Dan Ashworth is the director of elite coaching at the FA, the man charged with the job of trying to return the England team to a lofty position in the world rankings by finding a way to produce young players capable of taking on, and beating, the best teams in international football. It is a tough challenge and it is one that I – and I presume Dan Ashworth, too – think can only get tougher after watching the complete break from football that masqueraded as a World Cup qualifier when England drew 0-0 with Ukraine in Kiev on Tuesday. Okay, the result leaves England on top of Group H and with their fate still in their own hands as the final two qualifying matches, at home to Montenegro and Poland, loom next month. Okay, it was as they say in soccer speak “job done.” Okay, manager Roy Hodgson’s options were severely limited by the loss, through injury, of his most potent attackers, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck. But let us be brutally honest…we are hoping to go to Brazil next summer to contest the World Cup finals and, on this evidence, we can’t string two passes together, let alone three or more!
I was happy to acknowledge that England did a thoroughly competent job when they dispatched little Moldova 4-0 at Wembley the previous week. In Kiev, however, against stronger opposition, but by no means classy opposition, we were incapable of producing the spark that might have broken a grim deadlock created by two fit, strong, athletic teams dedicated to closing each other down. Even Jack Wilshere, the young Arsenal player I admire so much and upon whom so much of our hope for an improved future depends, could not find a team-mate, not even with passes from less than 10 yards. England peaked as an attacking force in the first minute, when Frank Lampard put Theo Walcott through on goal, though it was only a 50-50 chance. The sum total of clear cut opportunities was two, a missed header for each team. Dire stuff, indeed. Oh, for a player of the calibre of Paul Gascoigne, arguably England’s last truly world class footballer, who had the intuitive creativity to turn such a stalemate on its head.
Now, I accept that such players – Barcelona’s brilliant little forward Lionel Messi is the best current example – are born, not made, but there is clearly a category just one rung down from those guys and teams like Germany, Spain and the new kids on the international block, Belgium, are prime examples of nations that have players in it. Little Belgium, population just under 11 million, top their World Cup qualifying group by five points and are certainties for Brazil 2014. Belgium! I know the country is famous for chocolate, but when you bring to mind Anderlecht, Bruges and Standard Liege you have run out of their premier league clubs to name. Yet they currently have 11 players in the English Premier League, outstanding talents like Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Christian Bentecke et al, and their national side is sweeping away all opposition en route to the World Cup finals.
They must be doing something right over there and, so, I suggest Mr Ashworth makes sure he sends scouts to study their methods. The Dutch, with their total football, the Spanish, with their love of possession, the Germans, whose clubs dominated last season’s Champions League, and, now, the Belgians, all seem to be more successful than we English at producing quality players. Somehow, and I don’t pretend to know why, we have lost our way since those heady days of 1966 when a team boasting several players – Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore for sure – who would have graced a World X1, won the World Cup at Wembley. Perhaps the answer lies in part in the advent of sports science and an obsession with physical perfection and the welter of statistics that go with it. I think scouts are brainwashed into making athleticism the priority over ability. Has the word ‘athlete’ superceded the word ‘footballer?’ I recall a match when I was manager of Ipswich when we beat Burnley 6-0 at home and the club statistician came into my office, a frown on his face, and said: “Boss, they out-ran us!” I told him: “That’s because they were chasing the ball for 90 minutes.”
At that time, Ipswich had players who were adept at playing possession football and Burnley’s boys could have run a marathon apiece and still not competed with us. The alarming aspect of England’s display in Kiev was that, in that tight situation, we could not hold on to the ball and make things happen. They say that statistics don’t lie, but they can certainly be misleading. England top their group, but their four victories were two apiece against Moldova and San Marino. I mean, wouldn’t you expect Manchester United to beat Oldham and Bury every time? England have lost only once in 20 matches. On the face of it, impressive. But, when you analyse the limitations in that performance in Kiev, you tend to be sceptical about the story behind those numbers. Certainly, it will be interesting to see if England improve their 14th place when FIFA produces its updated world rankings tomorrow. We have had to reluctantly accept for a long time now that we are not good enough to contest the world and European finals, but we should aspire to be firmly embedded in the world’s top 10. What is certain is that we have lost our way, while others have steamed ahead, and we can only wish Dan Ashworth well as he attempts the formidable challenge of producing players who will crystallize new FA chairman Greg Dyke’s improbable call for a World Cup win in 2022!
FOOTNOTE: The FA flirted with a charge of double standards this week when they announced they will take no further action against England and Tottenham full-back Kyle Walker – who, incidentally, got a merciless run-around from Ukraine’s Konoplyanka – who was pictured inhaling the drug nitrous oxide during the close season. Now, I am not advocating punishment for young Walker, merely observing that when Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand missed a routine drugs test in 2003 – when he was an England stalwart – he was hammered with an eight-month ban. And Ferdinand was never shown to have taken any illegal substance.