Wimbledon `99: Regions to be cheerful as school breaks up

The national ideal is suddenly a thing of the past. By Steve Tongue
Click to follow
IT SEEMED such a good idea at the time that two major British sports took it up within 12 months of each other: identify the most promising children at an early age and send them to a specialised school, where they could complete their formal education while receiving expert tuition. Music, ballet and drama schools had long all existed, so why not have hothouses for individual sports?

Thus were the Lawn Tennis Association School and the Football Association National School born in 1983 and 1984 respectively. Next month, with remarkable symmetry, both will close.

Not that either sport is admitting failure. Circumstances have changed, they claim; what will happen now is much more of the same, but on a regionalised basis; and look at the alumni - Andy Cole, Sol Campbell, Michael Owen; Danny Sapsford, Miles MacLagan and the new hope, Martin Lee.

The tennis school started first, based at Bisham Abbey in Buckinghamshire, with an initial intake of four boys aged 12. Sapsford, who went there for two years as an A-level student, was one of just two products ever to make the world's top 200 (the other was Andrew Richardson) and Richard Lewis, the LTA's director of tennis, admits: "Hand on heart, we'd have preferred to have some top 100 players. But I'd say it's been a success as a catalyst for raising the standards of junior tennis. The reason the school started was that there was concern about the lack of facilities, very, very few indoor courts, for instance, and the education system was very inflexible.

"Now things have changed. Education is more flexible, and so what we've done is develop regional centres, in Nottingham, Bath, Cambridge, Sutton and Bisham, with Leeds and Bolton starting soon."

Tennis's original pupils at Bisham would have been able to describe in their letters home how they had seen Bobby Robson's England football squad, who used it as their training headquarters. A national school had been considered by the Football Association for some time before Robson became the country's director of coaching as well as England manager in 1982 and pushed for it to be made reality.

He met immediate resistance from the English Schools' Football Association, who refused to let him pick their Under-15 team, but the first batch of 25 15-year-olds were admitted to Lilleshall, Shropshire, in September 1984, graduating two years later. Less than half of them made any sort of career in the game and not one reached full international level. It was something of a relief to all concerned when Nick Barmby did so in 1995. Others like Campbell, Cole and Ian Walker followed, Wes Brown of Man- chester United becoming the most recent while Alan Smith (Leeds), Francis Jeffers (Everton) and Joe Cole (West Ham) could eventually follow.

From the start football had always had a broader base, with its local centres of excellence. That system is now being refined under Howard Wilkinson's Charter for Quality, with clubs setting up academies approved by the FA in which boys can spend much more time, though they attend normal schools.

The key, according to Wilkinson (a former teacher), is broadening the base: "It's almost impossible to select, at 15 years old, 16 or 18 boys who will be the ones to become international footballers in their twenties. You need a bigger sample. So we're giving clubs the opportunity to have the boys on the same level as at Lilleshall."

It is clearly difficult to assess precisely how much the youngsters selected benefited from the experience. Would Owen be any less talented a footballer had he continued training with Liverpool as a schoolboy instead of going to Lilleshall? Would Tim Henman have won Wimbledon by now if he had gone to Bisham at 12?

Then again, what suits one teenager may not suit another. Girls taken on at Bisham generally found it more difficult to adapt than boys, while Lewis says: "I was speaking to two former Wimbledon champions about it; one said he'd love to have gone, one said he would have hated it."

Some hothouse flowers bloom, some wilt. For football the task now is to capitalise on the sport's booming popularity in the most effective manner. British tennis believes that standards are rising, especially at junior level, whatever the ranking lists may say. But for both sports, as of next month, school's out - for ever.