x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Senrab's imprint on England football

The new National Football Centre is a far cry from the path many stars took to the top, writes Ian Hawkey.

The bonding among players, such as Bobby Zamora, left, and John Terry, is evident as a result of growing up as footballers at Senrab.
The bonding among players, such as Bobby Zamora, left, and John Terry, is evident as a result of growing up as footballers at Senrab.

On a patch of wall in the heart of London's East End is a faded piece of graffiti that celebrates one of the area's most famous sporting sons.

Better to call it "wall art" than graffiti, because before the weather and local cleaners caused the colours to fade and the letters to blur, careful spray-painting had produced a vivid, bold tribute to Ashley Cole, born in Stepney to a childhood of little privilege and remembered as a brisk, skilful schoolboy footballer.

Cole, now 31, is closing in on his 100th cap for England. He had been expected to notch number 99 on Friday in the World Cup qualifying victory over San Marino.

Unusually, he was left out, the explanation from his manager Roy Hodgson that Cole had been rested to preserve fitness for Tuesday's tougher assignment in Poland.

As it had not been a good week for Cole leading into the San Marino game, the omission raised eyebrows. Cole has been in disciplinary trouble with the English authorities. And he has been booed previously by some England supporters at Wembley.

It is fair to report that the pride in the boy-made-good that inspired an urban mural in Stepney is not universally shared.

Yet when Cole stops playing for England, he will be missed. For a period of his career, he was probably the finest left-back in the world, master of the tricky, twin requirements of the position, constructing attacks and containment.

Few contemporary Englishmen have been able to reckon themselves for so long a likely starter in a world XI as Cole has.

Which is partly why so much money has been invested in trying to improve the standards of a national team that consistently falls short of the level, at tournaments, that the strength and success of the English domestic competition, the Premier League, suggests should be achieved by England.

Last week, with Cole, the rest of Hodgson's squad, and members of the British royal family in attendance, the St George's Park National Football Centre was officially opened.

It cost £120 million (Dh708m) to build, and is equipped with state of the art training, medical and educational facilities with the primary aim of raising standards of coaching. It is partly inspired by the centralised Clairefontaine Academy, headquarters of French football development; it partly aspires to create a generation of adept and progressive coaches as numerous as Germany has.

It wants to make ease of basic technique as second-nature among English footballers as it is among Spanish players.

English club academies, into which hundreds of millions of pounds have also been invested, hold similar aims, and have transformed the nature of youth development in the country that likes to think it invented the world's most popular sport.

In the era of multimillion pound transfers, academies in the Premier League are run on sharp business principles: A club breeding its own talent from early-teenage level is saving itself the expense of recruiting; or it is gaining itself an asset that might be sold for several millions later.

But around Stepney, where Ashley Cole was born, an environment of productive youth football distinct from hothouse academy system still exists, even if it envies the manicured, cultivated spaces and high-tech gymnasiums of academies.

As new tower blocks of apartments aimed at bankers who work in the nearby financial hubs of the City of London and Canary Wharf, rise up in Stepney and its surrounds, sites to practice and play football become scarcer.

They already were when 10-year-old Ashley Cole was at school in Bow. One local coach recalls how his mother Sue, bringing up two sons on her own, struggled to find the £25 that allowed young Ashley to join a club with access to a pitch, so he could pursue his enthusiasm for football.

By the time he was entering his teenagers, playing as a striker, other clubs wanted Cole in their sides. He was with a team called Puma; rivals Senrab courted him - appealing simply to his ambitions, they maintain, not with any material inducements - but he turned them down. Senrab look back on Cole as the one who got away.

Many talented boys did not.

Senrab, founded in the early 1960s in Senrab Street, Stepney, has a list of graduates that any modern academy would envy and, in the 1990s, a glut of them.

"An exceptional generation," recalls Gary Northover, who coached many future stars there.

You can start with John Terry, the Chelsea and former England captain, and the former Tottenham Hotspur skipper, Ledley King, who would line up with Cole in England's defence dozens of times.

You can go on to catalogue strikers, like Jermain Defoe and Bobby Zamora, England internationals. The England defenders Sol Campbell, Ugo Ehiogu and Paul Konchesky had been Senrab boys, as had the midfielder Lee Bowyer, later capped by England.

And the Senrab role of honour reflects the cultural diversity of an area which, close to the Thames docks, has long housed immigrant communities: Senrab's former midfielder Muzzy Izzet, from a northern Cypriot background, went on to represent Turkey in a World Cup semi-final; Ade Akinbiyi played for Nigeria, JLloyd Samuel for Trinidad and Tobago.

Loyalties were formed between these schoolboys. The last month has testified to that.

When Terry, who a two weeks ago announced his international retirement just ahead of the English FA's independent commission finding him guilty of having racially abused the QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, played for Chelsea against QPR in late September, QPR's Zamora, who is mixed-race, pointedly embraced him ahead of kick-off.

Cole meanwhile was found by that FA commission to have given questionable evidence to their investigators, shaped by his desire to support his Chelsea teammate's defence against a very serious charge.

Cole's angry reaction to the commission's report, a tweeted insult towards an FA who employ him for England, clouded the lead-up to this week's internationals.

That, and the Terry case, put the issue of player behaviour on the agenda of the opening of St George's, where England's players' first days practice there included a briefing on a new code of conduct.

The centre has a substantial task if it is to improve the public image of the English footballer.

It also has a major task, if it, the Super Academy, is to prove as fruitful a nurturing ground for talent as a small corner of London's East End. Senrab has come close to closure in recent years, because of a lack of playing space and stretched finances.

But it survives, and, this afternoon, age-group teams dressed in Senrab's black-and-red striped kits will be action on Wanstead Flats - a little further away from central Stepney than in the old days because there are fewer pitches available there.

And Senrab's excellent reputation will draw several onlookers, among them ambitious Premier League academy scouts looking for the next Terry, King or Defoe.

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