The Football Association opened St George’sPark this week, the new facility from which it hopes to reshape English football. It cost a lot of money and it could have been in place at least two decades ago but it is finally here, so what is it going to change and is it going to do any good?
‘No more excuses’ roared England captain Stevie G as St George’s was opened. This of course implies that up till now England have had an excuse in their inability to win a major international football tournament since 1966. Well, whatever excuses have been trotted out since that time, very few of them have been to do with a lack of facilities.
To be fair, the England football team has not been preparing for games and tournaments in cold water dressing rooms with only a tube of Deep Heat to cure their aches and pains. St George’s might represent the best of the best in terms of facilities but England have hardly been slumming it, so how much will the facilities alone improve the performance of the national team? Very little I would suggest.
Ok, you will no doubt argue, it is not that England have had poor facilities over the years but rather that we have had poor players. St George’s Chairman, David Sheepshanks, is quite explicit about this,
“We were not trying to create a new Lilleshall, or a St George’s Park to develop players,”
Well why not? Because the FA essentially believes it is the job of the clubs to produce players via the elite player performance plan and really our players are not technically poor anymore.
The majority of players that comprise the England squad these days are technically proficient in the basic skills of the game and in the last generation there have been some outstanding technicians in Scholes, Beckham and Gerrard. Even our centre backs look fairly comfortable on the ball nowadays. The technical gap that once existed between our players and those of other nations has been significantly reduced in my eyes.
So by now you will be asking: if St George’s is not just about better facilities, or to try and produce players, then what is it for? Sheepshanks explains it is,
“for us to invest in the education, the coach education.”
FA Chairman David Bernstein wants it to be,
“an Oxbridge of football”
To my mind the FA with St George’s are trying to create something akin to Coverciano in Italy which is like a Finishing School for Italian coaches, Trappatoni, Capello, Lippi and Mancini are all graduates.
This is a laudable and excellent idea, the educators must first be properly educated in order to teach well. it is a matter of record that there is a huge imbalance in the number of licensed coaches in England compared to other European nations and St George’s should help redress that. However I don’t think it is going to be as simple as that.
English football has always been remarkably resistant to any kind of intellectualisation and phrases like “an Oxbridge of football” will not go down well in all quarters. I think a lot of the people who play, coach and watch English football enjoy the game for its perceived simplicity. There are myriad examples so to chose just one: On Match of the Day recently Alan Shearer criticised Liverpool’s Joe Allen for being too safe in possession and not attempting enough penetrating passes.
This comment was emblematic of English football, for it not only totally missed an important tactical nuance of the role Joe Allen is currently playing for Liverpool, it encapsulated what English football fans want: their team attacking as often and as quickly as possible. The likes of Joe Allen get criticised whilst the likes of Steven Gerrard get praised for running forward and attempting a lot of very difficult passes and shots that most often result in his team losing possession.
This produces exciting football for sure and it is not merely slick marketing that has made the EPL a worldwide phenomenon. English football can be breathtaking. The downside to this is that it has tended to leave a shortfall in other areas, namely the tactical nous and discipline required to win international football tournaments.
Given how popular the style of English football is and how engrained it is into the mentality here, is it ever going to be possible for the requisite levels of tactical sophistication to be folded into the DNA of the English game?
Hopefully St George’s will produce a lot of tactically astute English coaches, who in turn will produce players who are more tactically aware. But is St George’s going to be able to re-educate English football fans as well?
by Nilesh Bhagat