It has to start from the ground-up with an entire generational and cultural shift in how football should be played, learned and viewed. Look at Holland. Small country of around sixteen million with little or no space available to play football. Yet, they consistently produce a competitive squad. Why? Because there is an emphasis on working within this tight space on developing basic attributes of skill, tactical awareness, retention, passing and technique. Due to a lack of finances, clubs actively foster a policy of youth development. Furthermore experienced players are actively encouraged to stay in the game and earnestly want to compete for positions beginning with youth squads.
The F.A don't need to necessarily re-invent the wheel, they just have to take the wheel into modernity. The long-term scope should be a cultural revolution with an increase in quality coaching that emphasizes skill over strength; brain over brawn. The immediate short-term impact is that the F.A should clean house and bring in a world-class candidate who is going to be foreign (and yes that includes Martin O' Neill). However, if I were Brian Barwick this morning, I'd only be looking at the following: Capello, Lippi and Hiddink.
As likeable as O'Neill is, I don't think he'd take England to the next level. Sure he'd satisfy the Ingerlund brigade's desire for a British manager, but I think the English national team need an outside influence. Yes, England had a foreign manager in Sven, but how technically and culturally different is Scandinavian football than English football? Under Eriksson, England played almost a defensive variant of route one football. There was no emphasis on patience, retention and passing. Although, Mourinho- like O'Neill- could motivate the players and get them to respond, I think his tactical one-sidedness could be a flaw on the international circuit. Additionally, if anyone has actually watched Portugal's qualification run they would automatically exclude Scolari, who has seemingly lost the plot and is probably going to be dropped by Portugal post-tournament anyway. And as for Klinsmann as enjoyable as his German team were at the World Cup, I would think the English public would not take to a German managing the national team.
Capello, Hiddink and Lippi are all about results and performance, not reputation. They wouldn't pander to the media or the public, they would simple get the best out of the players at hand, which in the short-term is what England need. But also, I think they would bring something fresh to the English game. But as far as the long-term vision goes of creating innovative, patient players, I think Martin Samuel has hit the nail on the head with this one.
This morning I would like to challenge Sir Trevor Brooking, and everybody involved in the organisation of youth football in this country, to a game. One condition: new rules.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/columnists/martin_samuel/article2910642.ece
The goal will be 3.057 metres high, which equates to more than 10ft, roughly one and two thirds the size of Paul Robinson, making it physically impossible to touch the bar from a standing jump. (When the Australian security forces erected a fence to protect the world leaders attending the APEC conference in Sydney this year, it was three metres high.)
The goalline will be 9.174 metres long (about 30ft) or almost five Scott Carsons laying head to toe. A goalkeeper standing in the middle would have to dive almost five metres to get his body behind the ball and adequately protect inside his posts; the present width of the whole goal is 7.32 metres.
The length of the pitch will be 150.4 metres (165 yards), placing the halfway line at 75 metres. Using these dimensions, for a goalkeeper to get the ball out of his half from a grounded goal kick, he would have to clear, without bouncing, to the midway point of the opposition half with pitch measurements as they are now. The edge of the penalty area will be extended to 20.68 metres (23 yards), almost a third again on the present space, and the width of the pitch will be 112.80 metres (124 yards), which is a greater expanse than the length of most present pitches. Everything else will be the same, including the number of players and the duration of the match.
And when this travesty of a game is finished, when everybody is exhausted and fed up and utterly frustrated with demands that are at odds with the strength of the human body and the fundamental skill-based nature of the sport, then, and only then, will we comprehend what it is like to play football as a ten-year-old in England.
At this point we may begin to realise why Blame Steve McClaren or unmotivated players for England’s shambolic path to Euro 2008 if you like, but the reason standards in English football are in decline stems directly from what we see on our parks and school fields every weekend: ten-year-old boys on a full-size pitch.
That is the problem. Not John Terry’s £135,000 a week or McClaren’s 3-5-2. You want to talk numbers, I’ve got some crackers right here: the average height of a ten-year-old boy is 4ft 7in and the height of Petr Cech, the Chelsea goalkeeper, is 6ft 5in and they are required to guard the same target and kick the same distance. And we wonder why we can’t play like the Brazilians.
The pitch dimensions for my challenge match with Brooking were not plucked out of the air. They were expanded, by ratio, so that adults could enjoy the same competitive experience as children. The idea came from a friend of mine, Ray Lee, who has worked in youth football all his life. His suggestion was to take an average ten-year-old, place him on a full-size pitch and then expand that space in proportion, to equate to the size of the average man. The playing surface filled an area of 16,800 metres. What do they say about a good midfield player covering every blade of grass? A good polo pony would struggle with that space.
In most counties, seven-a-side mini-soccer ends in the final year of junior school, at which point the under11 age group converts to football as it is played by grown-ups. Team numbers are the same and, most importantly, so are pitch measurements. As in discount clothing stores, one size fits all. The reason English football has a tradition of brick outhouse central defenders who cannot pass and perpetual motion machines in midfield without an ounce of the class of Cesc Fàbregas is because our youth football is geared to little else.
If you are big you go at the back because you can kick it a long way and on an adult pitch, unless someone can hoof it to safety, a team can get boxed in defending their penalty area with no end in sight until the inevitable goal is scored. The ability to cover a ludicrously vast distance, box to box, is obviously essential for a midfield player, so the game favours long-legged cross-country runners, not tidy little ball players.
And then every two years, when the national team exit a tournament after losing to the first good technical team they play, we go into anguished inquests about our lack of skill and talk about quotas of foreign players and pride and passion, and all of those other red herrings, and never once think that the answer is under our noses and it is 4ft tall standing in an 8ft goal.
I watched an under11 district game on Saturday that was everything that is wrong with youth football in England. Brent versus Redbridge in the cup. There were some lovely players on both teams. Good, skilful boys with good, basic technique and some bright ideas about passing and movement, too. At half-time the score was 1-0 to Brent and Redbridge had been slightly the better team, but as the game wore on conditions took their toll.
When youth football is warped by its adult setting, over time it favours the strongest physical players and Brent had some very athletic boys. Tall, physically imposing and nice footballers. Redbridge could not get it out of their half. At this age, a goal kick is an advantage to the opposition; better than a corner, really, because all the defenders have their back to the play, all the attackers are facing it and the goalkeeper cannot clear the 30-metre distance to safety.
The game becomes a siege (and this is before the really wet weather hits, when it becomes as much fun as the retreat from Moscow). And as the goals go in, which they will do because anything high or near a post is impossible to save, which is why Michael Owen scored 79 goals in one season at the age of 11, so one side become more dispirited. Final score: Brent 6 Redbridge 0. And it started off a close game. Brent would probably have shaded it, whatever the location, but why such a huge difference by the end? The size of the task. It wears them down. It saps the strength, it strangles their skill. My lad can’t make it this week. He has an 11-plus examination. I’m hoping he’ll get more enjoyment from it.
I have another lad playing under12 football. This season a new team joined his competition. Massive kids, lots of attitude. I had them marked down as the league winners before a ball was kicked and after seven games they are two points clear. It is a power game for the preteens. And then, later in life, when everybody can wallop the ball a long way and chase it down, the sport becomes skill-based once more, except by that time we are lagging behind as a nation because we have focused all our efforts on the art of a panic-stricken clearance into touch to release the pressure.
Bring in the pitch boundaries, make the goals smaller and compulsorily cut the number of players in each team to nine until the age of 14. Games of this nature produce more scoring chances, more passes, more goals, better dribbling and more opportunities one on one. Better skill all round, in fact.
When youth coaches at Ajax first assess groups of young players, they make them dribble a ball around a square. Gradually the perimeter of the area is reduced until they can see who really knows how to control it. Then they make their selection and begin to look at other attributes. At our district trials, 75 youngsters played a series of games on a full-size pitch.
The FA is awash with money, we are told, so let it spearhead this revolution. It can be done. It is argued that schools and parks do not have the space to construct separate nine-a-side venues, but that is a weak, lazy excuse. They do not need more land. Paint the markings of the children’s pitch inside the adult pitch in a different colour (red would stand out in all seasons). No confusion there. Children and adults regularly play on ball courts and in indoor gyms that contain the field boundaries for several sports (basketball, netball, hockey, tennis), without becoming disoriented.
Brooking, the FA’s director of football development, continues to talk a good game, but where is the action? Skills programmes with supermarket sponsors do not even scratch the surface. It is the match that is the problem, not the training. There was plenty of raw talent in that district game, plenty of tricks and flicks and eye-of-the-needle passes. English children are not born with less skill than those in Spain or France. It is battered out of them by the circumstances in which they are forced to play.
If you want to know why we are a nation on tenterhooks about tonight’s match against Croatia, go to the park with a few mates, mark out an area the size of a modern hypermarket, including service and delivery space, with a bungalow at each end to act as the goals and away you go. Then you will see football through the eyes of a ten-year-old. And you may rather want to spend the weekend in front of Nickelodeon, too.