Ever since the Duke of Wellington didn’t actually say it 199 years ago, a persistent myth has done the rounds that the Battle of Waterloo wasn’t won in Belgium but “on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow”.
Yes, both those schools’ reputations for curious sporting pastimes are sizeable, so it is maybe possible that early 19th century games lessons were spent bayonet charging one another on horseback, bravely assisted by the Duchy of Brunswick, but it’s probably fair to deduce that the more indisposable skills that brought victory that day were learned elsewhere.
Sadly we don’t go to war with the French just for the fun of it anymore. Nowadays national glory really is won on the playing field not the battlefield.
So when – and it is now a matter of when, not if – England win the World Cup in the not too distant future, a new myth will emerge, possibly put about by the FA chairman Greg Dyke: that it was won on the playing fields of Barnet and Kidderminster.
For that is where the weak younglings of the Premier League B teams, no longer left to sour in the reserve team or out on unproductive loan spells at technically unenlightened lower league clubs, will be transformed into world beaters, forged in the fires of competitive football.
The proposal is by far the most serious of several recommendations published this week by the Football Association to address the undeniable fact that not enough 17- to 21-year-old English boys are playing competitive games, which Dyke and co have come to believe is the most serious cause of the perpetual disappointment of life as an England fan. Roy Hodgson will name his provisional 30-man World Cup squad soon enough, and it will constitute almost half of the 66 Englishmen playing regular Premier League first-team football.
Yes, the cupboards are looking particularly bare at the moment, world-class talent-wise, which explains the report’s timing, but it is worth remembering it hasn’t always been thus, and yet, save for a moment of temporary insanity from an Azerbaijani linesman 48 years ago, we have always been, whisper it, crap.
Who remembers September 1983, when an England team comprising almost entirely European Cup winners – Shilton, Francis, Neal, the list goes on – lost 1-0 to Denmark at Wembley and waved goodbye to qualification for the 1984 European Championship?
Look up, if you dare, England’s first-choice XI at the 2006 World Cup, and wonder how many of those players would have walked straight into any team in that tournament and then remember just how abominably we played, scraping past Ecuador, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago.
Two years later no fewer than 10 – 10 – Englishmen lined up against one another to start the Champions’ League final, then flew home from Moscow to watch Euro 2008 on their TV sets. (Well done if you can name them all, by the way. The Manchester United right-back is the tough one).
The proposals, should they be voted for, which they almost certainly won’t, would involve 10 Premier League ‘B’ teams made up almost entirely of 17- to 21-year-olds joining a new league below League Two, merged with 10 teams from the Conference. It’s then hoped the usual patterns of promotion and relegation would disperse them up and down the football pyramid, though they couldn’t go higher than League One, and must always remain a league below their parent club. It’s not as straightforward as you may imagine, given Reading, Fulham and Wolves, for example, with their Category A academy status, would be eligible to start one should they be in the Premier League in 2016.
If big club gets relegated from the Championship and little club is top of League One, not only could it not have gone up anyway, but it gets relegated automatically.
“Balance your interests,” Dyke has asked Football League fans, those interests being in his view split between the fortunes of their own week-in week-out club, and the national side at the big tournaments.
The degree to which the fans of Leyton Orient and Chesterfield and Grimsby and so on have their loyalties split is already highly debatable. But what isn’t is that almost all Football League fans speak in highly vituperative terms of the all-conquering Premier League, with its official tomato juice partnerships and Uzbekh Supporters Clubs and stock market listings, and that’s before some team of teenagers turn up in their Manchester United kit to practise their training drills on them and turn the promotion and relegation battles into a pub league style farce.
It works in Spain and Germany, they say, but does it? Barcelona B are probably about to finish third in the Spanish second tier, playing all their matches in front of almost no one, and ineligible for promotion. No other sport and no other country has lower league football like England. It’s worth preserving.
For the scheme to have been considered a success, all that the FA requires to happen is for the number of Englishmen getting regular football in the Premier League to rise from 66 to 90. Will that be enough to reverse England’s fortunes? Well the last time we were consistently at such a high figure, was 1999-2000, a season rounded off by Phil Neville ensuring we wouldn’t make it out of the group by clattering into a Romanian’s legs in the last minute in the Stade du Pays de Charleroi – not far from Waterloo, as it happens.