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The Truth Behind England’s Recent Failures

England’s feeble form at this summer’s European Championships left the majority of us feeling dejected. The loss to Iceland, and our subsequent exit from the tournament, was the icing on the cake of an insipid few years of tournament football. After Hodgson resigned the FA decided to poach Big Sam away from our beloved club; however, fast forward 67 days and Allardyce, too, had also fallen victim to what many are rightly labelling a poisoned chalice. 

England Training Session Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The World Cup, Italy 1990 and Euro 1996 were the last two occasions in which England were able to find themselves in the semi-finals of an international tournament - finishing fourth and third respectively. I remember being not much more than a bairn as Baddiel & Skinner & The Lightning Seeds declared that football was coming home after thirty years of hurt, and it really looked like that could be the case. Yet here we are, twenty years after those thirty years of hurt, sitting on half a century of false hopes and new dawns. Same old, same old.

If truth be told we look a nation on the decline right now with very little to lift our spirits. I remember hearing David Sheepshanks, the Chairman of the St George's Park National Football Centre, telling the 5 Live Breakfast show that "We are investing in the teachers so that we can get ahead of what they are doing in France and Spain . . . Really it is the investment in coaches that is crucial and from 2020 onwards we will have winning England teams." Unfortunately that just doesn’t look like happening anytime soon.

The real issue at the heart of the quandary is really quite simple: the FA are a business interested in generating profit rather than having a national team capable of winning tournaments and acting as a symbol of national pride. St. George’s park is the perfect example of their misguided ideals and, while it is certainly an impressive facility that offers players from all backgrounds a central location to be based from, unfortunately it doesn’t address the issue at the root of our problems: a lack of grassroots investment in coaching. Sheepshanks’ promises on investing in coaches leaves a lot to be desired.

Look back at Spain’s emergence from perennial strugglers - who between 1960-2008 had only managed one fourth placed finish before their back-to-back European championships in 2008 and 2012 with a World Cup win sandwiched in between those trophies. What a time to be a Spanish football fan.

Without a doubt Spain have declined somewhat over the last couple of tournaments, yet the journey to their international triumphs was by no means reliant on good luck. A long-term plan was put into place by the Spanish football federation in the late 90’s/early 00’s which aimed to increase the number of quality coaches in the country. The plan worked magnificently, and according to UEFA, Spain had around 15,000 UEFA A and Pro Licence coaches in 2008, a number that doubled their nearest European rival.

But saturating the country with new coaches wasn’t simply the key to their success. Youth coaches needed the same qualifications as professional level coaches and were incentivised to gain their badges; furthermore, all coaches were on the same page when it came to a style of coaching - developing a Spain-wide system of technical, possession based football. In short, Spain invested in the bottom level of its football culture, planting seeds that they could grow and cultivate at grassroots level before allowing them to flower in a more professional environment, already fully aware of how to play a particular brand of football.

The Germans were the next footballing nation determined to improve their situation. After Euro 2000, Germany were at an all time low in terms of football; embarrassed and left wanting, the DFB, Bundesliga and a host of clubs decided that something fresh was needed in order to help the country regain its footballing prowess. A plan was formulated to breed a new kind of footballer, one reliant on technique and skill rather than pace and power - a player that would become the hallmark of all German sides.

Skip ahead to 2014 and Die Mannschaft were holding the World Cup aloft after an impressive run to the final. The German system adopted in 2003 to help reignite the country’s footballing approach focused once more on hiring more coaches at grassroots level. Not just run of the mill mams and dads helping their son or daughter’s club out, though, as the Germans hired over 1,000 (now close to 3,000) part time Uefa B licensed coaches to cover the country acting not only as coaches focusing on technique rather than pure power, but also as scouts reporting back to the DFB and local professional clubs. It’s almost the polar opposite of the English system, whereby the FA relies on professional clubs to scout out local prospects, before feeding them into national systems.

To become UEFA B qualified in the UK you would be looking at shelling out somewhere north of £4,000 according to an article published by The Guardian last September. In Germany the cost appears to be less than £1,000 thanks to the DFB’s desire to offer coaching opportunities to all interested at a relatively reasonable price. The moral of the story? England relies on volunteers at grassroot level with no real financial incentive or investment to help produce a better level of emerging player.

Even little old Iceland, the mighty conquerors of our lacklustre national side, have their eye firmly on the ball (pun intended). Every youth coach in the country training a team from under 10’s up is trained to a Uefa B license standard (meaning they are able to coach a professional team) while the country’s approach focuses on: coaching, facilities and links to local schools. The incentivised scheme which means all coaches are paid in Iceland, and receive their badges at a reduced cost has led to the country boasting over 800 coaches with Uefa licenses - with 185 holding the top level A license. To compare that to England, Iceland with a population of approximately 330,000 has one A-licensed coach for every 1,800 people in its borders; whereas England has an A licensed coach for every 45,000 people living in the country. With such a fantastic system looking to produce so many well-qualified coaches intent on keeping families active and improving the abilities of their young players it’s no wonder that Iceland have jumped from a ranking of 112th in the world to 34th within six years.

Unfortunately for England and the FA, pouring money into white elephants like St. George’s park doesn’t help combat the real issue at hand. Under-funded and overworked volunteers form the majority of England’s grassroots coaching staff. The FA have set out to train more than 30,000 level 1 and 2 coaches by the end of this season, yet relying on volunteers to spend so much time and effort in gaining badges for little reward other than that of pride seems to be rather demeaning.

The FA’s attempts at revitalising our prosaic youth systems have been ongoing since the early 2000’s, the same time as Spain and Germany’s journey’s for success began. Yet the FA took almost ten years to complete a national centre for training, and as admirable as the aspirations for a new breed of English footballer have been, we have been found wanting once more. Relying on volunteers and charging for coaching badges is great at keeping costs down, but from a footballing perspective, they speak of an organisation unwilling to put in the hard yards to achieve success, instead relying on easily constructed, high-tech centres to allay fears of our footballing demise.

Trevor Brooking asserted back in 2012 that, "There are three key age groups - 5-11, 12-16 and 17-21. We have to focus on those first two age groups and produce quality England players who are good enough to break into a Premier League club's first team at the age of 18 or 19." And to all the volunteers out there, I salute you for a tough, unforgiving task made all the harder by a governing body unwilling to invest in the grassroots of our country’s footballing identity. Unfortunately, a profit-driven agenda means that it may be quite some time after 2020 that we see an England side brimming with home-grown talent lifting a trophy.