Groundhog day for the England football team – Emotions are fired up yet again as the anatomy of England’s World Cup demise is analysed

Posted: 22nd June 2014


Bill Murray and Andy MacDowell, the stars of the film Groundhog Day were, of course, no-where in sight.

But Steve McClaren and his umbrella, ‘the wally with the brolly’, as the tabloid press described him, if a bit cruelly, most certainly came to mind as England’s defeat to Uruguay in last Thursday’s group match heralded the exit of the team from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

As callers to the radio stations flooded in with emotions ranging from resigned despondency to apoplectic rage, I was reminded of the almost identical reaction just under 7 years ago when England lost to Croatia in their European Championships qualifier at Wembley (programme below), as the rain came down and manager McClaren stood frozen in shock as his side went behind, clawed their way back into the game and the lost it late on, also reminiscent of Thursday’s defeat;


For some, with England’s departure, the motivation to check their wall charts or the Special Editions of their favourite magazines like World Soccer’s (see above), were obliterated at a stroke, like the bloke I met at the gym who couldn’t even discuss it as he shook his head and turned away in disgust to concentrate his energies on the next weight training machine.

After the months and months of build-up, it was all over and even before some teams, like rivals Germany, had even played their second match!

What followed back in 2007 initially, was 24 hours of endless comment, debate and analysis as to what had happened, why it had happened and what should happen next to ensure it never happened again.

The TV and newsprint media and then the websites, blogs and forums spewed out their contributions over the debacle and in time, the FA responded by new strategies for youth football (age appropriate formats for developing young players) while at the top end, the Premier League and the FA somehow came together to launch the EPPP for the fine-tuning of the final stages of our young players’ development at academy level.

But while these plans were being developed and unfolded, further disappointment occurred with poor performances in the South Africa World Cup Finals in 2010 and the 2012 European Championships in Ukraine and Poland where a bearded Andrea Pirlo bought England’s campaign to an end with his brand of canny, creative and pragmatic midfield play-making.

Despite months of build-up to the 2014 finals in Brazil, where fans, media and players talked about having realistic expectations concluding that to emerge from their group would actually be an achievement, never mind going further into the later stages of the finals, when defeat stared us all in the face, the emotions were unleashed in a torrent of reaction.

The out-pouring of vitriol suggested numerous factors which, just like back in 2007 were listed as either the main root cause of the problem or a part contributor to a level or performance which many, if not most people, defined as just not good enough.

Looking at these factors, they seemed to be clustered into a few different segments;


1. Formations / players / management

First were the issues surrounding the matches themselves;

– Were the team set up and player personnel selection decisions correct?

– Would 4-3-3 have been a more pragmatic line-up in the heat and one to strike a better balance between attack and defence?

– Despite the clamour for Hodgson to pick the younger, attacking players, were the right players put in the right places, especially on the left side of the team in the Italy game?

– Were Roy Hodgson’s decisions appropriately astute from a tactical perspective, once the games were underway ?

– Is he the man to take England forward?

– After all the preparations, how come players seemed to be struggling to perform?

– Did the players care?

– Were they passionate enough?


2.Warm-Up games / Training camps

Next came the environment and the preparations;

– Did England play one warm-up match too many?

– What was the point in playing a warm-up match at Wembley other than to generate revenue for the FA?

– Despite the seemingly excellent pre-tournament preparations, was the priority placed too highly on such practical issues as personalised player hydration protocols as opposed to getting the basics of the playing side correct?


3. Club v Country / International age group tournaments

Then, the issue of how England’s age group teams were managed, something Stuart Pearce made some very interesting points about;

– How much is the club v country divide preventing our younger players from experiencing tournament football at major age group championships in preparation for delivering success for the full England team at major championships?

– How come the other major European football powers seem to commit their younger players to such events but English players either decline selection or are not allowed to take part for a variety of reasons by their clubs?


4. The Premier League / Academies / Youth development

Finally, came the focus on the wider issues surrounding the domestic game in England;

– Are there too many foreign players in the Premier League?

– Why haven’t the academies produced more players capable for selection in top clubs and then for England?

– As the money coming into the top of the game seems to be increasing exponentially, how come participation issues at the youth and recreational levels of the game not being addressed?


If I had the solutions to these issues, I’d be either a rich man or challenging Greg Dyke for his job. But I’m afraid that I don’t.

In fact, defining the issues is actually relatively easy. Coming up with an integrated strategy to address them, involving all the various component parts of the football family and one which meets everyone’s needs is another matter entirely, as Dyke and his Commission have found out only too well in the last few weeks.

I’ll make a few comments here just to add to the debate.

Firstly, what I will say is that the whole issue of the England team and getting the best out of it is not just a problem we’ve experienced since that terrific day in July 1966 when we won the World Cup.

As laid out in Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book, The Anatomy of England: A History in Ten Matches (required reading for all England fans, I reckon), many of the issues listed above have been around for much longer going back to the press asking questions about the attitude of England’s players after their first defeat to continental opposition in the form of Spain in 1928.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who now believes that there is a much deeper and more complex psychological issue at work when players are put together to represent their country.

As the saying goes, the shirt is too heavy and numerous managers have had difficulty or just downright failed to lighten that weight and to free up players to perform in anything approaching the form that week to week, they have shown for their clubs.


But having said this, on the other hand, the margins of success and defeat are very fine at this level.

While yes, we seem to come out on the wrong side of them too often, as a former midfield player (although at a significantly lower level than England!), in the Uruguay game, I can empathise with Steven Gerrard on both the tackle in midfield where the ball went back and forth like a pin-ball to emerge behind him at Cavani’s feet, giving the striker the chance too feed Luis Suarez for the first goal and then the header which skimmed off the top of Gerrard’s head after the Uruguayan keeper hit a low trajectory punt with the ball ultimately ending up right into the pathway of Suarez for him to convert brutally and efficiently into his second goal.

On another day, the ball may have bounced away differently from that tackle and the header found itself to the right of Gary Cahill, not the left of Phil Jagielka.

Success can be at the mercy of such random occurrences, it seems.

Despite my attachment to the City of Liverpool (see blog archive – May 2012), I am not a Reds supporter. But I do think that the criticism of Gerrard in both its quantity and its harshness has, in many ways, been uncalled for, if actually, even a bit out of order.

The Liverpool midfielder has been a stoical backbone of the side for the last decade often being played out of position to accommodate others. Again, as a former midfield player, I have always watched how he plays with keen interest including not what he does with the ball but often what he does when he doesn’t have it, where he has run many a mile tracking and tackling opponents in thankless work.

While we know he feels the disappointment of the two results and his own performance levels in those matches, as his comments at a press conference confirmed today, I think he deserves a big dose of compassion, a mighty slug of empathy. I for one do not believe for one second that he put anything less the his best efforts into his performances.

I also believe that the role he was performing although placing him on a similar part of the pitch to the one he takes up for Liverpool was one which was quite different.

In the end-to-end style of play which characterises many Premier League matches, he can spray his passes to left and right to get attacks or counter attacks going. But at the World Cup, the playing styles have not been like this and especially the defences have been set up differently, often if not usually like 2 banks of human table footballers. I think Gerrard has been playing from a position far too deep to make the most of his attacking prowess.

England’s problem is that in recent times, there has not been a Claude Makelele-style defensive midfielder and Gerrard has been almost forced into a holding role as a result, again to accommodate younger, attacking players up front.

In fact, that’s the point. Steven Gerrard has never been nor is he now, a Claude Makelele. He’s not an Andrea Pirlo either and perhaps, as his career looks like it is coming to an end, we should ask the question as to why we haven’t made the most of his considerable talents over the last decade in his most effective role, actually and ironically, as far as I can see, the inside forward or number 10 role (as it’s called these days) in which he has rarely been allowed to play for his country.

While building the whole team around him might not have been the way forward exactly, his contribution has been a function of positional compromise. While it is to his credit that he can be described as having played in a variety of midfield and attacking positions, perhaps he has been turned into a sort of midfield jack-of-all-trades and master of none?

I, for one, will refuse to allow his England career to be shaped or spoiled even by two incidents defined by some as mistakes, over the course of 113 internationals.

Here we see Gerrard on the front of the programme for the game between England and Israel back in 2007;


Next, continuing the theme of fine margins, although this really a coaching issue and not just an England one, I’ll start by saying that I think Joe Hart is a fine goalkeeper.

Also, I understand the likely rational for making the modern keepers drop their weight back and to one side a split second before strikes are made, as Joe did just before Suarez struck his shot for the 2nd goal, but I think this coaching preference actually makes things easier for strikers.

If attackers have the courage, patience and confidence to wait just a split second longer than they might have done a few years back, keepers will commit themselves, as Hart did for Suarez’s 2nd goal, dropping down and to his left leaving room for the ball to travel, in this case, through the area where Hart’s upper body was located a split second before.

Joe Hart is most certainly not the only keeper who performs this anticipatory move. In fact, these days, most do it. My query is not with Hart but with the coaching methodology which he must have been brought up with.

Should Hart have saved the shot? All I can say is that if he didn’t save it, that’s not really his fault based on how keepers are coached in such situations.

It’s that coaching which I find perplexing.

I’ve been informed by a qualified football coach how keepers are coached to anticipate: I’m just not sure it makes sense.

It is a different sport, of course, but while a full time tennis coach, I would never have taught players finding themselves at the net and facing a passing shot from their opponent, to split step and go to one side to make a volley before the ball had been struck by their opponent, insisting that they react to the ball and attempt to reach to the side that the ball has been hit, not to take a chance that the ball will be hit to one side or another. Even for basis groundstroke rallying, you take a slit step just before your opponent hits their shot, so that you react to that shot and the direction, depth and trajectory which the ball takes on.

Of course, the current footballs used in the game are lighter than before and I imagine that the coaching fraternity has evolved this anticipatory method of saving one-on-one strikes to give the keepers that split second extra?

Here’s Joe on the front of the information leaflet for visitors to the National Football Museum in its’ new location in the Ibis building in Manchester;


The other issue which I find a bit perplexing is the one where the argument is put forward that there are too many foreign players in the Premier League and how this claim is countered by the fact that in the days before 1992, a higher percentage of English players in our top club sides did not seem to be a recipe for success for the England team.

In 1974 and 1978, we didn’t even qualify for the finals.

While the retort is correct, I can’t see how a gradual and continuous reduction in the supply of players at 1st team Premier League level will help the national side.

There is another argument put forward that the increase in overseas players raises the bar as far as standards for local players. I’m wondering how we might measure this claim, especially where it seems a decreasing number of local players get their chance in top club’s 1st teams?

How do decreasing appearances demonstrate a rise in standard?

How many players in 4 years time will be selected from Championship clubs or even League 1 teams?

If such players perform well, like Chile’s Gary Model, a defensive midfielder for his club, Cardiff City, then fine. But will a team of lower league players do any better against the top opposition if this scenario unfolds?

Then the argument often goes that the best English players will come through regardless. Well with the number of English starters down from 175 a few years back to 75 last season, as shown in one clip on the BBC news, it would suggest that those English players are not coming through either because there aren’t enough of them or there are good numbers but they aren’t up to standard.

If they aren’t good enough, this situation then leads us to the issue of the academies, our young English players and what we are doing with them.

Are we saying that the former heartlands of good junior players like Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Tyneside, Wearside and Teeside, West Yorkshire, the West Midlands and the mass of Greater London, especially East London and Metropolitan Essex, no longer have any kids with the talent to make it in the professional game and possibly into the England team?

If the answer is no, I just don’t believe it.

After nearly 15 years and millions invested, where are the players?

The academies were put together to increase the quantity and quality of local based players, but as I understand it from a contact in one of the clubs, the reality is that although the top clubs, including Championship sides, are hoovering up just about any decent young player down to kids as young as 8 year-old and sometimes younger, as Chris Green’s fascinating book, Every Boy’s Dream points out, by the time most of these kids reach their teenage years, they will have been discarded, many lost to the game completely.

I’m afraid that I have a very cynical view of the academies.

While they are positioned as being the salvation of our next generation of players where the assumption is that if you put the youngsters with the professionals, then they must be coached and dealt with in the right way, there is anecdotal evidence in addition to what Chris Green discovered that the quality of coaching is very random and the overall quality of care for the juniors is often poor.

Basically, professional football clubs are not set up to run what are effectively schools.

Many of the problems, I discovered in 14 years as a full time tennis coach after I finished playing football, working only in junior development are, it seems replicated in how the academies are run.

I see the academies as insurance policies where clubs try and minimise the risk of the next top star going to a competitor.

If kids aren’t going to make it, they are shown the door and often without any clear pathway back into their local football.

There is an acknowledged transfer system with an accepted schedule of fees for kids of different ages and now evidence of scouts being paid to supply kids as young as 8 year-old into academies with payments made even of the kids are not accepted.

How would we react if we heard that say IBM were paying thousands of pounds for teenage kids because they had good IT skills on the basis that if they didn’t then their main competitor might snap up the youngster and their computer skills?

Meanwhile, much of the old school and youth football infrastructure has been seriously compromised as when clubs take on kids they usually insist that all the juniors’ football is played at the academy.

Jumper for goalposts football or even more organised play in school and district sides is often prohibited.

If the people that our kids are being put in the football care of are the best proponents of the principles and practices of youth sports, I would mind less.

But this is just not the case.

Then you come to the often quoted statistics about the number of qualified coaches in England compared to the other European football powers, figures first analysed back in the days after the 2007  Croatia match.

We have derisory low numbers compared to everyone else and 7 years on, not much has changed.

While much of our youth sport would not exist without the work of parent volunteers, the fact remains that many volunteers are not necessarily good coaches, organisers or administrators. Most adults, in my experience will come into such roles with the best intentions but they will often bring with them their own personal vision of what the job at hand is about and often this is nothing to do with the principles and practices really required, the likes of which I discovered by a wealth of amazing material, much of it produced in the US in the 1990’s.

Too often, what might be called an adult model of sports participation based on professional sport will be washed over the kids and this may have absolutely no bearing or respect for the age and stage development processes young people go through.

We need to take our approach to running youth sports and junior football up many gears to a professional level with basic understanding of children and their development at the heart of everything we do.

Here’s Chris Green’s book, one I could not put down, when I read it;


In addition, from another source, I have heard that their places taken at the older age groups in the academies by overseas juniors.

On the one hand, good luck to them but overall, this situation does nothing for the England team a few years down the road.

Even if the junior players, actually regardless of their nationality, rise up to approach the 1st team, very few will ever get the chance in their clubs’ 1st teams.

With managers under so much pressure to produce results, especially in the Premier League and where the financial rewards are so huge for keeping a place, they are far more inclined to fill their 25 man squads with ready made players, from just about wherever they can get them, as opposed to giving chances to home-grown youngsters out of their academy, because it’s just too risky to do so.

Young players at the top clubs are also paid extremely well for their age. I’ve heard about 1st year professionals having graduated form Manchester City’s academies being paid £5,000 a week, or £250,000 a year and this is before they have made a 1st team experience.

There was another anecdote related on the radio recently about a young Chelsea player who turned up for his first pre-season as a full professional with a brand new sports car, a gold tooth and a body covered in tattos.

Some argue that receiving such lucrative rewards too young will inevitably affect motivation to improve and strive for 1st team success.

Also, if the clubs won’t play these young players, they won’t release them to other clubs. They might loan them out but the clubs want to keep their options open.

At one point during the 2013/14 season, Chelsea had 28 younger players out on loan to other clubs. What’s the point?

Of course, it has never been and isn’t now, the priority of the clubs to build the success of the national side. That seems to be the way it is in English football.

But how is it that in Germany, there is more harmony between the German F.A. and the Bundesliga clubs balancing the needs of the clubs at their level and the national side too, something which Rafa Honigstein was discussing today?

As I mentioned above, Stuart Pearce laid out how the club v country turf war for players is very much alive and kicking in England and the way he described it, things do not sound good at all.

As well as the nationality profile of the academy juniors at the upper age groups, there’s the issue of what they are being coached.

Dario Gradi, perhaps the most respected developer of young players in the country over the last 20 years, in a Radio 5 Live programme talked about his doubts with regard to how many modern youngsters are being coached, fearful that the focus in the training they receive is grooming them to pass the ball 5 -10 yards expertly but without a fundamental desire to get the ball forward and into the opposition’s net.

I heard about one period of play in an U21 match between 2 top clubs where the ball was passed across the back 4 a staggering total of 47 times, counted by the person who told me the story. I understand the principles of possession football but maybe there’s a limit to how many times, balls are played back and forth before someone takes a risk?

You wonder if all the claims made by proponents of the academies as far as teaching players the best way to play the game, have any basis.

Finally, I’ll mention an article I saw today in the Sunday Independent, written by Newcastle United’s manager, Alan Pardew.

While Pardew is a manager who divides opinion, I thought his words or his ‘PARDVIEW’, as the headline called it, made a lot of insightful sense.

He suggested improvements in technical proficiency, the establishment of a sound and effective overall playing style, ways to maximise player performance and how to maximise motivation of players representing their country so that they play in a way which leaves their fans in absolutely no doubt about their commitment;


So where does the England team go from here?

Greg Dyke has confirmed Roy Hodgson’s position until the end of the 2016 European Championships.

I can only hope that he puts together a side which finds that playing style mentioned by Pardew and gives the young players now at his disposal the chance to put it into action.

Adding this the day after England’s 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, while Hodgson talked about the match as if a new dawn had been unveiled, I couldn’t help feeling, as I watched the match, that yet again, the England players often had a poor first touch, made their decisions too slowly, as if they were never quite sure what they should do, again maybe down to a lack of established play pattern and often, maybe as a result of this, gave the ball away far too often and far too easily.

This was same-old, same-old.

Regardless of who we have been watching in the team and way back before any ‘Golden Generation and back before the post 1992 Premier league era, we’ve seen this many times before. Indeed, such play is almost the default playing performance for England.

In summary;

1. Increase dramatically, the numbers of qualified coaches for all the ages but especially the under 10’s.

2. Develop more kids better including a more open attitude to all methods of development like using Futsal.

3. Make the quality and quantity of local junior coaching so good that kids will only be allowed to go near professional club academies until they are at least 11 years-old.

4. Make the academies the very best example of youth sport practice not questionable places of junior player hoarding.

5. Improve the pathways out of the academies (for those not developing) and back into them for (for those who develop later).

6. Get the top clubs to give graduating players a chance as opposed to letting them stagnate on the bench, in reserve team football or sending them out on loan to get their experience.

7. Stop spoiling them with vast rewards at the younger ages when they haven’t actually ‘made it’.

8. Get the clubs and players to commit better to the age group England teams at major Championships, especially the U21 side.

9. Decide which way the full England team is going to play so that everyone knows what they should be doing, when and why.

10. Redefine our evaluation of the England team based on what they actually do, not on our ideal vision of them.

No-one wants another Groundhog Day, unless it’s actually watching Murray and MacDowell in the film version of their day as opposed to bringing back more memories of Steve McClaren and his.

However, unless we make changes, the likelihood that we’ll experience one will not reduce.

Now where’s that Wallchart?




Here’s a link to the International football programmes in the Goals and Wickets Ebay Shop including England matches at Full, Under 23/21 and Youth/Schools’ levels, mainly home games with a few aways;

Category: Football - Editorial

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