Raising young lions

World Cup: Germany 4, England 1

Originally uploaded by krmcguire.

As the vuvuzelas are put away and the England flags returned to the loft for another year, the serious business starts for English football fans – asking the question ‘what went wrong?’.

Of course we know part of it: England were outplayed by Germany, with Rooney and Co upstaged by Özil, Mueller and an eight legged fella called Paul. And I’m not even going to mention Uruguay’s most myopic referee (ooops just did!).

However, the seeds of defeat were sown well before a ball was kicked in South Africa – some would say years before. And it will certainly be a challenge for Sir Trevor Brooking and the blazers at the FA to put right the mistakes that were made over such a long period of time.

What we do know is that Fabio Capello will be in charge of the first team in the near future. Qualifying for Euro 2012 will be his job. But others will need to look to the future and address problems including a lack of first team opportunities for first team players.

Much has been made of English Premier League teams’ reliance on foreign talent and how it affects up and coming English players. Some might say that La Liga has plenty of foreign players too and Spain won the damn thing – but how many English players do you get coming through to senior ranks at the age of Mueller and Özil?

There are many other problems with the English game that they would take decades to solve. But it would be relatively simple to encourage clubs to offer more opportunities to young English players.

Taking on the Premier League clubs would be difficult, but a colleague and I came up with an alternative idea involving an overhaul of the League Cup. As it is run by the Football League the clubs would commend less power to block these reforms which are as follows:

  1. Make the League Cup an under-23 only tournament along the lines of the Olympics. Many clubs treat it as such anyway.
  2. Only allow five non-British players on the field at any one time. Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish players would have to count as home-players because otherwise it would discriminate against the two Welsh clubs
  3. For all matches up to the quarter finals, there will be no extra time and you would go straight to penalties in the event of a draw.
  4. Semi-finals would be played over a single leg at a neutral venue at the weekend, with extra time and penalties in the event of a draw.
  5. Cup winners would continue to gain a place in European competition as a carrot for winning the League Cup – this is one of the reasons that many teams outside the top six of the Premier League take the competition so seriously.

The carrot of European competition would ensure that clubs invested in young British players so that they would have a strong enough squad for the League Cup. And these players would get more first team experience early in their career, putting them in good stead for knockout tournaments like the World Cup. Take a look at this rookie Man United line-up from 1994 for evidence.

By restricting a foreign player limit to the League Cup, season ticket holders would continue to get value for their investment. It would also mean that the more senior players would be sufficiently rested for the league, other tournaments and internationals.

I’ve no idea how this would pan out in practice. In theory, the clubs with the bigger squads would come out on top. But often its clubs outside the top flight like Leeds and Forest who nurture the homegrown talent that shines in these competitions, so the beneficiaries of this policy would not be immediately obvious.

The absence of extra time in the early rounds would lead to more shoot-outs, thus giving young players more experience of the pressure of penalties that really matter. That would mean that players would have the mentality necessarily to come through in a shoot-out hard wired into them.

Of course there may be problems in implementing this idea. For a start, I am not sure how it would be affected by the Bosman judgment on the foreign player rule. But with the UEFA president Michel Platini himself calling on England to put a restriction on the number of foreign players playing in the domestic league, I would guess it no longer poses a legal problem.

Anyway, this is just a suggestion for tackling one of the many factors contributing to England’s dismal showing internationally. I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts and own ideas.

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2 thoughts on “Raising young lions

  1. Richard says:

    I thought it was ironic that there was so much comment about Germany’s bright, young players, when it was England’s U21s who played Germany in the final of the European Championships last summer (admittedly, the Germans won 4-0, but England still did well to make the final).

    Four of the Germans who started that final played against England in the World Cup – Neuer, Boateng, Khedira and Ozil. Thomas Muller, who scored twice against England and won the World Cup golden boot, wasn’t even picked for Germany’s U21s until last August. As for England, only James Milner from that U21 team started against Germany in the World Cup.

    Aside from Milner, only Joe Hart from the U21s was included in England’s squad for the World Cup. Among those left at home were Adam Johnson, Theo Walcott, Mark Noble, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Lee Cattermole, Nedum Onouha, Micah Richards and Kieran Gibbs.

    The main difference between England and Germany isn’t the number of good quality young players, it’s Germany’s willingness to actually pick them.

  2. rosieniven says:

    Those are useful stats Richard. I would also be interested in how much first team action the German U21s got compared with England U21s for their clubs last season. I wonder whether the German players had more first team experience? Granted most of the ones you mention were regulars for their teams last season.

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