Chris Francis discusses Ross Barkley’s premature call-up to the senior England squad and the structural schisms in the national game…
The call-up of Ross Barkley to the England senior set-up is not indicative of why England lag so far behind European teams. This is what I heard some commentators say today. There are deeper, structural issues that exist in the English game that hold the national team back. These will not be fixed quickly.
The call up of a young player who is playing well is not a surprise; this happens everywhere. Barkley has been known amongst the football world as a special midfielder for a long time. Only a serious injury two seasons ago stopped him appearing in David Moyes plans more regularly. Fully recovered, via a successful loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday, he has now played exceptionally in both of Roberto Martinez’s first two games in charge of the Toffees. Any country who has a youngster bossing games in their top division would promote him early, especially as he has played and excelled for every age-group along the way. Two games is early I admit, but still, this is meant to be a very special player.
Let’s look at Spain and Germany as the two best examples in Europe of ‘how to build a nation of top players’. Both of similar populations with proud histories and depth in the way their national sport is played and supported. Both went through relative barren spells (oh for a barren spell like Germany’s!) and decided that something needed changing at a central level if it was to be rectified.
Both Sid Lowe and Rafael Honigstein have written and spoken at length as to the mechanics of these particular shifts in thinking, and both have noted that they are long-term plans. Working on increasing the number of top class individuals to come through the system is something that can be achieved with the right planning.
There are fundamental flaws though in the way the system in England is organised. The power that exists here lies predominantly with the Premier League and the member clubs, not the FA. Their primary (and pretty much solitary) care when it comes to the development of youngsters through their youth team is to make sure that they are right for the first team. It doesn’t matter really whether they come from England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, China or Togo. Some teams are better than others at utilising the local talent around them and so good English players make it through the system. Barkley is one of these. However, the thought of these big teams working as one on a national level is, at the moment, laughable. There is no incentive whatsoever to ensure that they all become accustomed to play in a certain formation, tactical system, develop the skills that the FA see fit for the senior national side. The FA get the best players when they are taken out of their youth teams to play representative age-group football.
Attacking the decision of Roy Hodgson to see at close quarters how one of our brightest talents compares to people who must have been heroes to him as grew up seems to me to be missing the point. Hodgson cannot be blamed for this; he is working with what he has to ensure that he can succeed in the short term. Bigger systemic and structural changes need to be enforced by the FA, working closely with the Premier League teams.
Consider the cases of other sports in this country that have strong centrally managed bodies. Cycling and rowing are our best examples. They have incredibly strong programmes from a national level downwards to ensure that the best rise to the top and have superb training and facilities with which to work.
They are different types of sport from football, yes, but then have a look at how rugby union and cricket are run in this country. With each of these sports there are strong decisions made as to how best utilise the pooled power of the clubs for those developing youngsters. Where there are problems in football, the Rugby Premier League clubs and County Cricket teams know they are part of a system that is there to ensure a strong national side. They work with, not against, their Union or Board to ensure that the best players are brought through properly into the national set up, and that there are plenty of strong players that can be called up as replacement. This is not an accident. It is, like the German and Spanish model for football, a plan. It is a coherent, centralised ideal of how best to organise the sport to ensure maximum success. The England Cricket Team goes even further by centrally contracting its top players.
Obviously, not all of this is relevant to football in England. Things have gone too far, and the power has transferred too permanently to the individual interests of the clubs. However, this football mad nation is done a disservice if some of the ways of doing things are not looked at properly by the FA. Whether they can get the Premier League to play ball is a different matter entirely.
Don’t blame the manager for this selection if you feel it has come too soon. Blame his bosses and demand that they change their philosophies. Barkley deserves his call up. He has risen through to play for England in spite of the systems in place, not because of them.