The National Team we deserve?

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Must lower league club football be diluted to serve the interests of the national team? Kevin Rye, strategic adviser to football clubs and supporters’ organisations looks at the issue...

Just a few weeks ago now, England were knocked out of another major tournament, and the recriminations commenced. They came, principally, to bury Roy Hodgson, because that’s what the English like to do to their managers and coaches. It tends to make moving on a lot easier, and means that it looks like we don’t tolerate failure.

Although I don’t normally write about international football, I’m making an exception, because of who I see as responsible for this repeated and by now, very embarrassing failure.

The panels of 'experts' who tell us that 'We Should Be Better Than This'; that ‘England Should Be Winning Tournaments With The Talent We’ve Got’, rarely stumble on the right answer, instead talking about tactical naivety, or disagreements between manager and coaches: the soap opera stuff. The real problem gets ignored, and we all shuffle off for the new season, the new manager gets appointed and the whole circus begins again.

But if Einstein’s definition of madness is doing the same thing over-and-over again and expecting a different result, then English football needs some serious therapy. It has billions in finance, millions of players, hundreds of clubs, and should be able to make a decent fist in a tournament, if not be consistently successful in the international arena, but it’s not.

It’s not as though things can’t be turned around: Look at what Germany did when it failed, for about the first time in forever, to qualify for the knockout stages of a knockout competition: German clubs and the DFB funded a national network of coaching centres and coaches to develop talent. And we all know what happened after that. So what’s stopping it?

Two of the other common answers to the failure of England are the old classics: ‘The Players Are Paid Too Much’, or ‘They Don’t Care Enough’. Of course it matters when players don’t see international duty as the greatest honour in football, but that’s more of a symptom than the ultimate cause. And the cause is our relentless focus on club football, and for that, all of us are responsible. Or at least our clubs are.

We have The Premier League - ‘The Best League In The World’. It has the most money, it attracts players from all over the World, and it receives the most exposure. It is even regarded by government as successful major 'UK export'. The team finishing bottom will receive £100m next season just for turning up. Even The Football League occupies a place higher in our considerations than that of the England team. Well done. But why does that matter?

Ultimately, the clubs have huge control over what The FA does - they sit on the board, are represented in its council, and they do dictate - directly or indirectly - its strategy: the way it does things and why. Those clubs are not really all that interested in the success of the England team: they want success for themselves, they want their interests represented, and no amount of failure and embarrassment on the international stage will change that.

Even when The FA under Greg Dyke decided to investigate the state of the international team and coaching, it turned into a political matter: The Premier League declined to be involved (this is a review of international football, remember, and they sit on the board of The FA), and stepped back. And then the Commission rather shockingly recommended handing more power to the top clubs by proposing B-Teams and ‘League Three’. For some reason, having been snubbed by the top clubs, the report’s authors clearly believed that being even nicer to them was the answer. A very strange relationship.

Eventually, Dyke did at least get control of the elite coaching structure for ‘Football’s Governing Body’, and it is in some degree of partnership with The Premier League, creating football hubs similar on paper to the DFB & DFL’s work in Germany. But it all seems rather reluctant. Rather half-hearted. Imbalanced, even.

The ‘National Game’ can’t resign itself from responsibility either: too many of those from FA County Associations who essentially occupy the other half of The FA have been criticised repeatedly by inquiry after inquiry as a suffocating presence, even managing to hold up the limited reform accepted by the clubs as necessary. They certainly aren’t leading the charge en-masse to reform the internal workings of the Association, or to address the international team’s failures.

So what do we do? What’s my answer? At this juncture, nothing whatsoever. I’m not the expert you need I’m afraid, but after some twelve-or-thirteen years working with fans, clubs and governing bodies I can tell you what the exact cause is. I can even tell you the likelihood of it getting solved, which is precisely ‘Not A Great Deal’. Incidentally, fans can’t be blamed, just in case you wondered. In fact, my old organisation Supporters Direct, its colleagues at The FSF and you out there from organised fandom can actually all lay claim to having forced some serious growing up on clubs and the governing bodies over the years, but rarely is that recognised, and certainly not financially.

Following England’s exit, former Liverpool Defender and German international Dietmar Hamann described The Premier League as a 'Skoda being sold as a Lamborghini.' Maybe he’s being a bit unfair, because club football across England is very important to fans, communities, and the local economy. And the football is good, the players are, genuinely, in many cases, excellent. But the problem is, regardless of whether it’s good, bad, or mediocre, clubs only really care about themselves, their money, and their fans. And they only really care about each other insofar as it benefits them. They wall off themselves from any ‘strategic interest’ in the international team, and I sense little or no intention to change. I’m not even all that confident that even if the FA County representatives dropped their opposition to reform tomorrow, much would actually change.

But in the end, we get the game - and the international team - that we want and deserve - or rather that our clubs do. It doesn’t mean that we have to dilute the marvellous offering of club football that we are so blessed to have. It doesn’t even mean that we need to adopt a daft proposal like B-Teams or League Three. But it does mean that we need to start accepting it. At least then we might want to change. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Just ask Iceland.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.