Football: Wilkinson gets back to teaching

Phil Shaw finds the FA's technical director happy to be coaching again -and with the progress he sees towards a new age of enlightenment
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair famously articulated his chief priorities in government as education, education and education. In his dual role as the Football Association's technical director and coach to the England youth team, Howard Wilkinson's principal aims can be similarly summarised: development, development and development.

Wilkinson donned the metaphorical tracksuit again yesterday - it was way too hot for synthetic fibres - for the first time since leaving Leeds United a year ago. Supervising a five-day get-together for 40 of England's best Under-18 players at the National Sports Centre, at Lilleshall in Shropshire, his short-term target was to assess candidates for the opening Uefa Championship game against Yugoslavia at Rotherham.

The fixture falls on the anniversary of his sacking by Leeds, 9 September, though Wilkinson has neither time nor inclination to look back in anger or sadness. His long-term mission, set out earlier this year in a report entitled Football Education for Young Players: A Charter for Quality, takes up too much of his energy for that.

Its main recommendation was the establishment of academies, to be based chiefly within the Premiership clubs, where gifted adolescents could be nurtured into future internationals.

The centres would not necessarily be residential, nor, Wilkinson stressed, were they intended to destroy schools football. And they certainly would not be a production line for what he termed "football monsters".

Instead, he envisaged places where 12 to 14-year-olds could improve their skills under a regime of "enlightened control", playing just one match a week and a maximum of 28 a season.

Liverpool, where Steve Heighway has overseen the development of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Dominic Matteo and now Michael Owen, have embraced the concept enthusiastically. With the government deciding that football would not be included in the proposed British Academy of Sport, it appears the onus is squarely on others to do likewise.

"My soundings suggest about 20 clubs are making progress," Wilkinson said. "The surprising thing is the number of (Nationwide) League teams doing it. They see the academies as a chance to compete on a level playing field, because it's all down to the quality of care."

Under his scheme, youth development would become a crucially important profession rather than a lowly post given to someone as an afterthought. Each academy director would have to earn more comprehensive qualifications from the FA than a basic coaching certificate; Lancaster Gate would, in turn, act as a "service industry" furnishing the latest research findings.

"No longer can we get away with excuses about not having the time or the facilities," Wilkinson said. "We're going to provide those and, probably most importantly, continuity. In the past two years there's been a 50 per cent turnover of youth coaches at Premiership clubs, which is a nonsense. You wouldn't be too pleased if that happened with the teachers in your kids' school."

As evidence of how stability breeds success, he cited the unsung role of Eric Harrison, who has run Manchester United's youth policy since 1981.

However, in the headlong pursuit of success, with clubs needing to appease the Stock Exchange as well as supporters, isn't there a danger that clubs will pay lip service to Wilkinson's vision and go on signing ready-made first-teamers? "I spoke to Sir John Hall at Newcastle and he said of course they'll still buy players.

"Yet he also told me that in 10 years' time he'd like to see 11 Geordies running round St James' Park in the Premier League. He said: `I've only got one stipulation - they have to be better than the foreigners we could buy.' There's no reason we can't do that in this country. The people with nous recognise that we can't afford not to do it. Young players are our lifeblood."

The proliferation of overseas stars would not last forever, Wilkinson insisted. "They'll go somewhere else. No disrespect, but we don't want to be left like cricket."

To avoid that fate, the domestic game had to absorb the lessons of the Netherlands, Norway and Germany, where social circumstances were comparable in a way that Brazil or South Africa, with their culture of street football, were not. In those three countries the authorities had recognised that for children, development was more important than winning matches.

For all that, victory over Yugoslavia would be no less welcome for Wilkinson, after so long out of the frontline. His exhaustive schedule meant there had been no time for withdrawal symptoms, but he had enjoyed working with players again. "It's a nice refreshing change," he said, no longer the haunted figure of a year ago, "like having a round of golf."