5 December ~ A day after England's flaws were once again fatally exposed by their Wembley defeat against France, the announcement came from the FA: work to rebuild the national game would begin in January. The governing body confirmed that construction of the much-vaunted National Football Centre at Burton (also known as St George's Park) would start in the New Year, with a completion date of summer 2012. Finally the project that has been portrayed as a panacea for English ills is back on track.

It was fitting that the news should come less than 24 hours after England had failed miserably to match the technique, tactics and instincts of the French. The centre, after all, has been dubbed as England's answer to the famous Clairefontaine academy. The comparisons, though, are misleading. Clairefontaine is famed for its production of top players, such Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka, as well as being a centre for the national team. Every year young French footballers, aged between 13 and 15, compete for places at the school of excellence where they will live five days a week and receive the best football education France can buy. The system of regional centres filters the best young talents in the country and channels them through this central academy to produce elite footballers.

In contrast, the FA's vision is to create a hub that will spread a new football culture throughout the country, to distribute knowledge rather than centralise talent. Its mission briefs are to produce coaches, recruit referees, advance sports science and accommodate national teams, from Under-16 through to senior levels. At the heart of the FA's plan is to train 250,000 coaches by 2018 to counter the perceived technical and tactical shortcomings of English youngsters throughout the country. So rather than churning out the talent to take England to another World Cup, they hope to reform coaching and raise the standard of youngsters entering the professional game with clubs' academies.

As David Sheepshanks, chairman of the National Football Centre board, said: "This is not a finishing school for young players, that role is carried out very well by the Premier League and Football League clubs, this has a different slant. This is not an academy and is not in competition with our professional clubs." In this respect the National Football Centre will have more in common with the Dutch's KNVB base in Zeist or Italy's Coverciano academy. So, will focusing on coaching standards transform the national game?

Establishing a focal point for Club England may have a galvanising effect, but it is in coach education that the FA are demanding progress. The perception that English youngsters are still technically and tactically inferior to their foreign counterparts remains. Arming the nation with FA Level One coaching badges will not turn everyone into José Mourinhos – the syllabus doesn't include technique, let alone tactics or football philosophies. But raising the quality of all coaching should drive up the standards of young players.

However England's football identity is defined by more than just coaching. And there are many other factors to contend with: an apathy towards futsal and five-a-side; the premature introduction to 11-a-side football; the weather; a top flight that is often technically inferior to its competitors and, ultimately, a very different football culture. That the National Football Centre has taken almost ten years to advance from conception to construction suggests the FA knows it will not transform the English game overnight. A slow grassroots revolution, though, would be significant progress. Jon McLeod


Comments (4)
Comment by David Agnew 2010-12-05 19:49:09

It's a good start, as long as FA Level One coaching is a stepping stone, rather than the peak of the training that will be delivered.

As the writer says, comparisons with Clairefontaine are misleading, and trying to replicate a Clairefontaine at this point would be a mistake, as Clairefontaine builds on young players that have already received five years training. Germany, Italy, Spain and France have thousands of UEFA A, B & Pro licence holders teaching kids in schools from the age of 8 - every one of the approximately 2700 'youth' coaches in England with those badges is employed by a Football or Premier League club teaching teenagers who are already three or four years behind.

One we have the 20,000 coaches that Italy, Germany, Spain and France have - then we can start seeing if building regional (not national) facilities such as Clairefontaine are a worthy next step, or whether entrusting the professional club's academies are enough.

Comment by Coral 2010-12-06 09:50:46

I thought we were woeful compared to Germany and Spain now? Oh I can't keep up with which team we are techinically inferior to. Suppose next year it will be Brazil or something. Amazing we have managed to win any games at all.

Always seems to be a pervailing attitude that England are rubbish when compared to Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Spain, Holland, France etc. Yet somehow despite our terribleness, we end up being 6th in the World Rankings. Rather than question that perhaps we as a nation get too down on our team, like Arsenal fans whinging they are not good enough despite always being top four, we question the merits of the rankings which has the world cup winners as top. Must be flawed.

Comment by Gibby23 2010-12-06 14:03:04

Clubs like arsenal and chelsea surely have brilliant academies but how many English players do they generate. They seem happier to scout young players from abroad rather find homebased players or are they just not there ? i know they took Wiltshire on at the age of 9 but that's 1 player in how many years. Surely your world ranking is heavily supported by the fact your EPL teams do well in the CL. I wonder how much of that scoring is made up of the national team.

Grass roots football needs greater support, facilities, money & training courses for wannabe coaches like myself before we could ever have an impact on a generation of footballers.

Comment by Coral 2010-12-06 15:03:44

It's entirely made up by the national team. Let us not forget that England have lost only two competitive matchs in two years, one against a team widely regarding as one the best at the world cup, and the other after England had already assured qualification by winning every game they played.
What prompted this over the top tabloid style rant with phrases like " failed miserably " and "flaws were once again fatally exposed", was England fielding a largely experimental side with a number of debutants and irregulars losing 2-1. This fine technical beast that destroyed us didn't even make it past the first round of the world cup and has been stumbling along through qualification to get there.

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