Gerry Francis: England's culture of failure

After a lifetime in football, it was only recently that the author realised how far behind the national team are when it comes to preparing for internationals
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have been in football all my life. My dad was a pro, I captained England as a player and have managed in all four divisions. Despite all that experience, what I found over the last four months working with the England Under-19s opened my eyes.

Tomorrow, England's senior team are away to Estonia. Lose and we probably will not make the European Championship finals. Even if we get to the finals, history shows we are unlikely to win. That is not a dig at Steve McClaren - the problems go deeper than who is the England manager at any given time, much deeper.

When I started playing professionally, in 1968, England were world champions. We have rarely looked like winning a major tournament since and, after my experience of the international youth set-up, I will be surprised if we ever do again.

It was in February when Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's director of football development and a former England team-mate of mine, asked me to have a look at the Under-19s. He wanted me to consider the whole picture, both by giving Brian Eastick, the coach, hands-on support, and by examining the structure. I was involved with a series of friendlies and then, last month, the qualifying tournament for the European Under-19s Championship. This was staged in England. If you did not realise they took place, that is no surprise to me.

The first thing that struck me was the impossibility of preparing a side for the one-off matches the way you would at club level. There simply is not time to develop patterns of play. The squad you pick is not the one that turns up and you have one day to work with them. You are just throwing a team together.

Despite this, the team went into the tournament unbeaten all season, having played some good opposition. Confidence was very high. We had some fine players, including Everton's James Vaughan, Michael Johnson of Manchester City, Giles Barnes of Derby, Fabrice Muamba, who at the time was on loan at Birmingham from Arsenal and has now moved permanently, and Adam Hammill, the Liverpool striker who has been on loan to Dunfermline. And that is without those players who have moved up a level or two, like Micah Richards, Theo Walcott and Lee Cattermole. I had no doubt that if we had a full squad available, we would qualify for the finals and have a good chance of winning them.It did not work out like that. We lost to the Netherlands and Russia and, though we beat the Czechs, we will not be at next month's finals. Why?

The first problem was the timing. The qualifying tournament clashed with the Football League play-offs. That should have been thought through. It cost us half a dozen players, including Barnes.

Then there was the "injury" list. Eleven players were described by their clubs as "injured". Some, like Chelsea's Scott Sinclair obviously were. A number of other players, however, had played for their clubs on the last weekend of the season but were unavailable for the Under-19s. One we particularly missed, because we already had several strikers out, was Vaughan, who had been scoring regularly and playing well for us. I see he has been called up for this month's European Under-21s Championship finals.

Having been a manager for 17 years, I do understand the managers' viewpoints. It is their jobs on the line and I was always anxious when my players went away on international duty. But as a former England player I would never stop a player from representing his country. I know how exciting it is.

When it came to the friendlies, I think Brian, and the other age-group coaches, can and should accept the club comes first. You have too little time to work on the team anyway. But tournament football is unique. The players are away as a group and playing a series of pressurised matches in a short time. Penalty shoot-outs often feature. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to such situations.

We are handicapping our senior team by not making the most of the opportunities for them to gain that experience when younger. If we were qualifying for, and winning, these tournaments, at the age of 18, 19, and 21, players would go into the senior competitions with the belief that comes from having done it before. There is a difference between thinking you can do something, and knowing you can. Players need to develop that winning mentality. I felt very sorry for Brian, his staff, and the boys, who had worked so hard throughout the year that, with so many players missing, they were not able to show what they were capable of.

It is less of a problem at Under-17s, the age group at which we recently reached the European final - because those players are not involved in first-team squads. But at the later, crucial ages, we do not put out our best teams. It is ludicrous. People look at the results and say, "The kids are not good enough". They are, if we could only play our best players. The likes of Richards, Walcott and Cattermole, for example, once they have played Under-21s, are not deemed to be available for the Under-19s. Why not? Playing for them in a tournament, and possibly winning, would be good for their international education. On the same basis, consideration should have been given to playing Wayne Rooney - who is not involved with England in Estonia as he is suspended - in the Under-21s tournament. It should not be degrading to go back down a level.

The outlook is very different elsewhere. Countries like France and Italy, and on the world scene Brazil and Argentina, regularly play their top players in these tournaments and are very successful. The benefits are then felt at senior level.

It would be really beneficial to our international game to ensure we play the best sides in competitive matches. It would build our reputation internationally and give the kids that winning mentality. If they can handle it as teenagers, they will be prepared for it later on. The FA appears wary of standing up to clubs on the issue. It needs to, for the benefit of future England teams.

Italy demonstrate value of youthful experience

By Glenn Moore

The Italian squad who won the 2006 World Cup was a tournament-hardened group. More than a dozen of the party had won the European Under-21 Championship, a biennial tournament won by Italy in 1992, 1994, 2000 and 2004.

Such a statistic underlines the value of taking Uefa's age-group tournaments seriously. England have rarely done so. In various formats there have been 46 tournaments involving the three championships, currently U17, U19 and U21, in the last two decades. England have won one - the 1993 Under-18 Championship, hosted in England.

Robbie Fowler was the tournament's top scorer, with five goals. Darren Caskey, whose subsequent career was somewhat less notable, scored the only goal of the final in which England beat Turkey at the City Ground. Julian Joachim was the star while Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Sol Campbell also figured.

The most successful country in this period has been Spain, with 10 victories, followed by Italy and Portugal with seven, and France with six. Spain regularly blow up in tournaments but the other three nations account for six of the eight appearances by European teams in World Cup and European Championship finals during the past decade.

Comments