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Is the English game all it's cracked up to be?

After a below par showing at it's last few international tournaments, both the England Senior Team and the Under 21 Team have failed to live up to expectations, despite more or less cruising through qualifying. Is the issue on the surface, or is it deeper than that? Darren Melling offers his thoughts.

Darren Melling coaches youngsters looking to make it as professional footballers
Darren Melling coaches youngsters looking to make it as professional footballers

What is wrong with the English game? At the top level, it seems not a lot. The Premier League has gone from strength to strength. The clubs within it have just signed the richest television deal in history, which should see each of them receive a windfall of around £60m this coming season.

FIFA rank the National team as fourth best in the world. How? I have no idea. It is all based on this co-efficient points system, which I do not even want to begin to comprehend and frankly, I don’t have the time to! All that I know is at the minute Spain are top, Germany second, Argentina third. No surprises there. However, further down you go England occupy 9th. What is even more puzzling about this system is that Brazil sits in 22nd place, propping up Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark and Ghana amongst others. In 23rd by the way Mali!

However, the English sides did not perform very well in the Champions League this season. Manchester United were knocked out in the last 16 along with Arsenal. Chelsea and Manchester City didn’t even escape their respective groups. The final was an all-German affair between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, Dortmund’s story being a remarkable one.

Poor financial management lead to "the black yellows" incurring heavy debts and resulted in the sale of their iconic Westfalenstadion. In 2005, they were within grasp of bankruptcy and reduced their staff wages by 20% per person in an attempt to stay afloat. They also had to sell some of their high profile players, including Tomas Rosicky who joined Arsenal.

Going into the 2010/11 season, Dortmund’s squad was young and vibrant. Given their financial plight some years prior, they invested time and effort into youth development rather than investing money in the transfer market, simply because they didn’t have it. They couldn’t borrow anymore to improve, and so under Jürgen Klopp, the youngsters were introduced to the Bundesliga. Dortmund won the league in 2011 with two games to play.

One year on, they defended the title setting a new points record of 81. They uncovered names such as Lucas Barrios, Mario Gotze, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, and Ivan Perisic amongst others. These were largely unknown prior to Dortmund’s rise to power in Germany.

So what is my point? Investing time in youth, youth coaching and development, coach education and recruitment works. Dortmund are proof that it works rather than blowing millions on Diniyar Bilyaletdinov!

Recently, England’s Under 21’s travelled to Israel after flying through qualifying for the Euro Under 21 Championships. They were drawn alongside Italy, Norway and the hosts. Prior to the tournament, the main obstacle in England’s way were Italy. However, due to some bizarre rule introduced by the FA, Stuart Pearce was unable to select eligible players like Alex McCarthy, Phil Jones, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Rodwell, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, as they had all been a part of the senior squad. Tom Ince was suspended for the first game, Wilfried Zaha carried an injury, Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley had injuries prior to the fixtures and would have been in Roy Hodgson’s squad, so Pearce’s options were severely limited.

The performances disappointed. There was no flow to their football, and against Norway in a must win game, Pearce played the whole game with one up front. They lost 3-1, a defender scoring the only English goal of the whole tournament. Arguably, England’s best player throughout the tournament was Birmingham City’s Nathan Redmond – only starting due to injuries and suspensions.

The England Squad comprised of 14 players who "play" for Premier League clubs. I use the term "play" loosely, as Jack Butland spent last season at Birmingham City, Declan Rudd is third choice behind John Ruddy and Mark Bunn at Norwich, Adam Smith is at Spurs (ever heard of him?!), Jack Robinson of Liverpool spent last season getting relegated with Wolves, Josh McEachran spent time with Middlesbrough on loan, Nathan Delfouneso was at Blackpool on loan, Connor Wickham hardly played for Sunderland last season, are you catching the drift here?

In contrast, the best side in the tournament for me have been Spain. Looking at their squad, 20 of them currently play for a side in La Liga, one plays for Benfica, One for Manchester United and their third choice keeper has just completed a loan spell with Wigan Athletic. David de Gea, Montoya, Bartra, Inigo Martinez, Sergio Canales (linked with us last season), Koke, Rodrigo, Thiago Alcantara, Tello, Morata, Alvaro Gonzalez, Muniain, Isco; all players familiar to me because they are playing in their senior teams. In addition, the senior Spanish side has capped some of them.

Just how important do the FA consider the Under 21 side and their tournaments to be then? Well, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott flew to the other side of the world to play a friendly against Brazil the week before the tournament started. Walcott played 83mins, Chamberlain came on and scored, Jack Rodwell came on for SEVEN minutes. They all then flew back to begin their summer break.

Norway, however, had three players play the DAY BEFORE the game with England for the senior side before flying to Israel. Russia the same. Holland’s side was full of youngsters who had been capped fully, including Leroy Fer.

Why couldn’t the players I referred to earlier be "excused" from the Ireland and Brazil friendlies to sample an international tournament before the World Cup in 12 months’ time? On the other hand, if Hodgson was adamant for them to play, why not follow the lead of Norway and Russia and have the players pay for the full senior side before flying them into Israel. It wasn’t like they were playing the day before in Brazil was it?

Digging deeper is where the biggest thorn sticks in my side though. At academy level, there is no question that Everton possess the best facility in the country in Finch Farm (Well, the City Council do now, but that’s another article!). From Under 7’s upwards, the teams are prospering, and at schoolboy and youth levels they are littered with international representatives. In contrast, Liverpool don’t seem to be doing so well lower down the ages. When Rafa Benitez had a complete overhaul of their Academy, he adopted the approach of buying the best young players to represent the academy, teach them the "Liverpool Way" and help them break into the first team (a la Steven Gerrard). In my opinion, it has been more a failure than a success for them.

Then there is the issue of recruitment for coaches. The FA spent millions upon millions of pounds on St George’s Park with the hope of emulating Gerard Houllier’s Clairefontaine. Brilliant in principle, but it isn’t just the facility; it’s the people within that facility who make it what it aspires to be.

Plenty of top coaches have slipped through the academy net and ended up in offices, building sites and so on, simply because they don’t know anyone who is employed by whatever club. Some people set out in coaching purely because they enjoy it. Others want to try to make something out of the game they love by doing something that they are good at, in the hope of rising to the top of the coaching ladder. However, the lack of opportunity has you questioning, "Why bother?"

Recently, I have applied for jobs within the FA and with various clubs in the Premier League. I have ticked every box on the person specification. However, I haven’t even been shortlisted. Granted, there may have been more "paper-strong" applicants than me, but surely not every time in the past five years? In a conversation I had recently with someone, they told me the most important aspect of an interview for a coach was the practical session. I completely agree. Yet most applicants now have to go through a pen pushing exercise and if they don’t pass, they don’t set foot on the training field. I spoke to someone else with whom I had applied for work. They said they weren’t aware I had even applied. When I asked who vets the applications they said HR. So, someone in an office job with no qualifications in football coaching vet candidates on their application form and then pass the applications they deem "suitable" to the Academy staff.

The FA is the same. Don’t get me wrong, the volume of applications for jobs at the FA are going to be higher than jobs at clubs. However, the same sort of principal applies. "His mate got that job; it was earmarked when they advertised it. In fact, they only advertised it because they HAVE to." No, they don’t, just create the position internally and then promote/redeploy from within.

If the process was more transparent and less cliquey, then maybe the amount of outstanding coaches currently coaching the next Wayne Rooney would increase.

The process of gaining your coaching badges within the English FA is farcical. I know this because I have been through it. It’s an absolute money making machine. I’ll talk you through mine.

My Level 1 coaching badge was an attendance course – I attended, I passed. I had to demonstrate I could put some cones down and kick a ball. Nothing strenuous, except the prospective coaches when not coaching are the players for each other’s session! Cost was £150 and I completed mine over 2 days, including demonstrations, assessment and multiple choice written test.

Level 2 was a huge step up with regards to the technical side of the game and was what I wanted to learn at that time. I was working for Chester City & Everton on part-time terms with decent players, including Chester City’s Youth and Reserve sides. The course focused on the technical aspects of the game; passing, turning, running and dribbling with the ball, shooting, defending 1v1, 2v2, and a bit of goalkeeping too. It also introduced small sided games (4 v 4), but only really focused on stopping goals rather than scoring them. I had to be able to demonstrate effectively so everything I was coaching I had to be able to do myself. The only thing I was faulted for was when I walked five steps onto the pitch during a small game that was going on. But he said this was a minor thing, which I did automatically and only did only once. There are also the written modules which do take some time to do. You see the difference in making the step up? Huge. Total cost of this course was £390.

The Level 3 Certificate is the UEFA B Licence. Again, the step up here was huge. There is NO coaching the technical side of the game, as it assumes you are working with Elite footballers who are already very competent passers, shooters, etc. There is a written element to the course and it is sizeable. The course takes around nine months to complete in contrast to the two days for Level 1, and three months for Level 2. The practical elements are split into three – Functions, Phases and Small Sided Games (8 v 8). I really enjoyed this course. However, no matter whether you were given a function, phase or SSG, the only thing that differed was the setup.

If you received a defensive topic, such as compactness in the back four, then the focus was on defending properly (first man – second man – rest of the unit, etc). There was plenty of teaching and demonstration from the tutors on the defensive topics. They got Billy Stewart in to deliver the goalkeeping element (who at the time was working with Liverpool and now works at Everton). However, there was no formal teaching as far as the attacking side of the game goes. The "key points" were finding space, support, and end product. There wasn’t anything about passing, one touch play, intense movement off the ball, etc. It was simply left to the players and if they didn’t score then the coach would try to coach something. At one point, one of the players tipped the coach off and said he would shoot from distance and miss, so that he could try to coach something!

The cost of the B Licence was over £500.

I want to do my A Licence. However, it is a residential course at St George’s Park and is more than double the price of the B Licence.

Now, the FA have introduced Youth Modules, which by all accounts are good. They have also introduced a requirement for current licensed coaches to fulfil an amount of CPD hours to keep their licence active. Nevertheless, these CPD "events" come with a cost attached to them. Moreover, how relevant are they? So, for a Licence that cost me over £500 to remain "active" they now want me to pay a few more quid on CPD events. No thanks.

And where does getting these badges actually get you? Well, when I did my B Licence I was working for a Local Authority, coaching and developing football on a fixed term contract. Other people on the course worked for Everton, Liverpool, Tranmere Rovers, Wrexham, and others had simply chosen to attend because they wanted to. When I look around clubs now, I know that I am more qualified (not only in football) and have more experience than some of the coaches they have working for them, yet the difference is they know someone who works there!

The EPPP require coaches at Premier League Academies to have a certain level of coaching qualification. Some coaches at Academies don’t, and therefore aren’t supposed to be coaching the youngsters. But they do. Maybe therein, lies the problem.

There is no question that the facilities are top drawer. The Academy in Kirkby, Finch Farm, Carrington, Cobham, St George’s Park, not to mention the one City are throwing up at SportsCity. But, you can have all of the facilities in the world. If the right people aren’t in them then the national game will suffer.

From a somewhat biased point of view, I have to say that the Everton Academy is top notch. The current crop of England U20’s consists of FIVE Everton Youth, including Ross Barkley. We also have some of the best young sides in the country and constantly win tournaments around the world. The record of production is outstanding. From the likes of Tony Hibbert, Leon Osman, Francis Jeffers, to Wayne Rooney, the walls of Finch Farm are laced with players who have represented the first team as Academy graduates. Long may those walls be filled.

What do you think? Comment below..

Follow me on Twitter - @DarrenMelling