x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Teach an old dog new tricks? That is the question with the English football team

English people have become used to watching winners. Most recently in cycling, in the Olympics, in rugby or cricket. They are asking why football can't deliver in the same way.

Ross Barkley, Phil Jagielka and Theo Walcott of England warm up during a training session at St Georges Park in Burton-upon-Trent.
Ross Barkley, Phil Jagielka and Theo Walcott of England warm up during a training session at St Georges Park in Burton-upon-Trent.

I was a young professional footballer with Bristol City when the Premier League started, in 1992. I remember hearing how the new league would help the England national team because there would be fewer matches with more time to concentrate on international fixtures.

I'd broken into England's Under 21 team and was becoming familiar with the England set-up at a higher level. I'd already played for England at younger levels and come through the national school at Lilleshall.

Even then, I could see room for improvement. Take the kind of people who would come on our away trips. When we would board a plane, we were given a list of the people in our party. The players would be listed near the bottom, beneath the dignitaries.

I remembered wondering why a retired wing commander with a load of letters after his name was needed to accompany us. Ditto, his wife. I assumed that he'd fly the plane if we needed another pilot, not that he was on a free holiday.

We would go to places like the Algarve in Portugal and bump into the dignitaries. You'd be tired from training and they would stop you and talk about the weather.

It was all very surreal, a conversation about the weather between a 21-year-old working class lad and a 65-year-old man recently retired from the armed forces. Imagine if a former striker had been on those trips, someone who had been there and done it at the highest level. I'm sure I could have learnt a lot in relaxed chats during the long hours you have to kill when you're away.

I progressed to the full national side but was always very sceptical. There were cliques of officials and of rival players. There was none of the team mentality that you would get at a successful club.

I never felt that there was a group of players who embodied "England" like I did with my Mancunian teammates at Manchester United.

England weren't successful and it didn't surprise me. I'm not sure I could have done anything to change that, even if I was selected as often as I thought I should have been. That was the mentality; that was England. Players talked about wages or gambling rather than winning football matches.

The England team didn't really improve. As everyone knows, England didn't even qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals, four years after reaching the semi-finals.

It is a given that England qualify for most tournaments and usually disappoint in them. They had some great players, but the problem is that, with the possible exception of 1966, when they won the World Cup, in the modern era they have never had a great team.

Meanwhile, in other sports, English people have become used to watching winners. Most recently in cycling, in the Olympics, in rugby or cricket. They are asking why football can't deliver in the same way.

Comparisons between sports are almost useless because the mentalities differ so much, but England's national team continues to struggle on. They are usually ranked around 10th in the world - and that's because there are nine better sides.

The results don't lie.

I wouldn't normally pay any attention to the opinion of a TV executive talking about football, but Greg Dyke, the new chairman of the English Football Association, was right when he said that the England national team shouldn't expect to win the World Cup next year. They have not even qualified for it yet. Even if they do, what's going to happen against far better teams? I can't believe that some people actually think England have a chance when they say: "But it's England!"

Dyke claims that the Premier League and the high number of foreign players are damaging the national team. Maybe, but if you get rid of the foreign players then the league would lose so much of its quality. Maybe that is the trade-off, the price to pay for having the most successful league in the world.

And because teams try to stay in that league at all costs, coaches take few risks and not enough young players get a chance to break into their club team, whatever their nationality.

When young players are given that chance, there is an impatience for them to succeed straight away. When they don't, they're usually the first to be bombed out of the team. That's not an ideal way for a young player to learn.

I've heard of so many plans to reinvent English football since I first represented my country, so many "back to the drawing board/grass roots ideas". Facilities have got better, games have been changed so that kids play short games using fewer players on smaller pitches, but the results simply haven't improved at the top end.

One observation is that not enough former players are involved in coaching. I've been doing my coaching badges and one of the courses was taken by a former policeman.

The England national team doesn't have a style of play that anyone aspires to and their strongest attribute is said to be the mythical "bulldog spirit". England have been left behind, an old, toothless bulldog being asked to chase a wasp. And, sadly, I can't see their fortunes improving any time soon.

 

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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