Alan Hansen has lamented the poor technical standard of English players and despite the somewhat grandiose opening of the new facilities at St George’s Park sees scant hope for the immediate future. It will he feels take some 20 years before England can put out a team technically accomplished enough to vie for further honours; 1966 receding further and further into the mists of memory.
It is hard to see St George’s as a panacea. It has indeed been pointed out that it is most inconveniently situated, entailing long coach trips for example by the England players between it and Wembley stadium. Previous such FA coaching establishments have had their successes, if hardly in abundance, but what certainly can there be that – whatever the bright-eyed optimism of the presiding executive Mr Sheepshanks – that the essential coaches are going to be available? At least the FA will not be repeating the abysmal surrender to the outmoded and didactic coaching theories of Long Ball Charlie Hughes, which poisoned the wells of English soccer for years.
Hansen himself is not always convincing. He is for example insistent on the need for players to kick with both feet. Ideally, perhaps yes; but then you think of a phenomenon like Ferenc Puskas, whose astonishing left foot drove home so many spectacular goals for Honved, Hungary and Real Madrid and whose right foot was all but superfluous. “With a left foot like that,” I remember Danny Blanchflower, when such a notable captain of Spurs and Northern Ireland telling me, “you don’t need a right foot!”
I also recall as long ago as 1951 talking to the then Arsenal manager, the hugely experienced Tom Whittaker about the decline in technique. He lamented the disappearance of such enclaves as the cloughs, well known in the north as places where youngsters could play their football in safety in limited areas. Since then, alas, open spaces have been disappearing with sad regularity and as for soccer in the streets, played with fervour since mediaeval days –“a bloody and murthering practice?” It was admittedly called then – the huge increase of traffic has rendered it highly dangerous.
There is arguably a direct connection between a country’s poverty and the skills of its footballers. There are young Africans who will go out to juggle expertly with fruit. Garrincha, a glorious figure in two World Cups for Brazil, actually preferred playing on a dusty open space with a great abyss in the middle in Pau Grande to training in Rio with a major club’s facilities. Moreover, as we know, there’s an infinity of temptations for young boys today, a multiplicity of hand held games and puzzles.
Certainly Hansen is right to lament the huge influx of foreign players, with the consequent exclusion of young Englishmen. The insatiable greed of our major clubs ensures that English youngsters, however promising, have by and large a hard job breaking through to a major club’s first team and even when they have done so can find the way barred by foreign talent which itself can, like the gifted and incisive attacker, Mexico’s Chicharito at Old Trafford, find themselves on the bench, for all their prowess. Ironic to think that Sir Alex Ferguson actually discouraged the selection of Chicharito for the Mexican team which so impressively won the Olympic title.
There has been some confusion lately not least over John Terry on the question of captaincy. Chris Coleman, after that shocking 6-1 defeat by a Serbian team which hardly ever scores, demoted Aaron Ramsey, who looked rather too young for the role in any case, in favour of Swansea’s defender Ashley Williams and proceeded to win rather luckily against Scotland. Did it make any difference? I doubt it.
Ramsey was one of the few who did not founder in Serbia; scapegoating him made scant sense. While England in the absence of senior contenders gave the captaincy to Wayne Rooney who with his bleak disciplinary record hardly seemed an ideal choice though he seemed popular with his teammates. But how much does captaincy matter? In Italy, the man with most caps is the automatic choice.