stable door was well and truly ajar. Sadly, it is far too late for the FA or anybody else to bolt it shut.
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