Football: Wilkinson's plan to groom national coach

After a weekend in which the spotlight on overseas players underlined the urgency of his task, Howard Wilkinson yesterday launched the Football Association's crusade to improve the quality of English- born footballers.

Wilkinson, the FA's first technical director, issued an ambitious and largely admirable set of proposals which, if carried through, would change the way that English players are developed beyond all recognition.

The most eye-catching suggestion is that the next national coach should be identified now and taken on to Glenn Hoddle's staff, probably as Under- 21 coach.

The most radical proposal is that the professional clubs should have total responsibility for the development of talented young players from the age of eight upwards.

In truth neither of these ideas, nor many of the others, are new. Most Continental clubs have run youth development for years, while Berti Vogts and Cesare Maldini succeeded to their current posts as coaches of Germany and Italy after running the Under-21 sides.

What is new is the belief, held by Wilkinson, that the practical will exists to adopt his "Charter for Quality". The FA's much criticised executives are certainly behind him, but one wonders about the ageing backwoodsmen on the FA Council who may see their influence under threat.

Wilkinson said they should all be happy with the report, but control of the England Under- 15 team is to be taken away from the English Schools FA, while other representative games - run by the ESFA and county FAs - will be greatly curtailed.

The aim is that talented young players should play no more than 30 games per year - mostly for their club academy teams.

"It is a sea change," Wilkinson said. "At the moment the best players play so many games they are sometimes sent home from coaching courses as they are too tired." Wolves' Stephen Froggatt would agree. He used to play 160 games a year and now suffers from repeated injuries.

All youth coaches are to be better trained and facilities improved. The national school is to close, superceded by similar establishments across the country. A national football centre will be set up with support services dealing with aspects such as the physical and mental welfare of players.

The next national coach - Wilkinson said he had someone in mind - is to be headhunted from January 1998. "Something as important as the national team should not be left in the lurch if the manager ups and aways, as has happened, or the FA dispenses with him," Wilkinson said.

Quite who will be prepared to give up a career in club management to work in Glenn Hoddle's shadow is unclear.

The most obvious omission is the absence of a commitment to impose mandatory qualifications for club managers. This is commonplace on the Continent but appears to have met with strong resistance here. Wilkinson said this was a "red herring" adding that just over 50 per cent of Premiership coaches have qualifications. Which means nearly half of them do not. Levels are higher lower in the league and at youth level.

The other flaw - predictably - concerns money. Premiership clubs can finance academies but lower division ones may struggle to staff and equip them properly - especially as it will he hard to retain players post-Bosman. There was no mention of how this would be overcome.

Coaches at junior levels also need incentives if they are to undertake courses which can be expensive, especially as pay rates are poor or non- existent. The game is awash with money yet Wilkinson was reduced to speaking hopefully of sponsorship.

The proposals are still a huge step in the right direction - if the FA Council pass them. The 90 councillors will debate the report at their summer meeting. Before then there will be considerable lobbying as the executive attempts to persuade the councillors, which has resisted all attempts at overhauling their archaic oligarchy, to accept the charter.

It would be a damming indictment of these men (and one woman) if they reject Wilkinson's exhaustively researched, well meaning and desperately needed proposals. "This is the biggest, most exciting and satisfying challenge of my career," Wilkinson said. "There is sufficient will to make change possible. This report has tried to be practical. No one should have a serious objection, no one is trying to take anything away from anybody." We shall see.

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