So, is this it? After years and years of casting envious glances at the technical abilities displayed by the likes of Spanish, French and German footballers, are we finally on the brink of producing generations of players comfortable with a ball at their feet? And if so, how has this happened?
Unprecedented success for England’s youth teams
England’s magnificent 5-2 victory against Spain in the Under-17 World Cup final recently provided the perfect ending to an unprecedented run of success for the FA’s age-group teams. Since Steve Cooper’s charges were beaten by the same opponents on penalties in the final of the European Championship in May, England have also been crowned world champions at under-20 level and won the European under-19 title, not to mention winning the prestigious Toulon tournament for the second year in a row.
England have won youth tournaments in the past – in 2010 its under 17s won the European Championships, but of that squad only Ross Barkley and Jack Butland have gone on to win senior caps. The star of that tournament was Connor Wickham, who mostly used his size advantage to bully smaller defenders. But it’s not just about the recent results – much of the satisfaction is gleaned from the way these teams now play, a result of a long process of transformation from grassroots upwards in how our kids are coached.
Most parents with kids in junior teams now will note a stark difference between how their children are coached and how we might have experienced junior football. There’s precious little desire to hoof the ball aimlessly forward and the win-at-all-costs mentality is a dying mindset – it’s all about patient ball retention, clever movement, one and two touch passing to feet and, crucially, development.
The belated introduction of futsal must also be a factor, as well as the obvious influence of elite Premier League coaches like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp – whose teams all play fast football with high physical intensity, espousing an expressive, offensive style with a relentless focus on positional play. Between them English players such as John Stones, Adam Lallana, Dele Alli and Harry Kane have benefited hugely from this progressive brand of coaching, and this influence filters right the way down to our starry eyed, Premier League-mad children.
It is all part of a new, joined up thinking that starts at grassroots. Howard Wilkinson, once derided as a footballing dinosaur, is the architect of English football’s modern youth development programme. As the FA’s technical director, Wilkinson designed the current system in 1997, in which 12,000 young footballers are now being trained by professional clubs from the age of eight.
It’s fantastic evidence that we have the best youth developers in the world in this country and they are developing the best players in the world. But it’s not a transformation – this has been a long progression that started with the introduction of academies and the building of St George’s Park. Once that was in place, it’s all been about the benefit of having a plan and sticking to it. Howard wilkinson
In Spain and Germany, players arrive in the senior national team with around 70-80 caps accumulated through the different age groups, something that – incredibly – hasn’t really happened in England. Vastly improved scouting networks mean many more players are being spotted at a young age – some might argue too young, but that’s another debate entirely – and nurtured through the age groups via greatly improved coaching. Coaching badges in this country remain much more expensive than in other European countries, so there is clearly still some ground to make up on our continental friends.
There’s never been a better time for our children to get involved in grassroots football
The recent triumphant England u17 squad included dazzling young talents such as Phil Foden and Rhian Brewster, and it will be fascinating to see their development unfold. Their pathways to first team action at club level are currently blocked by a glut of world class players, and all of this development could go to tragic waste if they can’t find a route into the Manchester City and Liverpool first teams – but there is a notable desire from both Guardiola and Klopp that both should, and will, make it. Foden in particular breaks the mould of what we’ve come to expect from English footballers – sublime technical ability, spatial awareness and game intelligence. He could go on to become a standard bearer for young footballers in this country.
There’s never been a better time to get our children involved in grassroots football. There is a quiet revolution taking place that begins in our parks and local football clubs – so if your son or daughter is into football, join a local club and unleash that potential!
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