When England were eliminated from FIFA World Cup 2010 the period of introspection and brutal self-analysis began almost immediately. Fabio Capello retained the manager’s job in spite of both his team’s appalling performances and questionable conduct in South Africa, and the eagerness for change that was now quite clearly out in the open. Capello’s tenure intact, a solid start to qualifying for UEFA Euro 2012 brushed long-term concerns under the carpet as the average England supporter, quite understandably, looked ahead to a routine qualification and the excitement of a major tournament less than two years away.
One of the most damning facts that nestled in the public consciousness in the wake of England’s bungling progress in 2010 and ruthless decapitation by Germany was the now infamous coaching statistic. It was revisited by David Sheepshanks, the chairman of St George’s Park, when the centre was launched recently.
Two years on from South Africa, the numbers of UEFA qualified coaches remains a sickening reality check and highlights the disarray into which elements of the English game have fallen.
Spain, arguably the greatest international side ever and certainly recognised as the stunning culmination of a long-term project, have 25,000 A, B and pro-licence coaches, according to Sheepshanks’ latest quotes at SGP. Italy – World Cup winners six years ago and Euro 2012 finalists at the end of a competition in which countless players demonstrated their versatility and adaptability – have 30,000 coaches.
Germany have 35,000 A, B and pro-licence coaches and are the example most commonly help up as an attainable challenge for the Football Association. The progress of Germany since their World Cup final appearance in 2002 has been remarkable and is based partly on changes to the domestic game that would be almost impossible to implement in England. But the superior technique and conveyor belt of young players making their senior German debuts is seen as a more relevant comparison than the distinctly different style employed by the Spanish.
If Germany are England’s example to follow, the FA is rightly concerned about its roster of UEFA-standard coaches. A, B and pro-licence coaches in England total fewer than 6,000, almost 30,000 short of Germany and around 20,000 fewer than world and European champions Spain.
The coaching gap is at the very heart of the systematic reform required to improve not only the national team, but the overall quality of English football right down to youth football and grassroots. A paucity of top-level coaches cannot be anything but detrimental, whether you’re a 15-year-old prospect at Manchester United or a primary school central midfielder. St George’s Park is, hopefully, a big part of the solution.
But why is it that England is so short of coaches? There are lots of courses and they’re not especially difficult to find, as long as the prospective coach is willing to give up some time. The FA has also improved slightly in its promotion of coaching as a pastime, a hobby and a career, although it could obviously do a lot more and presumably will do so now that St George’s Park is almost fully open.
In part, it’s likely to result from the same factors that influence the alarming drop-off in participation numbers for players and referees once a certain age is reached, or when a particular number of years of service is passed. I don’t know whether the lack of coaches is down to a loss of interest, or poor incentivisation, or negative experiences on the sidelines or in grassroots boardrooms and dressing rooms around the country, but it needs to be addressed.
A very brief straw poll of the kind of twisted individual that follows me on Twitter suggested that the cost of entry level coaching courses – typically £150 – had not been prohibitive. But there were strongly-worded assertions that courses are too expensive, and one can’t help but wonder how many more coaches the FA could develop at a lower price point or with more readily available grants. The diversity of coaches might just benefit too.
The pure numbers, of course, are only a part of the problem facing England. Lagging behind Spain and Germany to the tune of tens of thousands of UEFA-qualified coaches is one thing, but England are also being held back by factors rooted in the past, or in our traditional football culture. Winning is the only option from an early age, and the success of the bigger, stronger (and now faster) kids is a clear and longstanding indication of systemic impatience.
We’re also arguably hindered by the way the Premier League has developed. An enormous brand of global significance, the Premier League is frequently praised for its speed and strength. We talk too often about athletes, and how incoming foreign players will have to adapt to the pace and physicality of the English game. Just to put the anti-cherry on the cake, the absolute importance of the win remains, often at the expense of technical “flair” players and, crucially, playing style.
And so even if the Football Association succeeds over time in adding significant numbers to the English coaching corps, the revitalisation of the national team over the next ten or fifteen years also relies upon a rethink of children’s and youth football – changes here are already in motion – and the establishment of England’s new football identity. The good news is that this is not impossible. The bad news is it will be extremely difficult, and there’s no guarantee of success with other teams so far ahead.