The opening of St George’s Park has been heralded as England’s best chance in decades to build a winning culture. In the first of a two-part interview, Chief sports writer Mark Douglas spoke to the Football Association’s head of youth development about how to end the long wait for silverware
WHEN a coaching delegation from Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy visited the Football Association to share their secrets recently, they spoke not of technique, ball retention or passing range.
Those are words that have been used to clobber successive generations of English footballers but Barcelona – who now provide 25% of every age-group Spanish side – insist the secret to success lies deeper than mere ability.
Every day they see young players with the potential to be the next Lionel Messi (pictured right) walk through the doors of their Academy, but somewhere deep in the psyche of these young men there is something that prevents them from reaching the heights.
Barcelona’s job – and one that they have done brilliantly – is putting the right mentality into these hopefuls to ensure that more than most make the grade. It was fascinating listening for those who are tasked with turning English football’s bratty wonderkids into fully-fledged superstars like Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
The FA’s head of youth development Sir Trevor Brooking takes up the story.
“The coaching delegation was fascinating and reinforces a point we’ve long been making. They told us that the areas away from the technical ability of a player are the key areas,” he told The Journal in a wide-ranging interview.
“They get a lot of excellent individuals technically but they’re unable to make the right decisions and live the life of a top sportsperson between the age of 16 and 21 and they drift out of it. Only a chosen few have all the attributes and it’s really important to understand that as a coach.
“Sometimes we get obsessed with technique. But it’s about more than just that.”
Sir Trevor’s obsession is with the way we teach our young players the fundamentals – and the way that we fail to take care of them when they have been identified as potential greats.
He has embarked on the FA Tesco Skills programme to make sure that very young footballers are given the sort of “physical literacy” that used to be taken as read. Computers and the lure of television mean that many of primary school age simply don’t know how to run, catch or compete.
The key after that is about taking on the coaching culture that has left England so short of success at major international tournaments recently. “Two years ago we (England’s Under-17s) beat France in the semi-final and Spain in the final, 2-1,” he said.
“That English team passed as well as any other European country, and we matched Spain and France. It’s absolute nonsense for anyone to think we can’t do it but when we’ve only done it once in 20 years, something’s wrong. What I can tell you is that if we get the right coaching, we get them early enough and we get them into the right habits of how to pass the ball, the English player can be as technically good as anyone else.
“What we haven’t got is the mixture of the right coach and the player with the right technical skills.
“But more than anything mentality, psychology, belief – it pays such a big part. If you see the overseas players interviewed, they’re quite humble at times. They speak with a lot of humility, they’re respectful and really quite mature. I think some of our Olympians spoke really well as well, they spoke about the support they’ve had, whether through family or back-up, and our younger players don’t quite have that maturity and strength of personality and character to make the most of the skills they’ve got.
“It’s not just about the technical stuff, it’s about decision-making. You can have all the technical skills in the world. That little side-footed pass might be the killer pass but because it’s too simple the lad who is brought up to do step-overs might ignore it because they like to look good and step over.
“They never actually become a team player, they’re too much of an individual.
“The best teams aren’t always made up of the best 11 players. It is made up of the right components that fit together – the leader, the hard worker – and we need to get that development right.”
Sir Trevor also acknowledges that there are lessons to learn from this summer’s Olympics.
In a message that should be tattooed on the arm of young pretenders like Nile Ranger, he admits that British football has a problem with creating too many young millionaires who feel they have cracked it by the time they make it into a youth team.
“The Olympics should inspire people but it is also an example of how hard you have to work. We see some of the 17 or 18-year-olds that I don’t think work hard enough during those early years,” he said.
“The problem is that they get those contracts initially and they can be quite wealthy lads by the time they’ve got to 21 but they’ve not kicked on in those vital years.
“They drift out of the game later in their twenties but they’ve made a lot of money. That’s our biggest challenge in football, to get the work ethic in football that we’ve seen in a lot of other sports during those key years when there’s the challenge to break into first XIs and get into teams which is a tough ask.”
Having spent time touring football grounds as part of the Olympics, Sir Trevor admits that the London games had a profound effect on the FA.
His generation might remember England winning the World Cup but successive football fans have only sepia-tinted memories. Sir Trevor admits that a golden summer has reinvigorated his appetitie for success.
“We haven’t won anything since 1966,” he said. “I was around then and I certainly didn’t think that 46 years later we’d be talking about not winning a World Cup or a Euros since then – when you see what was achieved this summer and the opening of our Centre, the starting point is that I want us to win the World Cup.
“No matter how we’re going to do it, we must win the World Cup. The football World Cup in 66 – the whole country was transfixed and hooked on it, just like they were in the Olympics. It just whetted my appetite to think: ‘If we could just get into a World Cup final, if we could win a World Cup, the whole country would just be completely transfixed’. It would completely change the game and sport in general.
“The challenge is to convince everyone who’s involved in the game and developing younger players that we want them to be one of those people who helps us to win a World Cup. Are we going to get that drive and ambition and work ethic to ensure that we’ve got those 11 or 12 or 22 that can deliver that to us?
“At the moment we haven’t got the depth of talent and we haven’t got the quality that we should have and for me that has to be the legacy. For football, can we get that winning belief that the Olympians had?”
Sir Trevor Brooking, founder of The FA Tesco Skills Programme, talks to The Journal about the importance of developing football skills at a Grassroots level. The FA Tesco Skills Programme provides specialist, age appropriate football coaching for children which is child-centred and caters for all ability levels. For more information about The FA Tesco Skills Programme and to find your nearest after school and free October half-term sessions , visit www.TheFA.com/TescoSkills.