You’ve heard it said that packing the Premiership with foreign players is harming the England national team by preventing our own boys getting the experience they need. Sam Allardyce takes a different view:
‘This is not a football problem, this is a country problem and a massive one,’ Allardyce said. ‘We cannot get the curriculum right to develop young sportsmen and women, so we are becoming a fat, lazy nation.
‘Our kids are the same, we don’t grow top sportsmen from a young age. Football cannot be expected to develop players from six years old, as it is, without the government intervening to set up proper quality identification programmes and ways of schooling young people of promise through the early ages to develop their talent. Until we get those basics in place our chances of breeding a World Cup-winning side are as remote as our chances of breeding a Wimbledon champion.’
According to Allardyce, then, we need to identify the best young players early, and then work on their development. We aren’t doing this at the moment.
I’ve been youth-team coach at Preston and academy director at Sunderland,’ he said. ‘That was 15 years ago or more, and the writing was on the wall then. The numbers aren’t there. If there were 10,000 kids playing 10 years ago, now there will only be 5,000.
‘Steve Gibson makes a valid point, but I’ve just signed on four young players for the future. None of them is English and it has cost us no more than a million euros. If you look at the price Gareth Bale at Southampton is being touted around at, somewhere in the region of £10m, it just shows the lack of young players being developed in this country.’
Good young English players are thinner on the ground than they once were, and so their value to clubs has increased and so their price. Because of this, clubs save money by buying in talent from abroad, either from markets such as Africa which are in no position to compete, or from countries with better development programmes and thus more players.
‘When I was at school I played sport pretty much every day, because I had been identified as good at it. Very often these days you’ll find even an academy kid who gets released at 18, instead of going down the leagues and coming back, actually packs in football. Doesn’t bother. Just forgets it. When that happens it suggests there is a major problem extending beyond football.’
Allardyce suggests future England managers are likely to have it much worse than McClaren, and even mentions Scotland and Northern Ireland as close-at-hand models of decline. ‘If we don’t see what’s happened to our neighbours – if we think it’s not going to happen to us – then we are fools,’ he warned.
‘It’s happening to Scotland, it’s happening to Northern Ireland, in many ways you could say it’s even happening to Eire, though they have still got some very good players.
‘Compare those countries with Australia, where football is only a minority sport but their development systems ensure good players keep coming through. Look how many Australians are playing in the Premiership. And Americans. Look where aspiring young tennis champions go to play and train, they don’t stay here.
That reference to America is interesting. Although the United States doesn’t have a club structure that is deeply culturally imbedded as we, the Italians, the Germans and the Spanish do, they have huge numbers of boys and girls playing the game at a young age.
When you have a spare moment, try googling something like “soccer tactics” or “football tactics” (the latter as a UK search) and see what you find.
You’ll find intense stateside interest in training, tactics, skills – and, relative to the size and importance of the United States as a footballing nation, all of the results will be from over there. And some of the material will be translations into English from German or Brazilian Portuguese.
Quietly, starting from nowhere, the number of US players in the European leagues has begun a precipitous climb. And they’re not all coming here. Freddy Adu, perhaps their greatest talent thus far, has been advised to go to Holland, not England, for the good of his development as a player. That failed to register much with our sporting press, but perhaps it should have done.
I register it here.
It’s a long time now since the volunteer base of British schools sport was shattered (during teaching disputes in the ’80s and ’90s) and the sell-off of playing fields continues regardless of other trends. It’s a tribute to those still trying that we are able to hold our own in sporting terms. If Sam’s right, that might not go on for very much longer.
This problem is huge and it is going to get worse before it gets better, because you can’t just whistle up a sports development culture. It takes years. When I was in the running for the England job I always said this would be the best time for me, not just because of my age but because of the group of players we’ve got. Behind the present group there are very few under-21 players playing regularly in the Premiership. You don’t have to be an expert in professional football like me to see that. That job brings enough criticism anyway, even with a good side.’
Perhaps we should be encouraging the players we have got to keep on playing for a bit longer. Can’t we lean on Scholes a little more than we’ve been doing? And then there’s this fellow, who seems to be back on form. Was he really so much worse than the other midfielders in Germany?