Early Doors

Mind the gap

Early Doors

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A British TV reporter's reaction to England's barely deserved 1-1 draw to Spain at the Euro U21 tournament in Denmark provided a fascinating insight into the reasons behind the clear quality gap between the national game of football's main protagonists.

After Daniel Welbeck struck late on to somehow claim a point after Spain dominated possession, Pearce was asked if it was a draw that felt like a win.

The question should have been that, given the incredible amount of work Pearce has put in over the past five-odd years, whether being played off the park by a side seeded below them felt like defeat.

Nothing should be read into the reporter's intent - it was, after all, simply another example of SkySports peddling the anodyne - but the sentiment exposed the tip of the iceberg regarding the relative paucity of options in the English game.

ED says 'relative' because it is clear that England is no San Marino, or even Scotland: it boasts one of the top three leagues in the world, a large pool of athletic talent, two of three of the top club sides in European football and a handful of world-class players.

But there is a clear sense of underachievement given the strength of the Premier League, and the elevated status of its players.

'Did it feel like a win?' - an obsession with winning at junior levels is the bane of English football.

ED is not claiming that fostering a culture of losers is a long-term strategy for success, or that there is anything wrong with England's junior national teams winning tournaments: indeed, there is clear evidence that successful national youth teams translates to senior levels, as shown by the all-conquering Spain and, to a lesser extent, Jogi Loew's German young guns, most of whom were involved in winning that last U21 Euros.

However, the focus on winning in England - and the pressure on junior coaches to achieve short-term goals at the expense of long-term development of skills - is a clear problem and one that has been highlighted by the FA as part of Gareth Southgate's brief to restructure coaching in the country.

It is not a new theory: that, at schools and junior club level, coaches feel pressure to get results so focus on players likely to achieve those results i.e. physically developed lads who are big for their age.

Furthermore, and with winning in mind, these kids play 11-a-side, on larger pitches - with larger goals and longer passes - at the expense of improving first touch, technique, maximization of space and a simple enjoyment of the game that, for example, Spanish football culture asks of children.

Domestically, at least, it works: British and, to a lesser extent, the wider family of northern European football is more tolerant of a physical approach, with referees allowing aggressive tackling and supporters less offended by a more agricultural tactical approach to the game.

But this does not translate on an international stage, and certainly not at senior level, where UEFA and FIFA have created a new type of football that deliberately favours the short-passing, aesthetically-pleasing 'Latin' game (although ED believes its most successful proponents, Barcelona, got their blueprint from Dutchman Johan Cruyff); FIFA-ball, as ED will call it, also penalises an aggressive, aerial approach, through strict sanctions for strong or late tackling and the directive to punish aggressive attempts to win headers.

Many on these shores yearn for the good old days, when men were men and Jackie Charlton could nut you without censure - but those days are gone, and they ain't coming back.

It's not just the kids in Spain that play small-scale football on small pitches: having spent some time over there ED found that the only way for an adult to enjoy some good old-fashioned 11-a-side kick-and-rush was to join an expat league largely comprised of Irish pubs and professional David Beckham stalkers. Otherwise it's 100 per cent Futsal, with no slide tackling and a head-height rule.

Five-a-side culture is, admittedly, taking off in the UK - although more among adults in larger towns and cities, for whom time and space are a premium on and off the pitch.

In Spain, the entire grassroots football culture, from babies through schoolkids and even to adults, is geared around developing skills, with an end-game that is matched by the development of the rules of the sport.

Which leads ED to another point - the English FA's new approach is admirable, with Southgate given the responsibility to change the coaching culture at youth and grassroots level to create technical players, with ability valued over physicality.

But this has been going on in England for a few years now, specifically between North London and Hertfordshire, as Arsenal develop a generation of young players that could eventually rival Barcelona's 'cantera'.

And here is where it all falls apart. ED has no doubt that, lame celebrity drinking culture notwithstanding, the 'next generation' of English players - whether trained at Arsenal or as part of the Southgate project - will boast a wider pool of 'technical' players than days of yore.

The problem is that none of this so far has been in any way geared towards - or even vaguely accepting of - England's national team(s).

The Premier League and its clubs hold the balance of power over players and even, given its board membership, the FA - everything is geared toward protecting the clubs, with international football an irritant, an annoying aside that keeps the fans happy but is an unwelcome distraction from such crucial tournaments as the Carling Cup.

How on earth are England's U21s supposed to beat the likes of Spain when, already at a technical disadvantage, their three best players aren't even there?

The dubious fitness concerns over Andy Carroll and Micah Richards were bad enough, but Jack Wilshere is fit as a butcher's dog and probably the only English player right now who can lay claim to matching the Spanish technically while possessing a very English temperament and aggression.

There was a crushing inevitability about Wilshere's withdrawal from these championships. It's happened before - most notably with David Bentley (remember him?) - and will happen again.

Poor Pearce must be wondering what the point is - 'Psycho' is quite possibly one of the lairiest men in English football but not even he can influence the clubs, who are out of control when it comes to prioritising their own interests over England's.

One cannot simply claim that this is a necessary evil on account of the relative lack of importance of a junior tournament with respect to next season's club campaign - if you want to reduce the workload on players then introduce a winter break and get rid of the Carling Cup, not ban players from representing their country. End of.

Not only does a mid-season break aid recovery and interrupt the incessant toll on the body of an otherwise continuous season, but winter is the time when players are more likely to get injured due to the effect of the cold on muscles and pitches.

The setup of the English football is geared almost in its entirety towards profit the clubs and broadcasters: why else would we not only play through but increase the workload during December and January?

This is why, technically inferior or not, English players are always knackered come the summer, whether for the major international tournaments at which they so frequently flop, or the June qualifiers in which they underperform.

And until the FA has the 'cojones' to dictate and not be dictated to, it will remain thus.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I have just bought him three players of his choice. Having secured him the fourth one, Koevermans, I get an email on Sunday. It speaks volumes. We spent £40 million, supported McLeish all the way, and what we get is a relegation and a snub when Carson (Yeung) gave him unwavering support" - Birmingham chairman Peter Pannu is angry with Alex McLeish for walking out and possibly joining Aston Villa.

FOREIGN VIEW: South Korea's football league will extend its two-week 'plea bargain' window for players to confess to match-fixing after an embarassing scandal that has seen 10 players arrested and one apparently commit suicide. Bookmakers have also stopped taking bets on the domestic league, at the request of teams.

COMING UP: One thing as constant as England's underachievement in football is the unpredictability of its weather. Fingers crossed the final of Queen's, between Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, will take place today after Sunday's wash out. That is live in text and moving picture here and on British Eurosport.

Back to football and the voting begins for our Premier League Best XI's greatest centre-backs, while Paul Parker wades in with his tuppence worth later.

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