Triumph built on grass-roots reform

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The Independent Football

"I admire the English mentality because you are so strong, so hard working. But we have talent." So said the Benfica coach after his team had dismissed Arsenal from the European Cup in 1991. That Benfica coach was Sven Goran Eriksson and it would be interesting to have his analysis now that his England team, set alight by the marvellous talents of Michael Owen and David Beckham, sit at the top of their World Cup qualifying table.

In 1991 I had been chief executive of the Football Association for a couple of years and had become aware that young boys were not learning the game properly. Much organised activity involved too much pressure, while street football had long gone, so I resolved to try to make some changes. There was a lot of opposition. Youth leaders were understandably reluctant to rest the keenest and best boys. Smaller goals were needed on thousands of pitches and, given that the confidence of the professional game in the FA coaching department did not register on the scale, the size and complexity of the task facing those who cared about the nurturing of talent in the game – and there were plenty, when they had the time to think – was enormous. Getting the trains to run on time would have paled by comparison.

Almost immediately, as I recalled during the euphoric aftermath of that marvellous night in Munich, Graham Taylor suffered the consecutive indignities of seeing his team muscled out of the European Championship finals in 1992 by Sweden, then dismally failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He was neither blessed by fortune nor an abundance of talent. His one major talent, Paul Gascoigne, told one entire country, Norway, to "eff off".

At that point the roof fell in on English football. Everything was wrong, despite the fact that our Under-18 team won the European Championship, helped by a few goals from a young rascal called Robbie Fowler and there were exciting reports about a kid called Owen scoring goals galore in schools football. The League Managers' Association sent a delegation to Italy. The Professional Footballers' Association published a report critical of the Football Association's (alleged) reluctance to use ex-players in the coaching scheme. Some observers even blamed the newly-formed FA Premier League, which, they suggested, had been designed to remove all the flaws in the game. (Yes, Mr Mike Ingham of the BBC, I have a very long memory).

We hired Terry Venables to manage the England team and he managed to restore credibility. Unfortunately, his business reputation was not so credible and he resigned after losing patience with those in the FA who doubted him.

I have to say that I thought Terry Venables was the man for the job again when Kevin Keegan decamped last year. Like Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers' Association and John Barnwell of the League Managers' Association, I thought it a shame that we could not identify an Englishman capable of leading his compatriots. Thankfully Adam Crozier knew better. He knew, as indeed Terry Venables knows full well, that a coach does not have to rant and rave and jump up and down on the touchline to show that he is doing his job. But maybe Crozier also knew that it needed someone detached, someone from outside the mainstream of the English system, to demonstrate that there is indeed a different way, a road of calm assurance and dignity which those who follow will have learned from. The freemasonry and fellowship of the managers, and indeed of the players from whom they mainly derive, is no bad thing. But sometimes, we need that breath of fresh air which only an incomer can provide.

Before the match with Albania, I went out for a bike ride. It was teeming with rain and there appeared to be football on the local field. There were players, nets, a proper referee, a crowd lining the pitch and shouts of excitement from the boys who were playing. It was only on closer inspection that I realised that these 10-year-olds were playing a seven-a-side match on a small pitch. They won't be allowed to play full sides until they are 11. In the meantime they are learning the game properly and deriving maximum enjoyment from it.

I had not realised that Howard Wilkinson, backed by county football associations and youth managers who were initially so sceptical, had advanced the new structure so far. It is a structure which cares for the boys and their individual development – and for the game. With Mr Eriksson to put the icing on the cake, things look brilliant, as long as we remember that even Sir Alf Ramsey got the sack eventually.