Now, we all love to hate the FA. Don’t deny it, it’s true. Something about men in suits, emblazoned with hypocrisy and synonymous with contradiction running our beautiful game from their cosy little offices in the heart of the capital just doesn’t sit well with us mere mortals of the footballing hemisphere. And who can blame us? Fanatics of all clubs, from Premier League champions to League 2 play-off pushers, would undoubtedly have had their noses pushed severely out of joint by the FA at some point. It’s just as inevitable as a wayward Glen Johnson pass or an overcooked James Milner cross. It almost goes without saying. But sometimes, just sometimes, we have to agree with the pinstripes and cufflinks with all their uni degrees and company smartphones. After successive disastrous displays by the England under-21s in the humid heat of Israel, coupled with the abject disappointment that has become globally synonymous with the so-called “Golden Generation”, perhaps David Bernstein was absolutely, one hundred percent correct when he stated that “money has taken over”. Something we can all pretty much agree on, right? Strong words indeed. But correct ones? It’s a debate that is gradually becoming deafening. With more failure comes more disagreements, discrepancy and, well, standard dawdling from those who really matter, the decision makers sitting pretty atop the pyramid of power. Is money the real reason behind England’s failures to progress on the international stage? Or is that just the easy route to take, the easy argument with which to conceal the truth? Is the reality, in fact, an animal a little more alarming, a little more dangerous and a lot more fearsome?
It’s hard to imagine, but the once upon a time, in a far away land where Erasure was cool and Ryan Giggs was just a young, wiry whippersnapper, the Premier League was not the all consuming, all conquering money making machine that it is today. Sky Sports was still a novel, fresh idea taking the terrestrial mind on a journey of wonder, amazement and Saturday lunchtime kick-offs. An era when home-grown was King, foreign players a new fangled initiative for a brave modern world, led by the formation of the Premier League, all the way back in 1992. The opening weekend of the groundbreaking new league featured a mere 22 players from outside the United Kingdom. In total, throughout the debut campaign, foreign footballers accounted for just 30% of the league’s performers. Compare that to today, with its big money sponsors and superstar imports. Forward 21 magnificent, mind blowing seasons and that total has more than doubled. To a majority 62%. Now, that is one hell of a jump.
It’s a trend that’s showing no sign of slowing. Unlike the garish chinos and vertigo causing cardigans we, unfortunately, wear with misguided pride, this particular fashion is eternal. Foreign players will always appeal like an enduring yet reliable pair of trainers. Timeless. Our imports brought us a new culture, a new style, the stepover for instance. Eric Cantona, David Ginola, Thierry Henry, Zola, Okocha and the likes. They captured the hearts, enslaved the minds, made us, the watching, admiring public realise that there was more to our game than slide tackles and “getting rid”. They brought the beauty to the beautiful game. That old English grit and determination complimenting the continental style and savvy. A faultless footballing cocktail. Over time, however, the scales have tipped and the demand for foreign superstars has, well and truly taken over. Halfway to hegemony. One fact proves this: of the first 29 signings made by Premier League clubs this summer, only 3 have involved English players. Manchester United brought in unknown quantity Guillermo Varela, despite just 10 senior appearances in the less than prestigious Uruguayan top division whilst City have splashed out typically on big name imports with even bigger price tags.
All, apparently, damaging the prospects of our fresh-faced home-grown talent, their paths to the first team blocked by overseas arrivals. Ask yourself this: how many English players are currently plying their trade abroad? Apart from the exiled Joey Barton, they are few and far between. Why? Because there is a lack of demand. Could this be traced back to the foreign imports, their arrivals preventing our new generation from flourishing, benefitting from the hustle and bustle of Premier League life? Bright young hopes, Mark Albrighton, Connor Wickham, Henri Lansbury to name but a few, tipped for the top, destined, however, for disappointment, their hopes of imprinting themselves on the international stage disappearing into dreams. Again, can we blame this on foreign imports, the ideology of Premier League clubs? Or is the answer staring us directly in the face. Are these youngsters simply not getting a chance to shine in the spotlight because they are just not at the same level as our European counterparts?
Simply directing the blame squarely at managers and clubs for favouring foreigners over English professionals does not allow for depth or reason. Why do they favour overseas talent? Well, it’s simple. They possess the vision, the ball skills that our young alumni seem to, almost universally lack. Consider this. Jack Wilshere. Excellent footballer, fantastic tactician. Fans and pundits purring in unison at the “future of English football”. But why? Why is Arsenal’s terrific teen the man on whom the majority of the nations pressure is placed? Quite simply, because Jack Wilshere is not afraid of that little spherical object of which our game revolves completely around. Wilshere can run with it, he can pass it, he can control it. Well, he’s a professional footballer, earning millions of pounds a year. Quite possibly a Ferrari in the garage, a TV in his bathroom. So why is he our “boy wonder”? Our very own “wunderkind”. Shouldn’t all professional footballers possess the ability to run with, pass and control the football? Well… yes. Obviously. So why can’t the majority of our suited and booted “superstars” of the “Golden Generation” (yes, those speech marks are essential) perform the skills that are so essential to the game they play, week in, week out, on a professional basis?
It must come down to the coaching. It must do. We’ve heard it all before, we’ve all read the articles, heard the complaints. “Our coaching methods our outdated” ect, ect. Well, that’s what St George’s Park is for, right? To modernise the archaic, eradicate the obsolete. But maybe it’s not just the grassroots level where the problem lies. Even in the senior echelons, the management skills leave a lot to be desired. We all witnessed Fabio Capello’s misguided affection for 4-4-2, a major problem being that one of the 2 was Emile Heskey. Roy Hodgson may have improved things to an extent but the great pragmatist hardly possesses the flair of Del Bosque, the gutsy go-get-‘em attitude of Prandelli, the suave, former boyband member visage of Joachim Loew. And then there’s Stuart Pearce. The embodiment of a typical English footballer. A growling, snarling, bite the ankles approach, storming around the pitch, barking orders at his teammates, insults at his adversaries. In other words, a bulldog with a decent left foot. At management level though, he was found out quicker than a simple Sudoku puzzle against Stephen Hawking. Stale tactics, a severe lack of fluidity and a preference for a “big lad up top” in Connor Wickham condemned England to three successive group stage defeats against Italy (understandable), Norway (unacceptable) and Israel (simply humiliating), just one goal in the process. A penalty and a dubious one at that. But maybe, for all the FA’s moaning and groaning about our nations consistent failure on the international stage, they should take a long hard look at themselves before pinning the blame on someone else, the newly unemployed Pearce for example.
Take a look at the line-up so comprehensively hammered by a tactically superior, technically finer Norway. Where is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Rodwell, Phil Jones to name but a few. Well, we all know exactly where they were. Strutting their stuff at a glamour friendly with Brazil on the eve of the tournament, hence being unavailable for selection for the trip to the Middle-East. So David Bernstein complains about the FA’s order of priorities does he? Well, it’s not the first time our governing body has turned a blind eye. Imagine if England had lined up with the aforementioned trio along with the injured Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere (who in all honesty would probably have been called up for the Brazil encounter anyway). Plus, pre-tournament drop-outs Martin Kelly, Callum McManaman, Luke Shaw and Raheem Sterling and Stuart Pearce would suddenly have had a much more proficient armoury with which lead us into battle. Instead, he was left with, well, let’s say, less talented individuals.
Jason Lowe of Blackburn Rovers, the anchorman of the side, the midfield metronome. Don’t laugh. To say he was picked to play in the Sergio Busquetts role just seems a little sarcastic doesn’t it? And who did Stuart Pearce haul from the bench as that all important impact substitute? Jonjo Shelvey. Yeah, you read that right. However, the Liverpool lynchpin deserves a bit of credit for his determination, his never say die attitude. No matter how many long range shots he blazed into the streets of Petah Tikvah, he just wouldn’t give up. Ok, he didn’t manage to aim any of his shots remotely near the target, but he tried. That’s all anyone can ask for, right? Right? Nope. There’s just no way of justifying that. England were awful. End of story. And compare our line up with that of Italy, Holland or Spain. Scanning over the Oranje’s starting XI against Russia, pretty much all of the starring contingent were recognisable, mostly because the majority were consistently included in the infamous BBC Gossip Column. Given the restrictive circumstances, is it any wonder England, once more, boarded an early plane home. If these boys do manage to make the transition to full internationals, it’s probably a feeling they will have to get used to. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what this tournament is? Preparation?
OK, the future looks less than bright for England (in fact it appears decidedly gloomy to say the least) but to pin the blame on one problem, to isolate an issue is simply not fair. Nor is it accurate.
Foreign imports. Yes, they may be stunting the growth of the new generation of quarter final hopefuls but to “j’accuse” (we have many French footballers in the Premier League of course) them of sullying our chances of international success just covers up the truth. England have never been a great international team. One World Cup success, boosted by the benefit of home turf and the debatable visual abilities of a certain Russian linesman, should not constitute the belief that our nation ought to sincerely challenge for major honours. Remember, only 30% of the players in our top division were foreign in 1992. So, if the belief is that imported talent is the reason behind our failure, shouldn’t we have possessed a fantastic international team in the 80s and 90s? Well, yes, if this theory is to be believed. Obviously, with the evidence at hand, that theory is flawed. Severely so. And yeah, you can blame our coaching methods and, yes, when compared to the likes of the tika-taka Spaniards and the ground-breaking Germans, we’ve a long way to go to catch up to them but, the fact is, we need a progressive FA. One that is not afraid to make major changes. When David Bernstein claims that “money has taken over”, he may be right. But what has football become? A business. And what does a business need? Money. Yeah, glamour friendlies are a great way to gain revenue but their timing could be better, to say the least. That’s something the FA must work on.
But all is not lost. St George’s Park constitutes a great step forward. And let’s not forget, our under 21 campaign would surely have been a lot more successful if we’d had our true “wonderkids” at hand. One day, maybe, hopefully, please, England will find themselves at a level to really challenge at a major tournament. Who knows, maybe we’ll one day reach the dizzying heights of a third place play-off. For now, we can only dream of such glory, which we inevitably will, every two years, for decades to come. One step at a time, we will get there. We will get to the semi-finals! (235)