Matt Le Tissier always did do things a bit differently. Why look for a pass when you can just smash it into the top corner from 35 yards out? The scorer of 102 Premier League goals for this season's newly promoted Southampton, and a player who won only eight England caps – the last of which was picked up against England's opponents tonight, Italy – now wants to break with coaching convention.
He is sick of hearing that English lads are not as good as their counterparts on the continent. He is disenchanted by the way top professionals are patronised by boring coaching courses and sceptical about how smaller pitches and fewer players will really change anything if the attitudes of those training youngsters stay the same. Next week he launches his own "Natural Coaching" school in Southampton with trials for young players to take part in a season-long football education.
"There are talented boys out there. They can go on for ever about how the lads on the continent are more talented than ours but if you coach them properly there is natural ability in this country. I just don't think it is harnessed properly," Le Tissier says.
"They are trying to change things with smaller pitches and fewer players and hopefully it will make a difference but it's all very well to say 'right we are going to play on smaller pitches and with fewer players but I'm still going to pick the biggest boys so I can win the game', then nothing will change. Take out the winning and stick in the enjoyment and you will end up with far better players at the age of 15."
Twenty or so lucky boys will be picked from each age bracket and train once a week throughout the season alongside Le Tissier. The Natural Coaching players will not make up teams or enter a league. Instead, they will be encouraged to express themselves, experiment and enjoy the sessions while continuing to play for their school or youth teams. Le Tissier says if the project goes on to produce a superstar then great; if it just means everyone improves and a couple of players from the group end up having enjoyable non-league careers, which they might not otherwise have had, then that's fine too.
Not that he doesn't have his eye on higher things. Le Tissier says: "Kids have to be encouraged to learn how to play all over the pitch so that they improve their understanding of football. If you do that in youth football then later on you can play a formation that looks like a 4-6-0 on paper but dominates a game. If someone had said in England 20 years ago that you could win a tournament the way Spain did without a No 9 they would have been called crazy but their players are comfortable in lots of different positions, making it possible."
Le Tissier believes the current set-up not only fails to properly harness talented players but also deters a certain type of former pro becoming a coach – flair players don't usually end up as managers. "Whenever I say this it sounds really arrogant and I don't mean it to but it is just that when you have had years of somebody who is not as good as you with the ball telling you what to do you lose the will to go and do what that guy is doing. And the biggest obstacles are the coaching badges. You have to go through so much rubbish to get qualified.
"It's boring. I did level two and got halfway through it but I was so bored that I had to give it up. And there are four levels before you reach Uefa level A. It was so basic – like teaching someone to pass the ball 10 yards. I just thought: 'What am I doing here?' To be honest, I felt it was a bit patronising. After 17 years of playing professional football to then have to go through that and for them to say to me, 'OK but you've got to do this before you can qualify to coach anybody else.'"
So should the FA fast-track top players? "Their idea of fast-tracking is that you miss level one," he says. "I swear to you if what I did was level two I dread to think what level one is like."
And there is another problem with the current set-up: "If all coaches are taught the same things then they are going to end up coaching the same way. For me, the great coaches are the ones that do things a little bit differently. That's why with Roy [Hodgson] England will do all right, we'll get through qualifying but because we never do anything different we'll keep getting knocked out in the quarter-finals." Would the overlooked Harry Redknapp have had that something different? "I think so," Le Tissier says. "He's not afraid to play someone a little bit different to win a football match or differ the shape to alter the course of a game. I don't think we have got that with Roy."
Long before he first pulled on the No 7 shirt for Southampton, Le Tissier won a best player award at a Southampton soccer school as an 11-year-old – the prize was having his picture taken with Kevin Keegan and then manager Lawrie McMenemy.
Le Tissier went on to light up the Premier League that kicked off 20 years ago today and he still believes that it is the most exciting league in world football, although it could do its part to rejuvenate the national team by working harder to develop home-grown talent.
"We have a brilliant product," he says. "It might not be the most technically gifted league in the world but it's the most exciting. What we have lost is a lot of English players. In the first year of the Premier League, there were about 12 foreign lads that played and when you look back at, say, the Euro '96 squad and the amount of forwards that Terry Venables had to pick from – Alan Shearer, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Stan Collymore, Teddy Sheringham, Peter Beardsley, with Gazza as well – of the strikers who went to the Euros [this year], Wayne Rooney would perhaps have been part of the squad then but none of the others would have got a sniff.
"A lot of the foreign players have come in and done brilliant things – I've loved watching the Bergkamps, the Henrys and Zolas – but I think we have got too obsessed with relying on the foreign players instead of working on developing our own young players."
While working on the Natural Coaching project, Le Tissier will not miss out on Southampton's return to the top flight. The club's current owner's reticence towards recognising the club's past means that Le Tissier is not exactly welcomed back to St Mary's on matchdays. But he says: "I've bought a season ticket, so they will have a job keeping me away!"
He will be in Guernsey on Sunday and so will miss their return to top-flight action against champions Manchester City for whom Sergio Aguero won the title in the last seconds of last season supporting Le Tissier's theory that no league is as thrilling as the Premier League. "Kun" also reminds him of one of the big changes the League brought with it – names, and now even nicknames, on shirts.
"It wasn't until the second season that we had our names on the back of our shirts. That was making a big statement about how they wanted things to be – an indication that it was going to be more showbiz from then on in."
Would the man Southampton fans nicknamed Le God have followed Kun's lead and put one of his various monikers above his No 7? "I think I would probably have avoided Le God," he says.
Tonight, England play Italy and the man Southampton fans worshipped will be reminded of his biggest regret in football. "That header I had against Italy at Wembley in '97; I'd just like for that to go the other side of the post. We lost 1-0. That might have made a difference to my England career."
It was the last of his eight caps. Playing his part in coaching the next generation, he could still make a difference to the future of the national game.Reuse content