On an afternoon when Fabio Capello admitted that any English aspirations to play football like the 2010 World Cup favourites Spain are futile and that his side should not pretend to be what they are not, a telling insight was delivered from the man seeking to develop the country's future stars on how England's development programme is lagging way behind the Spanish system which has nurtured the prodigious talents of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
Sir Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's director of football development, revealed yesterday how he and several FA coaches on the Uefa's technical study group had been invited to Spain three weeks ago and discovered how the Spanish Football Federation is making player development its top priority. "That's the key to their success, through all the development groups [they have set up]," Brooking reflected. Capello did not join Brooking, England Under-16 head coach Kenny Swain and the Under-17 equivalent John Peacock in Spain, though a telling result earlier this season cannot have passed him by. Spain Under-19s beat England 3-0.
Argentina, the other nation whose emphasis on youth development most impresses Brooking, have just clinched the prestigious Toulon Under-21 tournament in France. But the picture in England is radically different. Brooking is attempting to run the FA's football development unit in the face of the Premier League and Football League clubs who are steadfastly resisting his coaching initiatives to pursue their own interests.
Brooking's frustration led him to tell the Independent on Sunday last weekend that the leagues would "love him to disappear" and yesterday he did not disguise the gulf between the homogeneous Spanish approach to developing talent – "coaching and player development has been the No 1 priority; you can see that link in their teams," he said – and English one. "The priority [of our clubs] is this year, and survival in the league, and if they have to, get a loan striker in for the last three months to keep you up, rather than youth development."
Brooking's most immediate battle is to get the National Football Centre near Burton built, eight years having elapsed since it was first proposed. But his toughest struggle is with the clubs happy to take £8m in FA youth development grants but unwilling to dilute the power of their own academies. "We have had academies and centres of excellence since 1997 and there is a fantastic amount of knowledge in all our clubs," Brooking said.
"But we have a system that has never been changed, for 12 years. [We] have 92 little subsidiaries doing different things to a different level. I would like the governing body [the FA] to be a catalyst to pull it all together and use those good examples that are there."
Brooking did not even say much about the effect on the development of England's best 18-year-olds when they cannot get games at clubs packed with expensive imports. His observation that "[Under-21 coach] Stuart Pearce watches more Championship than Premier League games because players are out on loan" summed that up. The results culture at grassroots' level is just as debilitating. "The dad who wants [his child] to win [does so] at the expense of development and it can destroy the whole ethos of passing out from the back," Brooking said.
The potential riches at the nation's disposal are visible, here and there. Arsène Wenger's realisation that 19-year-old Kieran Gibbs, deployed as a midfielder 12 months back, was actually an excellent, fast, attacking left-back and his willingness to use him as one is encouraging. Glen Johnson has also emerged as a player of huge worth to England, given his rebirth at Portsmouth. There are possibly more of these in Brooking's Under-16 squad – his best ever, he says. But Spain cannot be touched due to the infrastructure it has and England lacks.
"The senior side's success shows we can be technically good," Brooking said. "My concern is that for 60m people we need to have better depth. If we did invest more [in youth development] we would have a chance of being successful for the next 10-20 years."