Skill In The English Game

Rumours are going around that Steve McClaren has said that English players are not as skilful as their foreign opponents. I say rumours, because I’ve been unable to locate a primary source for this, so let’s just use it to start the discussion.

At any given point in time, there are English players who are among the most skilful in the world – at the moment, we have Joe Cole to show for our efforts, and Gascoigne, Hoddle, Hudson, Osgood etc. from earlier generations. But no list of the world all-time greats is going to be especially heavy on English players, and no list of the current greats would have more than one or two Jack Tars. I’m distinguishing pure ball skill here from such things as match effectiveness – an important distinction as Real Madrid’s recent tribulations demonstrate.

I would put this situation down to two related parts of the English idea of the game. We are very interested in skilful players – there is the utmost respect in England for the likes of Best, Pele, Ronaldinho and the like, and players of that kind pull in crowds. As a country, we appreciate what they do. We are interested in skilful players, but we aren’t interested in being skilful. Not for its own sake, and in fact the idea leaves a lot of people vaguely uneasy without them perhaps realising why.

Being interested in skilful players, but not being interested in being skilful, goes back in part to the difference between our football history and the history of football overseas. Put roughly, football began as a game, a bit of fun, here, and to a great extent remains that – primarily an entertainment, an amusement. “Training” was seen at first as one step away from cheating – not in the spirit of things. When professional players began to appear, they – the players – were the experts at playing, an attitude that survived through Len Shackleton’s account of coaching in Clown Prince of Soccer to resurface at Clive Woodward’s Southampton when he tried to help Nigel Quashie improve his game. Abroad, as the game took root in Europe and in South America, there was great interest in the game and the logical place to learn about it was from the English – so Germany, Austria, Hungary, Brazil, Argentina, Spain all imported Englishmen to teach – to coach – the game. Coaching was central from the start, and has remained so. (El Bombin is excellently all about this).
The idea that the game needs to be taught – that its skills need to be learned – runs against the grain here. Of course, there’s that instinctive reflex of the mind that reminds us that because we invented the game and were its first masters, we should still be at the top, and if we aren’t then there are ready scapegoats at the F.A. An eagerness to learn is unusual in England – Arsene Wenger has contrasted the English attitude to the Japanese in that respect, where enthusiasm and diligence are more encouraged – and witness that unpleasant phrase “busy cunts”. Willingness to learn seems to have become a ticket to survival at Mourinho’s Chelsea after he arrived to find the English players unwilling even to warm up properly.

Training – learning – developing – aren’t fun, and isn’t football meant to be fun? That’s the attitude of the men in charge of youth football in England, and you must concede their point – why is all this so important that we have to give up the excitement, adventure and camaraderie of leagues for boys and girls aged 6+ in favour of hours of repetitive exercises? The kids enjoy it, the parents and carers enjoy it, as it is – and for huge numbers of those kids, it will be something they’ll keep up into their forties and even fifties, providing them with fitness and a hobby. Why take all that away just because the Dutch, the French, the Brazilians, the Portuguese are doing things differently?

There really is a point to concede here. The gap between the skill levels in the England team, Cole apart, and Italy/Spain/Portugal/France/Holland is there sure enough, but it’s not really a huge gap at the top level, and we’ve held our own in that company fairly well recently. The real gap – one you can touch and feel – is between Argentina/Brazil and everyone else. We would be altering a popular, well-supported grass roots activity in order to achieve what might only be a modest increase in general skill with no guarantee of better international results.

By the way, this isn’t about the presence or absence of street football in a culture. The African nations have street football aplenty (and, now, street Rugby Union in Rwanda, Congo and other parts of the continent) but the best source of skilful players at the moment is still Argentina and Brazil, with their fanatical approach to coaching. Our street-trained players were quite clearly not up to the levels of the Hungarians in 1953 and 1954, neither in terms of tactics nor in terms of ability with the ball.

The chances are that the sheer number of people who play football in England at every level – and don’t forget we now have four and a half divisions of professional football before we get to part time and amateur teams, where most countries struggle to support two or three – will of itself produce enough talent to keep us competitive without us making any changes at all. And deep change is just not going to happen – the idea that a switch away from match play to skills training will produce something worthwhile just hasn’t taken hold here. Not when there is fun and exercise to be had, and trophies to be won.

England badly wants international success. It wants it most badly during actual tournaments. Otherwise, it wants it badly in the seven days approx. on each side of an international match. In between such times, the desire becomes somewhat theoretical. It becomes “a nice idea”, and never quite makes it to “urgent priority”.

What would “urgent priority” look like? It would look like – indoor training centres in every town and city open to all; competitive skills training along Simon Clifford lines as the only kind of football for under-12s; a stunning turnaround in national interest in and knowledge of, fitness training and tactics; an 18-team Premiership; national contracts for the international players on Clive Woodward lines; a stunning change in attitude towards “continuous lifelong learning” in football; a stunning turnaround in the attitude towards the mental side of sports;the de-chavving and de-Vindalooing of football culture – deMockneyise too, whilst you’re at it, and get rid of all those wannabe working class middle class blokes on Sky Sports News with their wierd, invented demotic accents…

…if it all sounds a little 1984 to you, it does to me too. Rest assured, it’ll never happen. If it did, it would take fifteen years – and then, with the usual luck (the kind England don’t get – how many disallowed Campbell goals was it, in the end?) we might actually win something.

The thing is, we might win something anyway.