Ken Jones: Managers' reluctance to accept Brooking demonstrates lack of vision
Thursday 15 January 2004
This mad sporting world is entitled to permit itself a small chuckle because the League Managers Association, a sensitive brotherhood, is exceedingly put out by the appointment of a celebrated player to oversee the technical development of English football.
After years of academic influence, beginning more than 50 years ago with Walter Winterbottom, who fired a widespread interest in coaching but never managed to prove that scholarship and sport could be congenial cultures, one would have thought that the responsibility given to Trevor Brooking would be welcomed.
That the LMA has raised objections and has asked the Football Association to clarify the extent of Brooking's remit, arguing that he does not possess a Uefa coaching qualification (Brooking has recently moved to put this right) suggests that there is more to this than meets the eye, certainly more than the acquisition of a license to coach at Premiership level.
I am not alone in thinking that Brooking's recruitment should be occupying the LMA less than a number of pressing issues, including the use its members make of shadowy agents, poaching of players and the failure to install a system of producing coaches who are not consumed by theory.
Certainly when the LMA's chief executive, John Barnwell, a sociable fellow of wide experience, states that Howard Wilkinson brought many years of hard work to the post of technical director - "obtaining the badges and knowledge about the physiological, technological, nutritional and other matters involved in a coaching qualification" - he conveys the impression that the wagons are being drawn in.
Going back to Winterbottom's time as director of coaching (combined with the role of England manager) the teaching of football became and has remained a contentious issue, although it no longer meets with the widespread opposition of the Fifties and Sixties when such eminent figures as Matt Busby, Stan Cullis and Bill Shankly felt that systematic development stifled natural ability.
Tuition at Old Trafford was mainly in the hands of Busby's perceptive Welsh assistant, Jimmy Murphy, who implanted practical values in the minds of youngsters whose skills had taken shape in the hurly burly of street football. "What did you first say to George Best?" Murphy was once asked. "Have you got a brother?" came the reply.
Busby, no coach but a master of fielding players in positions where they would be most effective, feared that "too much mind" would be the game's undoing. When asked by a fledgling manager for its secret, Shankly, who made the ability to control and pass a priority, said: "Never run the ball out of your own box. Don't let attackers turn, and if they do, track them down quickly. Always support the man on the ball."
"Is that all?' the pupil asked.
"Jesus Christ, what more do you want?" Shankly snorted.
After England's humiliation by Hungary in Budapest in 1954, their second within a year, the Arsenal captain, Joe Mercer, campaigned for change. "We've got to start right at the bottom," he said. "The schoolmasters, youth leaders. We've got to get everyone interested ... we must teach boys to master the basics: trapping, turning with the ball, passing, shooting. We've got to teach them how to play, how to get really fit."
Quaint as those words may now seem, they still have relevance if only because the present structure of attempted improvement through academies and centres of excellence has fallen woefully short of its targets.
Even allowing for absences due to club commitments, England have performed poorly at semi-senior and junior levels. The emphasis in schoolboy international matches is on battling qualities rather than individual ability. A system, that which the LMA enthusiastically supports, has long been in place but it does little to encourage spontaneity.
A distinguished club and international player who knows his way around a negotiating table, Brooking is eminently placed in my mind to identify flaws that the LMA overlooked in its heated response to his assignment. There are questions to be asked, questions the LMA's leading lights - most forcefully the Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce - are clearly not keen to address. If the system they advocate is so good, why has it failed to supply more players of Premiership standard? If the LMA supposes that it works, why do the clubs, Arsenal for example, cast their nets abroad for young talent? Why the heavy reliance on foreign players?
The LMA's reluctance to concentrate on graver matters than Brooking's brief expresses a curious form of reasoning employed not only in sports but in other quarters, including our legislative halls. Protecting its back, the LMA sees what it wants to see. Not one of them, not a member of the fraternity.
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