The blood that was spilt at Bloemfontein is still on the carpet; the great inquest into the national game has yet to properly start but this evening another England side play their first group game of another tournament.
The European Under-19 Championship is significant only in retrospect. Eight years ago, in Norway, it was won by a Spanish side that pivoted on a graduate of Barcelona's youth academy; one Andres Iniesta. Just as he would in the real European Championship final in Vienna six years later, Fernando Torres scored the winner against Germany, who could call on the services of Philipp Lahm. England were eliminated in the group stages.
The 2002 tournament was significant because it was the first to test the new academy system that was designed to enable England to build a World Cup-winning side, just as the French centres were credited with their triumph in 1998. Under the guidance of Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director, the clubs in the richest league in the world would groom and train their own products.
The youngsters would have to live within a 90-mile drive of the club, which at a stroke destroyed the Manchester United scouting system that even at Liverpool was reckoned to be the best in the country and which had unearthed talent from Bobby Charlton in Ashington to David Beckham in Leytonstone. But those who graduated would be trained specifically for professional football.
Between 2002 and 27 June 2010, when England entered the Free State Stadium, what became known as the Big Four invested lavishly in their academies. Annual running costs of those at Liverpool and Manchester United are around £3m to £4m, while it was reported that in his first six years as Chelsea's academy director, Frank Arnesen had spent £62m. In those nine years around £150m was spent on youth development by the Big Four and their contribution to the England side that was taken apart in Bloemfontein was zero.
The biggest clubs did not produce one England footballer rated good enough for a disastrous World Cup campaign. In contrast, Bayern Munich, Schalke, Stuttgart and Werder Bremen had given Joachim Löw the young, swift-moving skeleton of his side – Neuer, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Ozil, Khedira and Müller.
It is not that England are particularly bad when it comes to youth football. The Under-19 side who face Austria this evening reached the final in Ukraine last year. Partly due to Ipswich's fiercely talented Connor Wickham, England are reigning European champions at Under-17 level. It is what happens afterwards.
After the age of 16, the 90-mile rule disappears and United, to cite the Premier League's most consistent developer of young players, have used it to bring in talent from Italy, where you cannot sign a professional contract until you are 17, the likes of Federico Macheda arriving from Lazio. The payback to United is obvious; the benefits to England less clear.
As Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of development, said: "It was never envisaged that academies would be filled with anything other than Brits." Of the 28 members of Arsenal's Under-18s, a dozen are English. Of 57 members of United's reserve and academy teams, 27 might use the home dressing-rooms at Wembley.
The Premier League is English only in name. Forty per cent of its clubs are foreign-owned, 65 per cent of their starting line-ups are ineligible to play or England and 70 per cent of its managers are technically foreign.
So good luck to Noel Blake and his boys. They have more chance of lifting a trophy than Fabio Capello's men did and the Germans haven't even qualified. But should they reach the final, don't let anyone kid you that they have seen the future.Reuse content