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Nov 23, 2007

England rotten to the roots?

Steve McClaren's unpopular reign as England manager is finally over. The 46-year-old was in charge for only 12 competitive games and departed the job after failing to qualify for Euro 2008 and with the worst percentage of defeats of any England manager.

The statistics confirm what everybody in the country, apart from the old duffers at the Football Association, already knew; that McClaren was not good enough to manage England. How FA chief executive Brian Barwick thought that a coach whose only experience as the top man was a dubious spell at Middlesbrough was the right man to lead the Three Lions is largely unfathomable.

It is not particularly reassuring that the same man, Barwick, who made such a blundering appointment in the first place will again head up the search for England's new incumbent. The FA have promised to conduct a 'root and branch' investigation into what is wrong with the national team set-up before appointing the new man but faith in their ability to change the problem, especially as the FA board themselves are part of it, is at an all time low.

It is also worrying that the FA need such an expensive investigation to tell them what is rotten in the game when yet again everybody else can already see what is blindingly obvious.

So in the spirit of co-operation Soccernet takes a quick time out to inform the ruling body of English football about what might be wrong with their game.

• YOUTH DEVELOPEMENT
The French have their famous Clairefontaine national football centre, officially called Le Centre Technique National Fernand Sastre, to develop the best young talent in the country and has produced the likes of Nicolas Anelka, William Gallas and World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000 winner Thierry Henry.

But Clairfontaine is not the only elite academy in France, it is just one of nine facilities that nurtures the top talent in a network that encompasses the whole country. Meanwhile, England's equivalent, the FA Youth Academy at Lilleshall, was shut down a decade ago.

The unfinished National Football Centre at Burton-upon-Trent, a possible replacement for Lilleshall, remains a building site gathering tumbleweed. The £50million project was the brainchild of former FA technical director Howard Wilkinson, who identified the poor coaching of young talent as a massive problem in the English game, but the centre remains a stalled idea; unfinished and unused.

Pitches have already been laid and construction work on the outbuildings and dressing rooms has been plotted but the FA are procrastinate on a decision whether to continue with the project. The answer is obvious.

It is no wonder that the youth academies of the top Premiership clubs are brimming with foreign talent. Those academies must help to produce the England players of the future and the production line is threatening to shudder to a halt.

• YOUNG LIONS
David Bentley's withdrawal from the England side just days ahead of the Under-21 European Championships in Holland last summer is a stark example of the disdain the England structure now holds for this competition.

In contrast to many other top nations in Europe England does not send their best possible team to the U21 Championships and instead often let youngsters rot on the fringes of the senior team. As a result the players of the future fail to experience the pressures of tournament football and evolve a collective team spirit before progressing as a unit to the senior team.

Cherry-picking the ultimate young talent, such as Wayne Rooney, will, and should, continue but it is surely better that young fringe players, such as Bentley, to play in Under 21 tournaments. It is success in competitions like this that helps to breed the confidence to succeed in European Championships or World Cup.

Portugal's 'golden generation' of Luis Figo and Rui Costa is probably the most famous example of a young team progressing as a unit to the seniors but it is no coincidence that the current world champions Italy rely on experience gathered at youth level.

The Italian U21's most capped player is the peerless Andrea Pirlo and the top scorer is Alberto Gilardino; both of whom won European titles at U21 level before winning the FIFA World Cup in 2006. Twelve of Italy's victorious 2006 World Cup squad had previously won titles at youth international level, including captain and World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro.

• THE PLAYERS
The simple fact is that a number of England's players are overrated; that is not say that they are not good players, but how many really fall into the category of world class?

Those same 'star' players seem to go missing on international duty and their commitment has often been called into question. It is a view that Sunderland manager Roy Keane also expressed in the aftermath of England's exit.

'England should qualify with the players they have but good players don't always make a good team,' Keane said. 'From the outside looking in, I tend to think there are too many egos in there, too many big heads. If you get carried way with a little bit of success then you are in trouble.

'You look at the England set up and they don't appear to be a happy bunch, I have to say.

'I don't think international football is that important to a lot of these players these days and club football has taken over, especially for a lot of top players involved in the Champions League.'

And if we delve below the starting eleven it becomes apparent that the quality of the squad is nowhere near good enough to be considered as serious contenders for European and world titles - as Wednesday's ramshackle defeat to Croatia proved. The starting line-up of Scott Carson, Wayne Bridge, Sol Campbell, Joleon Lescott, Micah Richards, Gareth Barry, Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Peter Crouch looked like a team selected to play a friendly, not a vital Euro 2008 qualifier. Of the three strikers that played a part in the 3-2 defeat at Wembley (Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent) none are regulars with their clubs.

• THE MANAGER AND THE FA
These two fall into the same category as it is the FA that appoint the manager and thus are intertwined; and the FA go about the process in their own inevitably bungling way.

During the search for Sven Goran-Eriksson's successor in 2006 Guus Hiddink was scared off by the FA's unprofessional and unofficial approach - he will now be going to Euro 2008 as Russia manager - and Luiz Felipe Scolari, who will be at the championships with Portugal, was scared off by the 'media intrusion' that resulted from the FA's sounding out of the Brazilian

And once the FA failed to bow to Martin O'Neill's demand for 'total control' over the England set-up the national team was eventually lumbered with McClarent. The former Manchester United assistant may well become a very good manager in the future but at the time of his appointment he was woefully inexperienced for such a big job.

The most glaring problem in this selection process is that those in the FA responsible for appointing the manager have absolutely no experience of being one, or even being part of a football club in most cases. It would be folly to let a milkman build your house or allow an accountant to conduct heart surgery so why is it acceptable for businessmen, who obvious lack the required knowledge of football, to appoint the manager of the England team?

And these 'suits' even ignore the advice of the former player/managers they have recruited. Both Howard Wilkinson, former England caretaker manager, and former England international Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's current head of football development, are both huge advocates of the aforementioned National Football Centre project and yet it remains mothballed.

Following the sacking of McClaren the FA board arrived en masse for the subsequent press conference in an apparent show of solidarity. Chief executive Barwick insisted lessons had been learnt form the current shambles; but shouldn't the ruling body of English football be teaching not learning?

McClaren was seen as Barwick's appointment and when asked if he should quit following the folly of that appointment the rest of the FA board was quick to jump to his defence, insisting it was a collective decision made by the entire board.

If that is truly the case then the FA should take that same collective reponsibility and all quit; get rid of the cumbersome and ill-informed regime and allow football people to run football.


  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.