The offices of Greg Dyke, the chairman of the Football Association, and Paul Lawrence, head of football at Copland School, Wembley, are roughly half a mile apart. One is situated on the upper floors of Wembley Stadium with views through the vast glass frontage over the north-west sprawl of London’s suburbs. The other, as I recall, does not have any windows.
Sometimes, it is worth stripping back English football, away from the scandal and the triumph, the big names, the vast salaries and the equally monstrous egos, and taking the game back to its most basic level.
In short, how can the English footballer flourish in the modern game, and the Premier League in particular? That is what Dyke’s FA commission has been set up to establish. Essentially, the business of turning young English players into professional footballers accomplished enough to represent their club and country at the highest level.
That is where Lawrence comes in. He has been at Copland School for more than 20 years – since long before they razed the Twin Towers and raised the arch that looms over the school’s playing fields – coaching generations of boys and girls and running their football teams.
We are talking about one of the most deprived areas of London, and a school that takes its pupils from the Stonebridge Park, St Raphael’s and Chalkhill estates which are the streets around the North Circular Road and Harrow Road junction where – no disrespect – you would be mad to leave your car on matchdays.
Of all the boys Lawrence has sent into professional football, the biggest name has been Raheem Sterling, from St Raphael’s, who, admittedly, still has much to prove. I got to know Lawrence when researching a piece about Sterling, but there have been many others, including Kerrea Gilbert, who played a handful of first-team games at Arsenal, and, most recently, Reece Mitchell, an academy boy at Chelsea and England Under-16 international.
In all the list of boys from Copland who have gained scholarships at clubs like Watford, Queen’s Park Rangers, Luton Town and Barnet, he estimates around 20 have made some kind of living from football. It averages out at one a year. Not a bad ratio.
Lawrence was told last month that he is being made redundant. The school has lurched from crisis to crisis, including the trial of a former headteacher for a £2.7m fraud (he was acquitted but pleaded guilty to false accounting) and a failed Ofsted report. It is being pushed into academy status with an interim executive board who have cut 32 support staff, of whom Lawrence is one.
The local authority, Brent, whose jaunty “borough welcome” signs feature the Wembley arch prominently, would not discuss the case in any detail. It issued the following statement: “The leadership of the school is consulting staff on a new structure which will deliver the curriculum effectively while making good use of resources. Sports remain important for the school.”
Of course, none of this is Dyke’s fault. In fact, of all the auspices of grassroots football, schools sport is the government’s remit. The individual story of Paul Lawrence is a local issue and in the grand scheme of things would not ordinarily pass the desk of the great and the good.
Yet one suspects that the journalist in Dyke will consider the elements of this story irresistible. The dedicated coach working yards from Wembley Stadium, with an ex-student in the current England squad, made redundant in the same month as Dyke sets up a commission to find out what the hell is wrong with English footballers.
It is almost as if someone was trying to tell the FA chairman something. What exactly? That next time the government tells professional football to get its house in order, the FA and the Premier League might consider asking what the government is doing for football.
When the House of Commons select committee on education reported on the state of school sport in July, a year since the London Olympics, their findings were depressing. The government’s decision to cut the School Sports Partnership in 2010, which cost £162m annually, had a major effect. It found one million students did not get two hours’ sport a week. That one in three schools had reported a decline in sports participation in the past two years.
In terms of political responsibility for the cuts to Copland’s football programme, Brent is a Labour council implementing coalition-imposed spending, so take your pick of any one of the three.
The case of Lawrence and Copland School is only a tiny snapshot of what is going on in the country where, no doubt, there are still thousands of committed teachers running school football teams. The received wisdom is that the best players will always find their way into the professional clubs’ academy system, where they will get the best coaching.
That may be true to an extent, but where do these boys start? Sterling was spotted playing in one of the junior school competitions that Lawrence would organise for the local community. The big London clubs have, over the years, beaten a path to Lawrence’s door to ask him to keep tabs on players.
Perhaps most importantly, some of the most difficult children learn that representing their school at football comes with responsibilities. One of Lawrence’s Copland teams recently played, and won, a cup tie without six of their best players, all banned from playing because their behaviour had failed to reach an agreed standard. Tell that to the next Premier League manager moaning about suspensions.
Dyke could do a lot worse than stroll over to Copland for lunch and a chat with Lawrence about how the FA might remind government, local and national, of their responsibilities to English football and the schools that serve it. But he’d better do it quickly, because this good man will be looking for a new job by Christmas.
Don’t Panic: Morrissey’s the man for 2014 song
Now that England have qualified for the World Cup finals, it is time to give due consideration to that crucial element of next summer: the official World Cup song. To my mind, there is only one man for the job and he underlined his credentials last week with the release of his long-awaited autobiography. It’s Morrissey, of course.
There will be people who say that Britain’s greatest living singer/lyricist (granted, it’s my opinion) will only go and write something too risqué for the FA and might well say something borderline offensive to some of our European cousins. To my mind, that is exactly why we should get Morrissey on board.
As with all our mercurial footballers – Paul Gascoigne, Wayne Rooney – with Morrissey you accept the best and live with the rest. No one understands the English condition better. And the Germans haven’t got anyone who can get close to him.