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Brooking: Structural damage

All week long, ESPN FC explores England's dwindling number of homegrown stars in the Premier League with a series of features that explain the problem, the current climate and the way forward.

"There was no structure at all for grassroots football in this country when I first came to the Football Association as director of football development," said Sir Trevor Brooking, as one of the key figures for the future of the game in England sat down for an exclusive interview with ESPN.

As opening statements go, that was a pretty profound indictment of the set-up Brooking walked into in December 2003 and it goes a long way to explaining why the former West Ham and England midfielder has been forced to navigate an extended path as he looks to put the English game back on track towards success once more.

At the turn of this century, it seems as if the English FA viewed its role in the game as being the custodian of the national team structure at its varying levels, offering a disciplinary structure for the professional game and acting as a figurehead for a sport that had changed its identity several times over since the days when this 150-year-old organisation was the standard-bearer for the world game.

The notion that the FA should be dipping its toe into grassroots football, that it should have an input in the development of players from as young as 5 years old, was not on its agenda just a decade ago, yet that blinkered mentality was to have a fundamental impact on the game both in England and on the world stage.

Roll forward 13 years and we reach a point at which we see an alarming dearth of young talent emerging through the English ranks of the Premier League's elite, as top English clubs have long since opted to rely on ready-made foreign stars to provide a quick fix for their problems in a modern game where the chapter on patience has long since been erased from a manager's handbook.

Inevitably, the end result is the England national team lacking the talent or ideology to compete for major trophies on the world stage, and while Brooking admits "we may still be eight to 10 years away" from reaching that ultimate goal, this respected football decision maker is convinced he has helped put the stepping stones in place that will transform the game for generations to come.

"The first thing we have to say is the Football Association is a not-for-profit organisation, and out of the £100 million profit the organisation makes each year, around half of that is now going into the grassroots programmes we have put in place," began Brooking, who was a celebrated midfielder for club and country in his playing days.

"A difficulty we have encountered throughout my time in this role is the general structure in England is not always entirely conducive to promoting sport and that means we cannot always have the influence we want at grassroots levels in terms of putting facilities in place that may benefit our sport moving forward.

"In many European countries, most big infrastructures like shopping complexes will also have sports facilities added on to the project as a condition of them being built, but that provision has never been put in place in this country. So we are relying on local councils to embrace sport and allow us to get involved in the manner we would like.

"The economic collapse a few years ago meant a lot of the early plans we had put in place in association with the British government went by the wayside, but we feel as if we are making progress now and the drive to improve facilities is currently a big focus for all of us looking to improve the grassroots game and increase participation numbers."

Brooking suggests the alterations in behavioural patterns of young children in modern-day England could be another factor in the transformation of a football culture over the last two generations, with the kids of 2013 experiencing very different challenges to those that went before them.

"When I was a kid growing up and dreaming about becoming a footballer, I used to run out of school every day and go to play with my friends in the park until it got dark every night, but those days are gone now for safety reasons and other factors and it means we need to have a structured set-up for coaching young players," he continued.

"This is where we have run into some trouble. Where once kids could organise their own games, everything now needs to be structured and that requires an organisation like ourselves getting involved at a local level with the coaches and trying to encourage a fun element into what the kids are being taught.

"We set out programmes for small-sided games for children for children under the age of 13 and that has been very well-received. We also have to encourage coaches to promote the development of skills rather than just the notion that winning is all that matters at a very young age. Football has to be fun."

Brooking insists the qualities English football has long been associated with do not need to be ripped up and discarded entirely, as he suggests they can be laced into a new culture that will enhance the game moving forward.

"You talk to people around the world and what do they admire about English football?" asked Brooking. "They envy our competitive spirit, our pride and passion, our hunger and will to win. What they then say is we lack on the technical side and that is what we have been trying to address with the various coaching programmes we have put in place.

"English players can be technically as efficient as Spanish, German, Dutch or any other youngsters if they are coached effectively from a young age, and we are determined to do all we can to try and create an environment for that to happen."

Brooking's critics will argue that the changes he has introduced could and should have been implemented quicker, yet he argues "it took seven or eight years to cut through all the politics" to reach the point that the Football Association now believes it has put in place a grassroots structure for its national sport that is comparable to Spain, Germany and the rest.

Results on the field at future World Cup finals will tell us whether the changes being put in place now are having the lasting effect their architects are hoping for.

Read Part II of Sir Trevor Brooking's interview with ESPN on Friday, in which he outlines the plans being put in place by the FA to revolutionise the game for the better.


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