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No quick fix for England malaise

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

In the aftermath of England’s 4-1 World Cup knockout by Germany, the FSF’s chair Malcolm Clarke, the first ever fan representative on the FA’s ruling council, shares a few thoughts about what ails the game on our isle and argues that there are no quick fix solutions.

Since the final whistle blew against Germany in Bloemfontain, and the sun set on a South African winter’s day in the high veld, the usual quick fixes have been suggested. Some run like a re-make of the Sam Peckenpah 1974 classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The 21st century tabloid equivalent being Bring Me the Head of Fabio Capello.

Some pundits, such as Gary Lineker at the end of the BBC live match broadcast, muse that it might be time for an English manager. But hang on a minute, what nationality was the “wally with the brolly”? Have we forgotten the national debate when Sven was appointed? The so-called experts were telling us that we needed to get out of our Little Englander mentality and recruit a top foreign coach. We need a top coach, of course we do. Their nationality isn’t the issue for most fans.

Neither is goal-line technology, despite Alan Green railing that he hopes FIFA president Sepp Blatter is “proud of himself”. Of course, it would have been a very different game if we had gone in at 2-2, having just scored two quick-fire goals and the FSF backs the introduction of goal-line technology. But that doesn’t explain the abject performances in the three group games. Or the fact that the Germans have done better than us in every World Cup since we beat them in the final 44 years ago, ironically with the help of a dubious goal-line incident.  We shall never forget the “Russian” linesman – even if he was actually from Azerbaijan!

No. We need to look deeper. Much deeper. The FA needs to initiate a real debate on why the nation which gave the game to the world and claims to have the best league in the world cannot hack it in the greatest of all football competitions.

Let us not forget that when the FA set up the Premier League (still legally called the FA Premier League but never branded as such) it justified itself mainly on the basis that it would help the England team. Of course, the key figures in the FA who took that decision are no longer running the game’s governing body.  Some of them have since disowned what they did. 

But you don’t need me to analyse whether the England team have benefitted from the arrival of the Premier League. No less an authority than Sir Dave Richards, who now chairs both the Premier League and Club England on behalf of the FA pronounced on this at the Dubai International Sports Conference in June 2008.

"Does the Premier League hurt the national side?” asked Sir Dave. “I think the answer to that has got to be yes. We’ve been a bit lazy in the Premier League over the years. We created a system of academies and every club spends about £3m a year developing young players. But it hasn’t worked, because the availability for us to go out and buy the best stars is an easy thing.

"Steve [McClaren – who had recently been sacked as England manager] will tell you that he has to have the best players available and the Premier League has hurt him. In fact I would probably go as far as to say the Premier League has probably cost him his job. Because what we’ve done, we’ve actually bought all these foreign players in.”

Only yesterday, this view was endorsed by my fellow FA councillor Maurice Lindsay of Wigan Athletic, who is one of the Premier League’s representatives on the FA, when he said that “both the FA and the Premier League have failed” in this regard.  

Many fans will agree with Sir Dave’s and Maurice’s sentiments. If we look at our conquerors on Sunday it is unlikely to be co-incidental that the Bundesliga has more home-grown players than the Premier League. This is especially apparent in the respective league’s top four clubs, with Germany’s best clubs having 50 percent more home-grown talent (45% v 68%). The Germans have also imposed a minimum quota for German nationals in their academies.

But it goes even deeper than this. It’s partly about the development of our youngsters. Perhaps the most startling statistic is that there are 13 – yes, 13 – times as many Uefa-qualified coaches in Germany as there are here. German youngsters are also more than twice as likely (eight percent to 19 percent) to be playing football than those in this country. The Germans invest huge amounts of time, effort and money in youth football. It shows.

At the top, our game generates far more wealth than the German game – over £2 billion for the Premier League versus £1.28 billion for the Bundesliga. We have a much stronger football pyramid in terms of income and attendance. We ought to be a position to translate this into a flow of talent coming through to the national team. Sir Trevor Brooking is right to be concerned that we aren’t.

There are other questions which should from part of the debate, for example the winter break which Capello (and Eriksson before him) has called for. That would be no use though if the response of our top clubs was simply to head off for lucrative friendlies on foreign soil. A smaller top league is another undelivered promise of the establishment of the Premier League. However, fans would only be happy with this if it was clearly shown to be part of a package which has the interests of the national team at its heart. They would also want to be involved and consulted.

For that to happen, all those running our game need to sign up to improving the national team as a key objective. With an increasing number of foreign owners in the Premier League, some of whom seem to be in it either to make money or to have a trophy asset, it’s difficult to be optimistic that it’s going to happen.

Perhaps this is where Sir Dave needs to be directing his thoughts after he’s worked out how much it would cost to sack Fabio.

The Football Supporters’ Federation on Facebook.

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