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Premier League's best youngsters are English

Tactics and Analysis 11 hours ago
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Jun 10, 2013

How to fix English football?

Dan Ashworth can still board a plane in a degree of anonymity and appear on the side of a pitch without turning heads.

He could also walk largely unrecognised down West Bromwich's High Street, which is some feat considering the huge part he played in helping Albion shed their yo-yo tag and establish themselves in the Premier League with an easy-on-the-eye style.

But, however big his desire to maintain a low profile, the 42-year-old is now charged with the responsibility of unifying an English game once more under a critical spotlight amid the fall-out of a lamentable showing at the European Under-21 Championship.

In his new role as the FA's director of elite development, Ashworth recently acknowledged that our game was at a crossroads. Stuart Pearce, the England Under-21 coach, went somewhat further in voicing his dissatisfaction at being denied access to fringe senior players for the current tournament in Israel.

And therein lies the sort of headache for which Ashworth needs to find a cure. He must succeed where others have failed for decades and eliminate damaging clashes of interest – mainly between the Premier League and the FA, but also between the individual member clubs and what we used to know as Lancaster Gate or Soho Square. An ability to educate football's rank and file in identifying the true merit of winning wouldn't go amiss either.

No flag-waving England fan would object to a failure at an Under-21 tournament so long as the talent is brought through and the senior side is successful. And no academy coach should indoctrinate young minds, especially pre-teen ones, with the win-at-all-costs mentality that can easily overshadow the greater good that is the long-term development of talented English-qualified footballers.

Ashworth, so outstanding in his work as West Brom's sporting and technical director that the club had it written in his contract he should serve a year's notice when the inevitable higher calling came, may or may not have been surprised by the weekend's events.

Pearce, perhaps realising he is losing his hold on his post, chose a sobering 3-1 defeat by Norway to be critical of the country's selection policy and so expose another of the many divisions. What chance do England have if the head coach and the Under-21 coach are so at odds in their thinking?

Those two teams are not a major part of the Ashworth remit of working with the director of football development, Sir Trevor Brooking, in grooming the country's elite talent. But they are the sides he will have to ultimately help stock with sufficient quality if the FA's pledge to win a global or continental prize at senior level in the 2020s is to bear fruit.

Ashworth is also in charge of the FA's coach education team and has responsibility for ensuring facilities at the gleaming new St George's Park are used efficiently. England supporters can rest assured that these skills, even the ones that call for diplomacy and a soft touch in possible areas of conflict, were displayed in abundance at The Hawthorns.

Few would say the highly astute Jeremy Peace is the easiest chairman to work for but Ashworth trod a careful path through almost nine years at his side, his influence growing with each one. Why wouldn't you listen to a man who oversaw the radical change from the unattractive Gary Megson era through the return of Baggies legend Bryan Robson to the more progressive ways of Tony Mowbray, Roberto Di Matteo and Hodgson? With success on the pitch, too.

Ashworth, a former Norwich youth player, had initially faced doubts from players who looked down on a CV that also included a spell at Wisbech before he became academy director at Peterborough, and then centre of excellence director at Cambridge United, prior to his Hawthorns arrival in 2004, but they were overcome through diligence and success.

While overseeing recruitment and scouting, as well as helping develop a new training ground, Ashworth showed a tireless capacity to jet to some of the world's unlikeliest corners in creating a network of contacts that has brought him a huge player DVD library. It also brought Albion players like Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob – at a combined cost of £100,000 – plus Peter Odemwingie and Jonas Olsson. Borja Valero flopped but Ashworth was right in spotting something in him. The midfielder has gone on to play for Villareal and Fiorentina and represented Spain.

But what relevance, the cynics may wonder, does peering through a fence in Argentina to scout Yacob have on his England role? Not much, other than to underline the fact his brilliant list-led organisation allows him to know exactly where the talent is worldwide. With Albion, that meant playing talent; at international level, it's more about finding the coaches who can improve the players already in place, whether that's at senior level or in their mid-teens.

It's reported that Germany have over 28,000 UEFA B licence holders compared with England's 1,759. The figures for A licence holders are said to be 5,500 and 895 respectively. For a country that boasts about giving the game to the world, that's a worrying shortfall. Ashworth, an excellent communicator, recently visited Frankfurt to spend three hours with his opposite number in the German FA and there's an inescapable feeling that England are playing catch-up.

The Germans undertook a massive revamp after flopping at the 2000 European Championship. The bottom dropped out of their market with a TV deal collapse that forced clubs to cultivate their own players. England, by contrast, has the best-loved league, if not necessarily the best league, and clubs have the money to throw at costly imports who inevitably block the progress of the homegrown lads.

With a new TV deal that blows all others out of the water, the climate is not ideal for putting the national team first. Attitudes will need altering and other tinkerings made, but Dan Ashworth appears as well qualified for those tasks as anyone.

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