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Lessons of the Dutch school

Ajax coach may be the technical director English football needs to usher in the age of enlightenment; Ian Ridley assesses the impact of another woeful week in Europe
THE chief executive of the Football Association, Graham Kelly, travelled to Amsterdam on Wednesday as Uefa's observer at the Ajax v Grasshopper of Zurich Champions' League match. And there, under his very nose, may have been the scent of a solution to English football's odorous problems, which have wafted again through European competition.

It was not only in the innovative set-up of Ajax, so well captured by Gary Lineker's recent documentary for BBC television, Dreaming of Ajax, but also in the man standing on the touchline in the Olympic Stadium. There, his enlightened eye overseeing Ajax's 12th consectuve win of the season (42 goals scored, one conceded; a penalty) was Louis Van Gaal, their coach, or technical director to give him his official title.

Now it just so happens that the FA are currently seeking a technical director and the fortnightly events in Europe, as if the last five years were not enough, have intensified the search. A new man is needed to oversee a regeneration and re-education of the English game at all levels. He would, in Kelly's words, be "an ambassador for English football, capable of leading in technical development, accepted by professionals in the game, a man who has stature, presence, organisational and communication skills, able to disseminate information and promote coaching schemes".

Van Gaal's CV could match the job description. Once in charge of Ajax's revered youth development school, then assistant head coach, he took over the first team from Leo Beenhakker in 1991 and in the past four seasons Ajax have won the Uefa Cup, Dutch Cup and league and European Cup. He speaks excellent English.

In addition, he has been responsible for bringing on such outstanding - and saleable - young players as Patrick Kluivert, scorer of two goals against Grasshopper, Edgar Davits, and Clarence Seedorf, now with Sampdoria. Appeal to professionals? In the 1970s, Van Gaal, now 44, was a triple- A player, for Ajax, Antwerp and Alkmaar, that is. He might even be able to ally the talents of his countrymen Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp and Bryan Roy part-time to the cause.

The FA say that so far they have been merely gathering information and sounding out people with a view to compiling a shortlist early in the New Year before making an appointment after next summer's European Championship finals. Howard Wilkinson has ruled himself out, the Swiss manager Roy Hodgson's new job with Internazionale of Milan precludes his applying and Terry Venables has one or two other things on his mind.

More imaginative names from overseas have suggested themselves, such as Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. It is doubtful if they would take a pay cut to pounds 150,000 a year, however. The urbane and knowledgeable Gerard Houllier, technical director of French football, has already spoken to the FA about the demands of the job, I understand, while the former Scottish manager Andy Roxburgh, who holds a technical post with Uefa, has also been mooted.

Holland, though, looks an appropriate venue from which to seek technical assistance; they do know, after all, how to guard against flatness. The national team was Graham Taylor's do-I-not-like-orange scourge in the last World Cup qualifying and their clubs again demonstrated a hold over English counterparts last week.

PSV Eindhoven's penetrating fluidity was too much for a ponderous Leeds United and Feyenoord, a club in transition under a new coach Arie Haan and barely comparable to the talents of Ajax despite Ronald Koeman bringing them his commanding presence, comfortably held Everton, even if the home side were without their best attacking talents.

Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, though the latter's win in Auxerre also had something to do with a French inferiority complex when confronted by the English, did offer examples of home thought from abroad, but in the most prestigious competition, Blackburn Rovers gave us only more embarrassment. It now seems certain that an English club will fail to reach the quarter- finals of the European Cup for the fifth season in succession.

And this is not even to include Rangers' humiliation by Juventus in Turin. The Scottish game has its own problems, being investigated by its former FA secretary Ernie Walker - with some help from the Dutch guru Rinus Michels.

To blame the absence caused by the Heysel disaster is too simplistic. The problems of the English game can be traced right back to seven-year- olds who are not being introduced to the game correctly, skills being sacrificed on the altar of athleticism, as at the top. The coaches need coaching.

Much of the problem at the game's roots has been the deepening dearth of male teachers in primary schools. Though the FA and the English Schools Football Association have introduced schemes to help interested women teachers develop coaching skills, more parents have become involved, also as a result of school staff having less time for sport due to the demands of the national curriculum. This is written from personal, tracksuited, experience at my own children's school.

Some schools have even been unable to provide football, and with professional clubs only recently beginning - and being allowed - to involve themselves more in development, parent-led bodies such as cubs and youth clubs have been a main source of the game for children. The parents are usually well- meaning but often noisily misguided.

Frequently in the search for trophies rather than development, children play - make that overplay, in the case of the best - too many competitive 11-a-side matches, with huge goals at either end. There is stubborn resistance to the more beneficial eight- a-side on smaller pitches. And with little time, or expertise, for structured skills sessions, bad habits can be ingrained by the time more thought- out coaching comes along. The kids who can kick it hardest and furthest are the ones who prosper.

Trevor Brooking believes that the FA should launch a high-pro- file campaign, involving professionals, aimed at harnessing the enthusiasm of parents and educating them in new thinking. The former West Ham and England player has been coaching young players at summer "soccer schools" for some time and has been alarmed more than ever this year at declining standards.

"We can't just paper over cracks any more," Brooking said. "It needs major upheaval. Dads have an important role to play but they need help and guidance. We need to introduce some sort of initiative in which they won't feel out of their depth."

Some moves are afoot. The FA have produced their own programme for schools; the ESFA now have a co-ordinator, backed by Adidas, whose job is to teach the teachers in primary schools. Doncaster Schools even organised a coaching clinic for keen parents.

There have been rifts, however, between the two governing bodies with each at times suspicious of the others' schemes and being told what is best. The FA want clubs to be permitted more input, through centres of excellence, some of which are anything but excellent, say the ESFA. One needs to provide boys for football; the other wants to provide football for boys (and girls).

The heart of the matter is reconciling the differences, and not just of those two. There are Premier League and Football League, counties and country. As Trevor Brooking says of coaching for kids: "It needs to be brought under one umbrella, without splinter groups."

The will should be there. John Morton, vice-chairman of the ESFA, said: "There is a vast army of people who want to be involved, who want to improve the game in this country.

"We have to draw all these people together. I know we would welcome working with a new technical director, anybody who came in and could give us a fresh approach."

It will be for English football's new overlord to tie together all the disparate strands: young players, administrators, teachers, parents and professional players and coaches, to unite from bottom to top in common purpose.

Louis Van Gaal has already succeeded in such a system at Ajax. Would his club sanction an approach? Or would he want the job? The FA should be bold and find out.