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Dutch courage – the answer to England’s footballing woes?



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Which league has experienced a 900% increase in foreign players since its creation? Which league has seen players’ annual salaries from 15 years ago left for dead compared to today’s weekly earnings? Which league, if left to continue its current state of rot, is nearing the ever-dreaded apocalypse of football… dropping below Scotland in the FIFA World Rankings?

The answer is the Barclays Premier League – England’s foremost footballing league since 20th February1992.

The motive for creating it is, in itself, able to summarise quite successfully the reasons for its plight today – money. A well-established 104 year old football league was separated from the top division due to a financially lucrative television rights deals. Since then, £1.4b cumulatively is earned by participating clubs.

Although a British team has not been involved in a world record transfer since 1995 (when Shearer left Blackburn for Newcastle for £15m), the ‘Big 4’ tend to attract big names world-wide. This, of course, has a knock-on effect where teams like Blackburn can buy seasoned legends like Roque Santa Cruz and hot prospects such as Marco Rigters.

As far as I can see, the problem starts at the youth level. That is not to say I blame the youth, but my criticism is of the English Youth System. Significantly fewer resources are being put into youth football by the English FA, than by the Dutch FA for example, who have managed to generate some of the best players ever over the past three decades. In the past 10 years alone, we have seen the likes of:

  • Van Nistelrooy
  • Bergkamp
  • Van der Sar
  • Stam
  • Zenden
  • Kluivert
  • Hasselbaink
  • Gullit
  • Boateng
  • Van Persie
  • Babel
  • and Robben

all grace the footballing world. These all play or have played for an English team.

With England an increasingly struggling international team, our attention should turn to how and why The Netherlands manages to produce such consistently world class players. Their competitive international record is superior to England’s, having on average reached one round further than England per World Cup and European Championship since the introduction of the Premiership.

Believe it or not, a few minor changes at the grass roots of football will change all this. Since 1992, Holland has managed to average 8th in the FIFA World Rankings with a high of 2nd. England on the other hand have averaged 11th with a peak at 5th. For a country of England’s size (we are almost 4 times bigger population wise) this is surely not good enough.

Trevor Brooking, the recently assigned Director of Football Development in England, has expressed concern over the England team, particularly in 5 -10 years time. If that’s the case Sir Trev’, take note…

Most agree that the perfect time to really develop a footballer is between the ages of 12 and 16. Louis van Gaal (coincidently two time coach of Holland’s national team) and Gerard Houllier particularly say, and he should know, that an academy will know which players will go on to be stars by the end of this age boundary or earlier – Lionel Messi for example, was transferred to Barcelona aged 12. It is because of this that we must ‘harness’ their potential.

School teams, local football clubs, even street football (Johan Cruyff learnt his skills not at an academy, but on the street… and yes, he is Dutch) must be used to give kids as much playing time as possible before they reach or surpass this age ‘limit’.

In 1997, Howard Wilkinson (the then FA technical director) said that children should only train at academies – since then hours of football per week for some youngsters plummeted from 10 to 3. Coincidence or not, a French academy member will play on average 2304 hours of football around this vital age band… this is compared to half as much for the English equivalent.

Italian players will have picked up 100+ games at club level before they are picked for the Azzurri. In England, Theo Walcott was named in the World Cup England squad having never before played a top level game of any sort (in fairness, this was Sven’s fault).

At Ajax, a club which has spurned the careers of more than 100 players now playing in the Eredivisie, players are taught how to control their body and the ball from a young age. Physically this makes a huge impact on their future game. In Brazil, technical skill and ball control are taught to make them highly attacking players with flair.

If we can import players with such attributes and then rely on burly, unskilful Englishmen in defence, our national footballing identity will continue to decline. I think that what we really need is a few things to change. The FA need to introduce quotas on foreign players and need to put more time and money into youth development. And this may be throwing stones in a glass house, being a Liverpool supporter, but the ‘Big 4’ really need to stop buying exotic South American 4 year olds. Instead, have faith in what youth we do or will have, even if that takes a bit of Dutch courage (I’m not implying that Rafa needs to turn to the bottle).

If these relatively simple guidelines continue to be ignored then we continue to be disillusioned enough to think that:

successful club level European exploits = successful footballing nation

when in fact that’s wrong.

Written by Ian Jukes.