The five-step plan to save England from itself

The success of the English Premier League has come to mean the success of English football, when the two couldn't be further apart. English football is an absolute mess.

England v Iceland

Source: Getty Images

I wrote last week that “England cannot win this European Championship”. Opening line, in fact.

Criticism flowed in for being too harsh, that I should have looked as the positives, not the negatives. It gives me no joy to say this, but after defeat against Iceland, I wasn’t nearly harsh enough.

It’s tempting to join the media carousel kicking The FA, Roy Hodgson, and everyone else involved. But rather than do that - besides, you can Google those rants - it’s better to look at how England can find a way back into the limelight.

These are the five most important lessons they must learn.

1. Admit to a lack of elite knowledge

It’s the hardest part in the seven stages of grief. Indeed, this is the real challenge for the entire nation.

England doesn’t want to admit they lack the nous required to compete with the big guns of world football. They think they deserve to be among them, but everyone - this includes coaches, administrations, players, press and fans - needs to accept they are light years behind.

Coaches are being produced with scant tactical acumen (why no Englishman has coached a winning English Premier League side since 1992) and England hasn’t produced a truly world-class player (think international matches, not just EPL) for decades.

While the rest of the world gravitates to young coaches with fresh ideas, it’s interesting hardly any England players of recent decades have moved into coaching in any meaningful way.

So it’s not a matter of a tactical tweak here or a change of player there. Changing the tyre is pointless when the engine, the suspension and the body is faulty.

But facing up to it seems to be the hardest part.

2. Look at how others have rebuilt

It was a disastrous EURO 2000 - where they finished last in the group - that drove German football into a period of intense change. They launched a full investigation into what went wrong, the root cause of it and how things could change.

The net result? Mandatory elite academies at Bundesliga clubs in the top two divisions, ensuring at least (but not limited to) 36 top-tier youth development centres at any one time.

After 2000, youth coaching was given a total overhaul; new instructors trained up, and coaches ordered to undertake intensive classes. Within 13 years, Germany had almost 33,000 qualified coaches - England had less than 3000. A national conversation was born about about how to develop champion players from scratch, not just winning matches.

These club academies do not act in isolation, like the English ones. They follow set structures, adhere to certain rules and minimum standards, teaching universal methods set out by the best brains in world football.

England has made progress facility-wise - St George's Park is half-modeled on Clairefontaine - but it is not a youth academy per se. The bulk of the work with the next generation will be done with their clubs.

The FA and the Premier League clubs must find a way to pull together on this.

3. Admit a quick fix won’t save the team

The only manager I can think of in world football who could dramatically improve this specific group of players right now is Pep Guardiola or Antonio Conte. And they’ll never get either.

Unfortunately, there’s not a manager in English football capable of transforming this present group to meet the level the public demands. An overseas appointment is a must.

Too much is made of the need to handle the press and public expectation. Granted, that’s important, but they’ll get on board when they see an eloquent, driven manager driving ruthlessly towards the end goal, with players who understand the system.

Worryingly, the dream options (Guardiola, Conte, Mourinho, Klopp) and even the next best (Wenger, Allegri, Tuchel, Ranieri and so on) all seem out of reach. There’s not much left further down.

Roberto Mancini would make an intriguing choice if he can be prised out of Inter, which isn’t impossible. He matches tactical acumen, modern understanding, and a strong personality.

He handled the big egos at Manchester City, and will have improved from another few years in Italy. Of a terribly weak field - Eddie Howe, Glenn Hoddle and Gareth Southgate are being peddled - he at least ensures damage limitation.

4. National pride

“Passion for the shirt” is an awful, dinosaur-like phrase. But consider the topic more broadly: what does it actually mean to be English in 2016?

You only need to walk the streets to see the ties that bonded England to a strict sense of national identity died years ago. The nation is at odds with itself - as if Brexit didn’t prove that outright.

The players? I hate to say it, but international football appears a drain on their time to spend money on luxury holidays, whilst carrying the real risk of injury and inevitable national criticism at an early exit. All for what, exactly?

This is the entitlement generation - and it begins in English academies, as pointed out by former Manchester United junior Danny Higginbotham in this brilliant column a few months back ().

It is not a generation that will get misty-eyed over the tea, jam and scones, stories of RAF supremacy or Nobby Stiles’ jig. They know more about Gemma Atkinson than Ron Atkinson. Not a criticism, just a fact.

Can national pride ever count? Well, yes. Ask Conte: he’s brought it up in every post-match interview; the pride in fighting to defend Italian honour.

But he’s correctly defined that pride is allied to sacrifice: in training, in understanding his tactics, the small details of diet and sleep, and the collective buy-in of sacrificing individual glory for the greater good. I see none of those qualities in England.

5) The problem isn’t the “lack of opportunity” in the EPL

This is the myth that needs exploding quickly - but it continues to gain legs.

It’s a one-plus-one solution to a multi-tier problem. Yes, more English players need to be playing in the Premier League - but gifting them positions is not the answer.

In fact, English players have unbelievable opportunity. If they had the aptitude, more would get exposed to world-class opposition on a weekly basis.

But once the first team manager, usually from somewhere else in Europe, gets a look at the academy crop, he invariably shakes his head.

Young English players fail because the coaching and development structures that underpin the clubs are nowhere near elite, and consistently churn out players who fall into the lower leagues and often out of the system completely.

As a result, clubs are compelled to buy fully developed players from every other nation on earth, pressured by the imminent fear of relegation or missing out on Europe.

It is a vicious cycle, and it’s now England's choice whether they want to break it - or keep making excuses and failing every two years.

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7 min read
Published 29 June 2016 at 8:07pm
By Sebastian Hassett