England’s bright young things once again disappointed at a major tournament and for the first time in my living memory, I can see genuine anger from fans and figures from within the game.
I was born in 1984 but I developed my football mad brain relatively late. I missed Italia ’90 & Euro ’92. I have a vague memory of seeing at least part of the ’94 World Cup final where “The Divine Ponytail” blazed his penalty high over the bar to gift Brazil the win. That’s the year I really got into football as a 10-year-old. I have a most vivid memory of watching Cantona strike twice from the spot to give Man Utd a 4-0 win over Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea in the ’94 FA Cup Final. My household has never been big on football, barring 2 uncles. 1 was a Man Utd fan and the other a Chelsea fan. I chose Utd.
My love affair with England began properly at Euro ’96. I, like almost all of the country, got swept up in the raw emotion of what was happening. The 4-1 win over The Netherlands remains one of only 2 truly great England performances to have stuck in my mind (the other being the 5-1 win in Germany for the 2002 World Cup Qualifying campaign). There’s an argument to say England beating Croatia with a Theo Walcott Hattrick was decent but let’s face it, Croatia are not a powerhouse of the Netherlands/Germany ilk, so that ones comes in 3rd for me.
And herein lies the problem. If I am recalling 2 games in 20 years, the last of which coming 15 years ago, then we, as a nation, have serious issues surrounding our National team. We have a problem with fans who feel they cannot connect with the team as they once did. We have a problem with a national press that so badly wants to build up the next great thing, only to rub their hands with glee when they inevitably fail under the weight of all that pressure. But most of all, we have a problem with how the game is run. From grass-roots to the boardroom, there is an inherent sickness throughout the English game.
1992 – The FA Sell Their Golden-Goose
It’s hard to remember now but believe me, football did exist prior to 1992. We somehow forget that there was life before the Premier League. The inaugural year of the Premier League also coincided with the launch of the Champions League, so you’re forgiven for forgetting what football was like before that wonderful year.
After the success of ’66, the England squad aged quickly. They were unlucky in ’70 but we then had a period of adjustment. Ruled by the magnificent West Germany & the sublime (if not international champion) Johan Cruyff & The Netherlands. Domestically Bayern Munich & Ajax each won 3 European cups on the trot, interspersed with the odd Liverpool win as we moved to the late-70’s & early-80’s. This was a period of change for the English national team that almost came to a wonderful head on that fateful night in Turin at Italia ’90. Had England defeated an excellent West German team, they surely would have overcame Argentina in the final 4 days later. That should have been the start of a golden generation. Instead it was already the end. The team inexplicably crashed and burned in Euro ’92 and then didn’t even qualify for the World Cup in ’94.
In-between that period, the top teams in England decided they were going to break away to form the Premier League. This brave new world, with multi-billion pound TV deals has irreversibly changed the landscape of English football. No more do we produce World-Class, home-grown talents. No more do we make coaches with steel and grit and a desire to win above all else. In a world where sport is a lucrative business, where is the space for outsiders that don’t toe the line?
Fast forward to the 2016 vintage and look at what we have. It’s clear to see that the once mercurial Mr Rooney is feeling the effects of a long career. At the time of writing, straight after the Euro ’16 campaign, Rooney has racked up 115 England games, 77 Everton games and 520 Man Utd games. 712 games in 14 seasons – over 50 per season. Some players don’t even play 500 in an entire career yet Rooney is not even 31.
We have a talisman that’s burned out. “Don’t write him off yet” as the pundits always say. I’m sorry but I am writing him off as a leader of our national team. he was always described as a very strong boy. Almost man-sized at 16 but I simply do not agree. His play is slow and he cannot take hold of a game the way he once did. His new Midfield role is fine when playing against San Marino. Not so against the big boys (or, incidentally, Iceland). Putting a 16-year-old boy into a mans game and expecting 50-games per season is going to have consequences when said player reaches his late-20’s & early-30’s.
However Rooney is personally endorsed by Nike. England are also sponsored by Nike. Do you see the problem here? Football decisions made based on Business logic. I have no doubt that Rooney brings a few quid into the FA’s coffers every time they wheel him in front of a camera but should International football – or any football for that matter – really be about that?
Here lies a huge problem in English football. It’s The mighty Premier League vs The FA. While The FA deal in profits in the hundreds of millions, The Premier League deals in Billions and in our capitalist society, it’s all about who has the biggest balls and the most endorsements.
I don’t mean to single out Rooney as there are others in the team that have got off lightly in this article. I could write a damning assessment of at least half of the 2016 England squad. But that’s not what this piece is about. It’s about looking forward. Digging for the silver lining and figuring out how to fix this shit-show from top to bottom.
How Do We Fill Hodgson’s Shoes?
The first decision that needs to be made is appointing a new England manager. I’m not going to bash Hodgson completely here. That’s been done enough. What I will say is he was never up to the job and how he stayed in the office after the 2014 debacle is beyond me. His best tournament was 2012, when most of the prep work had been done by Capello.
The 3-man team leading up the appointment process are David Gill, Martin Glenn & Dan Ashworth. Initial impressions suggest this is a good panel. Gill is a numbers guy, making his name in finance for his whole career. More recently he’s been appointed on the boards of Manchester United, The FA, UEFA & FIFA. Glenn is a Marketing guy. He’s been a Brand Manager & Marketing Director for the likes of PepsiCo & Cadbury’s. He currently has a dual role as CEO of The FA & United Biscuits. And then we have Dan Ashworth. The Football guy. Ashworth had a below average playing career that focused mainly on the semi-pro side of the game. Since he stopped playing he’s worked in almost every role at a Football Club (except Manager) from League 2 to the Premiership. He’s essentially Director of Football for the FA and he has a good record of appointing managers from youth levels to the Women’s game.
3 strong chaps to lead the search for our new manager, however if we delve a little deeper and apply some logic – why do we have 2 business minds in this search? Think about what that means. We’re saying that two-thirds of this decision will be based on how the new man integrates on the business side and only 33% of the decision will be about football. I wonder if the Italian FA had a Marketing guy on their panel when appointing Antonio Conte? I wonder if anyone said “Sure, he’s won 3 consecutive Scudetti but he’s too fiery and the sponsors won’t like him”. Almost certainly not. He is a top manager and screw anything else.
We need a national team manager who is strong enough to push back against the FA board. Strong enough to say Rooney isn’t good enough and not care about upsetting Nike. But this is just the start of the battle. Once the new man is in place he needs to oversee the biggest shake-up in English Football history to achieve success.
In my humble opinion, here’s the 3 main points to ensure we see an England trophy in our lifetime:
1. Agents & Centralised Contracts
This is a biggie and quite honestly, we may already be falling down on point number 1! I’ll begin here with the Agents. Simply put, they have too much power. The super agents shape clubs. They force moves to happen at the very highest level. Lower down the scale, youth players of 13 & 14 are now getting signed to the agency’s books. What this means is when they are making their debut at 16 or 17, their agent comes in after they’ve played 10 games and demands £25,000 per week or their client is leaving. We’ve seen this publicly in the last few months with Reece Oxford at West Ham. He started the season very well and looked a prospect. Lo and behold, the Agent is demanding astronomical sums of money for him.
This is why fans can’t connect to the players. They are insulated from such a young age & they are given huge contracts way too early. There needs to be a better education for young footballers. There needs to be an incentive to continue to get better. If not then we will have a generation of Raheem Sterlings who appear to lose interest in the game after getting a huge move and/or a huge contract.
Quite simply, Agents need to be more regulated. There needs to be more control given to clubs and the FA. There needs to be a minimum age that a footballer can sign with an agency and until that time, contracts are handled by the players family and their club/The FA.
My proposal here would involve a deeper partnership between The FA & Premier League Academies. When comparing Football to other sports, you can stop short for one simple reason. Centralised contracts. What this means is that a number of players playing for England at Rugby or Cricket, will be paid by the equivalent of the FA. In Football that’s impossible. How on Earth could they cover Rooney at £300,000 per week, in addition to the other permanent squad members, and survive as a business. So what we have is a system where a 13 year old has an agent. They get their England call up at 18-20, by which time they are already on £30,000 per week. They arrive and are told that their match fee goes to charity. While this is indeed very noble, it’s counter to what the player has been brought up to believe. They are constantly told their worth is this or that and they deserve more and more money. So why bother performing for England when they don’t get paid and constantly get slated in the press.
Here is where the lack of education is a problem. Not understanding what it means to represent England. Who knows the highs Raheem Sterling may produce for England over the next decade. He has the talent but not the application as far as I can see. He will almost certainly look back as a middle aged man and understand the opportunity he had as a 21-year-old in a last-16 tie vs Iceland in 2016. How a manager defied all logic and stood by him and how he didn’t perform on the biggest of stages.
So how can we create a system of centralised contracts that works? It must be a system that enables the team training the player to get full use of the player but it must also enable that same player to be brought through the England setup from a very early age. There are exceptions (Rooney being one) but most players will not sign professional contracts until they are at least 18. While this is a good rule, there is a disconnect between starting out as a young teenager and getting to the first team. Most players don’t begin playing regularly until they’re in their early-20’s.
I would start here by looking at all current players in all youth levels of England squads up to Under-19 level. Each of these should be moved over to the new FA Development contract. What this means is that while their club can use them and train them as they see fit, the FA can also call upon them more often than they currently do. The contract is with the club but the FA’s rules mean they have their own bullet points in there allowing players to grow within their club and countries different setup’s.
There would have to be caveats for the future Rooney’s who make the grade at 16, but on the whole, these players will be called up at least once a month to train at St George’s Park and be involved in seminars to fill out their football education.
These players must be brought into a set up where they feel proud to be there. They feel that money is irrelevant. If you’re good enough, money will come – that should never be a priority. Imagine a 14-year-old kid sitting listening to Alan Shearer or Gary Lineker once a month. An opportunity for a struggling young striker to get a 1-on-1 with a legend who can offer some advice. To understand the mental strength it takes to become a great. To understand they are only a small part of a team, a cog in the engine of something that can eventually make an entire nation proud. Sure, there may be 300 13-18-year-olds in there and they can’t all make it, but you can bet your life that in 10 years, the England squad would be made up of 23 players from that group. Players that have known each other for 10 years. That have interacted with each other for a weekend every month and then again when called up to play in the development squads for England. And for the rest there are other paths. England are woefully short on coaches too. There are a whole host of jobs a young man or woman can do with the intimate knowledge of how a nation sets up it’s teams at all levels (and if not, they could just start a Podcast).
The 23 men in that squad 10 years from now would all have a deep understanding of tactical play and of the history of wearing the 3-lions and what that means to every football fan out there. Raheem Sterling surely cannot fully grasp how obsessed we are with football from within his insulated life. That may be a strange statement given his position in the game but I refer back to what I said earlier. That as a middle aged man in 20 years, he will understand that a person traveling to France to see him play in 2016 probably spent the equivalent of 2-months wages. A young millionaire, with no appreciation of what it actually means to be an England player simply will not understand how bad this is until he’s much older.
If a player arrived in the senior squad at 23, having had 5 years of education and tactical awareness, they could do anything on the pitch. There will always be the Cristiano Ronaldo’s & Lionel Messi’s in the opposition line-up but if Wales have taught us anything, it’s that if you believe in the cause and play the tactical game a manager sets out, then you can beat the best in the world.
2. Strong Management at all Levels
My firm belief is that we should discount any potential manager over 50 right away. I do believe that Sam Allardyce could do a job for England. Equally Steve Bruce or even, dare I even mention his name, Alan Pardew. However I believe the problem here is that they are all too far away from the age of the current crop and in hiring one of these managers, we are repeating past mistakes and remaining very short-sighted. I believe we need someone young and hungry. Someone that will still be young and hungry in 10 years. My personal choice here is Eddie Howe. I’ve heard him speaking at length and I believe he is someone that will rise to the very top of the game. he speaks so knowledgeably and professionally and his record at Bournemouth is exemplary. OK, he’s not a Champions League winner but who is that’s available? The summer of 2016 is not kind on teams looking for new managers with Pep, Jose, Klopp, Carlo & Conte all newly in jobs. Simeone has signed a new contract at Athletico Madrid – even Brendan Rodgers has ruled himself out. Alternatives are thin on the ground. Laurent Blanc is 50 and available but I personally don’t think that’s a viable option.
Eddie Howe is 38. In 10 years he will still be young and if he chose to leave he would pick up a Premier League job easily (If Steve McClaren can get a Premier League job, post-England, anyone can!). Howe has shown a level of tactical acumen to take a team that nobody fancied, into the Premier League and comfortably keep them there, while playing attractive football and getting performances that belie the names on the back of the shirts. he doesn’t deal in superstars yet gets a huge level of performance from his squad. And let’s be realistic – if this England team were in the Premier League, they’re a mid-table team. They’d struggle away to Bournemouth!
There’s no value in appointing a manager and saying take us to the last 8 of the World Cup in 2 years. It’s unrealistic. We need to say, don’t embarrass us – but if you go out at the groups, you’ll still be in charge. Allow him to build something. Allow him to spread his tactical philosophy throughout all levels of the England setup so that when today’s 15-year-old’s are playing at Euro 2020 or World Cup 2022, they already intimately know the system and what is required of them.
If you want some proof of this system working, look no further than Germany. Joachim Löw was assistant manager to Klinsmann at the German’s home World Cup in 2006, having started after Euro 2004. Klinsmann is a very modern, forward thinking coach. A pioneer even. He revolutionised the German setup and once he got the boot, Löw took over under the same conditions. Löw’s record reads as Runner-Up at Euro 2008, Third Place at World Cup 2010, Third Place at Euro 2012, Winner at World Cup 2014 – and at the time of writing, Semi Finals of Euro 2016.
OK, I understand that Germany have a more talented bunch and a history of winning but keeping that consistency of management and tactics has reaped it’s rewards, culminating in a World Cup win 8-years after he took over (Germany’s first since 1990).
If we want to build something meaningful, we must look at Euro 2024 and beyond and we must give a manager time to get it right.
3. Fans & Press
So, you thought you’d get away with reading an article and see how other people were going to change the England team. No no no my friend. As an England fan, you also have a responsibility. I won’t be giving any airtime to the thugs that parade as football fans at major tournaments. This is not an article saying stop beating people up because quite frankly, those idiots don’t read anyway so they certainly won’t be reading this. No, this is to the over confident England fans. The ones who believe that when the bookies make us 4th favourites, that means we deserve to make it to the last-4 (despite all evidence to the contrary). This is also to all of those who buy the crap that the press is selling and then turn on their heroes on a whim.
I get the argument that you pay your entrance fee, you have the right to boo your team. Personally I don’t agree with it but there we are. All I can say on this front is watch the Welsh fans, watch the Irish (Northern & Republic of), watch the Icelandic – hell, go to a Liverpool European game and hear the ear splitting, spine tingling rendition of You’ll Never Walk alone in the 90th minute when the team is 3-0 down.
Believe in your team. Don’t get on their backs. Understand there is a long-term plan and trust it. Make the likes of Marcus Rashford, 18 right now, come off the pitch feeling like he will never let you down again because you believe in him to get it right at the next one.
The press have a lot to answer for here as well. The build-em-up-knock-em-down culture is sickening. It’s not just in Football but that’s another matter entirely. As a nation we just love to see people fail. We love to build them to the precipice of God-Like worship and then smash them into the ground, just like with Harry Kane after a few wayward Free Kicks.
Stop. Please. Make these people believe they are capable of doing anything. Make them truly believe that when they cross the white line and step onto that pitch, no matter who they are facing, they can get a result. Stop sticking the boot in to sell your rag!
Will any of this ever happen?
The multi-million pound question. I’d say unlikely. I feel that the 3-man panel appointing the next man will go safe because they will need to protect their commercial deals and not rock the boat. I believe Rooney will be the focal point for the next 2 years and I believe that in Russia 2018, England will once again be found wanting. But at least Wayne will have broken the appearance record by that point!
If you want to see success we need to start from the ground up. Stop making it about money. Stop teaching 13-year-olds that being rich is more important than being a champion. We have a wonderful facility at St George’s Park and yet the Senior team stay in London when they have friendlies. The entire attitude needs to change. The seniors need to become role models for the juniors. The juniors need to understand that with the right attitude and tactical awareness, they can beat anyone and they can become the champions that their predecessors never were.
There must be changes from every aspect of following England – Terraces to Training Pitch to Boardroom. If not then ’66 will be as good as it ever gets.