England has gone out of another major championship at the quarter-final stage and on penalties. There seems to be a pattern forming. Of course one of the main elements of the pattern is that we’re just not good enough and the quarter-finals is, at the moment, our level. Yet still, the performance last night was poor.
Now I know that isn’t really the forum for this (apologies to US readers and swimmers), but in response to another potential Chris Waddle rant, I wanted to outline how I think England could improve. So here’s my Five Point Plan to help England win the World Cup (or at least get a bit better).
Find Roy’s Replacement
I’m not jumping on the sack the manager bandwagon, but what I am saying is that the FA needs to identify the next England manager early – ideally now. Then they need to bring them into the FA system and make them part of Roy’s team. Not part of the first team coaching staff directly, but the head of the Under-21s or similar.
This new / next manager should then be working with the Under-21s in the same way that Roy Hodgson is working with the first team. There should be a continuity in the system – both on and off the pitch.
Then when the time is right the new manager can step up to manage the full team safe in the knowledge that he will know most of the players and that they are all – manager and players – schooled in the same system.
Ignore the World Cup
But when it comes to that system, things need to change. I was impressed with Hodgson’s ability to get the best out of an average group of players. The real test is now to see whether we can get a better group of players together.
This is the big challenge for the FA and one that they need to take seriously and commit to.
To do that means looking long-term. Short-termism got Roy to the quarter-finals, but it has been short-termism over the long-term that means we are no better than a quarter-final team. But to break that short-termism we have to be prepared to do worse than getting to the quarter-finals.
When Steve McLaren failed to get England to the Euros in 2008 it was rightly seen as a failure. It was a failure because we didn’t qualify due to the fact that we had no idea, no plan and we were floundering in the group. However, if we have a long-term plan and we are aiming for beyond Brazil 2014, way beyond that in fact, if we are aiming for a better England team over the next few decades; then to perform badly at the next World Cup, or possibly not even qualify, is not a failure.
The FA needs to have the bottle to ignore the next world Cup in terms of plans and goals – whatever we get is a bonus, but let’s look at the [much] bigger picture.
Juggle Your Balls
The main thing we need to do is to be more comfortable with the ball at our feet. For too long English football has been about things like “passion”, “desire”, “commitment”, “engine”, “big man up front”, “get it in the mixer” – but not about skills. It’s time for that to change.
We need to develop a culture and a generation of players that actually want the ball and do can something with it. I’m not always a big fan of the Spanish tiki-taka style of play, but at least they want to receive the ball, look after it and give it to a teammate – and not just hoof it forward.
I heard Chris Waddle moaning that the English team can’t pass the ball, but it’s more than the pass, it’s the desire to receive. Not only do we need players who are comfortable on the ball, we need to understand how to play without the ball, how to work the space – both to receive the ball and then to pressurize the opposition when we don’t have it. Usually if a pass is made badly it’s because there was no-one in a good position to pass to.
The FA needs to focus on developing young players with these key skills. There are people who know more than me about how to do that (smaller pitches, no eleven-a-side matches for juniors etc etc), but that needs to be the priority and focusing on making that actually happen is worth missing out on the next World Cup.
However, to have enough kids to come through the system at all we need to allow them to just play the game (and to be fair any other game) with their mates. But as green spaces disappear it’s getting harder and harder for kids to do that.
The FA needs to implement a system that protects some of the green spaces in our bigger cities. It sounds like a big project, but it’s not much compared to the amount of money in the game as a whole – and without it we won’t have any kids playing football (apart from on computer games) within a couple of generations.
One way maybe to use 5% of the Premier League prize money to fund local purchases, or maybe it could be part of the job of the club’s academies to do this. Alternatively the FA could work with schools to protect local playing fields. But they need to do it.
But one final element is that this can’t be about the clubs buying up land and players. However it is done, it needs to be just about green spaces and kids playing and having fun. Don’t worry, footballers will come from it – and cheap at twice the price too.
Hearts and Minds
The final element to all of this – the hardest bit – is to get the public to agree to it. The culture of football in this country needs to change if we are to be successful and the FA has to be brave enough to do it.
There is precedent for this, over the last twenty years or so football has dramatically reduced the culture of hooliganism and racism that used to pervade the game. That was needed if the sport was ever to survive as an acceptable pastime and become a commercial success. Now if we want to generate some success on the field too we need to change the culture again.
It’s going to be tough, but we have to bite the bullet and make some serious changes.