Forty or fifty years ago the claim was you could whistle down any coal mine shaft in Yorkshire and come up with a potential England fast bowler. In the same period, when I was a young centre-forward at Everton striving to get into the England football team, I faced fierce competition from a host of players, men like Brian Kidd, Trevor Francis, Peter Osgood, Mick Channon, Frank Worthington, Mick Jones, John Radford, strikers who were good for 20 goals a season, and more, in the old First Division. Now, you wonder where the next prolific England centre-forward is coming from.
Yet another disappointing display from the national team, against the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday, when our only goal came from ageing midfielder Frank Lampard, got me thinking, and worrying, about the lack of international-class English talent being produced by our much-vaunted Academy system. When the Academies were introduced some years ago, the idea was that they would nurture England players of the future, players of genuine class who would help to restore the national team to the glory days of 1966, our one and only World Cup-winning year, when Sir Alf Ramsey’s team sported four or five genuine contenders for inclusion in a World XI . But it simply hasn’t happened. A Tier One Academy costs a club circa £5million a year to run! We have more money, more science, more staff, more medical facilities than ever before and don’t get me wrong I think that science and medicine has a vital place in elite sport – but I don’t see any sign of a crop of young Englishmen who look likely to challenge the world’s best.
This massive investment in sophisticated dietary, fitness and training systems does not seem to be bearing fruit. In some ways, I wonder if the focus on perfection could be negative. For example, the pitches these Academy kids play on these days are pristine, their surfaces as smooth as snooker tables. A far cry from my days as an Everton youth player when we had to clear cow muck from a pitch at Tranmere or at Darwen, near Blackburn, where the toilet was a plank of wood across two oil drums. I’m not campaigning for a return to such conditions, but they were character-building and I do believe that playing on rough surfaces as a kid helps your ball control. I even suggested to an Academy coach recently that he consider preparing a poor pitch, maybe let the grass grow and allow a bobble or two, with the aim of improving basic skills. Look at the legendary players of my lifetime, the Peles, Maradonas, Rivaldos, men who, as kids, honed their superb technique on the dust bowl, stone-strewn pitches in the slums of South American cities. Perhaps our fascination with giving our kids the best of everything has some drawbacks. Does this for example have an effect on their Psyche? Are the young English players of today as mentally tough as yesteryear?
What I know for certain is that we don’t have young centre-foward capable of scoring 20-plus Premier League goals a season and ready to knock Wayne Rooney off his perch as England’s attack leader. Rooney, who has not managed the final step to becoming world class yet, remains far and away our best bet – and he notched only 16 goals last season in the league. You look at the current England squad and worry that the players who would frighten the best teams in the world are simply not there. Okay, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Manchester United’s Phil Jones have the potential and Liverpool right-back Glen Johnson has had the best season of his career. But the only world class player I see in the squad is goalkeeper Joe Hart. Oh, for another Paul Gascoigne or a Colin Bell, that great Manchester City midfielder, players who could run a match at the highest level. And, oh, for another goal machine, a Gary Lineker or an Alan Shearer. I noticed that midfielder Lampard’s 29th goal for England puts him just one behind Shearer in the record books. That is good for Frank, but it further highlights the crying need for a goal machine to lead the attack.