It was almost inevitable that the UEFA Under 21 tournament should have once again focussed English discussion on the perennial problem in English football: why is the national team so bad? More so, when the Premier League is so powerful and rules the world, at least in terms of the spectacle it provides week after week, and in its reach, exposure and ability to make money?
This is a problem that seems to be always with us like death and taxes. And, as ever, there are any number of suggestions on what should be done. So Harry Redknapp has chipped in with his comments that the problem is players are told to hoof the ball, not keep possession. You cannot, says Harry, do that in international football. Redknapp makes a valid point except this is not a particular problem of grown up football. This is a problem that goes right down to the grass roots of the game.
When back in the 1970s I first started reporting football it was common to go to first division grounds and hear crowds bellow out when one of their defenders had the ball, ‘boot it out’ or ‘loft the ball’. And woe betide any defender who dawdled with the ball on the edge of his penalty box. He was immediately condemned as ‘a fancy Dan’ who had no place on the park.
I must say I do not hear such cries, or not often in the Premiership. But you only have to go to youth football, and this means football right down to the grass roots, to realise that this mentality has not disappeared. Indeed the way mums and dads scream at their darling Johnnys to kick the ball out of defence and just hoof it forward is almost deafening. So if English football is to change, and learn the international possession and passing game, this change must first come at the grass roots. I see no evidence that this is happening, despite all the sermons and the endless lectures on the need for this revolution. Indeed there seems little appetite for such change.
And here we come up against a legacy, in particular the philosophy, that has long been the ruling ideology of football development as set out by the Football Association. Redknapp in his article had a go at his fellow Hammer , Trevor Brooking, pointedly asking what Brooking had done in his ten years as head of football development at the FA. And then Redknapp, in an acid comment, observed that in his long managerial career if he had told one of his chairman that he wanted ten years to win a trophy he would not have lasted long.
Yet in deference to Brooking it must be said that he inherited an impossible situation, the legacy of Charles Hughes and his quite extraordinary ideas of how to play football. It is clear that Brooking has not found it easy to get rid of the effect these dreadful ideas have had on our game. His task has not been made easier by the fact that these ideas have shaped an entire generation of coaches now in charge of English football.
Here it is worth revisiting what Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, told me about the possession game and the baleful influence of Hughes. I was talking to Pardew almost a year ago, when he had had a much better season than the last one. Indeed so good was it that he had won the manager of the year awards both from his fellow managers and the one given by Barclays, the League’s sponsor. I suggested to him that English football, at least at the top level, now saw much more passing of the ball and less of the old harum scarum.
He agreed, saying,”Yeah, a little bit. The game’s more fluid, we’re more continental now. We pass the ball more.”
I then mentioned some examples from recent matches. I had seen when Swansea played Tottenham, the Welsh side had not hoofed the ball out of defence but passed it from the back. “Even your old team, Charlton, was passing from the back,” I said, “You know, in the days of Wimbledon they just used to hoof the ball, what was called wonderful box to box football.”
Pardew’s response was, “The influence of the foreign manager, the foreign player, on coaching and playing in this country can’t be under-estimated.”
But did this mean the often talked about technical gap between English and foreign football had been bridged? We used to say, I reminded Pardew, that foreign players are technically better, while English players are more robust and quicker and all that. So has that been bridged, do you think?
His answer was very illuminating. “I wouldn’t say it’s been bridged. What I would say is, we’re actually giving out a format to show itself, whereas before we weren’t. Then it was the system of coaching, the Charles Hughes era.”
Hughes, let us recall, had studied football around the world, or so he claimed. The result was he come up with his famous POMO formula, Position of Maximum Opportunity. His conclusion was that you only required five passes to score a goal. To pass a ball more than five times, he argued, was a waste. In the Barcelona era the idea sounds so absurd as to suggest it has come from Mars, but in the 80s and 90s this was the FA mantra. Hughes said POMO was how England would once again be world champions.
I remember discussing this with Hughes and mentioned to him the great Brazilian sides of Pele and Hughes response was memorable Imagine, he said, without batting an eyelid, if they accepted POMO and only passed five times. How many more would they score? Can you imagine suggesting that to Barcelona? I know how they would respond.
Pardew went on to tell me:
“Charles Hughes, in that era, put coaching back in this country, 10 years. Thank god we’re seeing the end of it now. But there are still parts of it and I know it very well because I was brought up through that coaching system.”
According to Pardew this meant that he was told play the percentages. “More or less they were saying ‘if you don’t play it this way, you won’t win’. There was no coaching about keeping possession and trying to alter the opposite team’s psychology. This means by keeping the ball [you are telling them] that they’re never going to win, they’re never going to see the ball, like Barcelona do. There was nothing like that on the coaching programme that I went through, none whatsoever. It was about set piece play. So, basically, the big strikers, two mobile strikers, no Rooney like striker who can link the midfield and attack. You can’t play with two strikers any more. You can play with two strikers if one’s a link player. Otherwise you’re just going to get dominated in mid field.”
The reason Pardew gave why this change Is essential is that, “The game is faster, the players are technically better than they’ve ever been, the football boots are lighter, the ball is softer. Older players forget that if you put Johnny Haynes in today’s boots, on today’s surfaces, with today’s ball, of course he’d play for England, he’d probably be England’s best player. But it was slower then because the ball was heavier, the pitches were like bogs. I’ve not played on one pitch this year where my players have come off with muddy boots, not one! Now, you go back to 1975, some of those clips you see of FA Cup games, it’s like a mud bath! Billy Bonds rampaging through the middle! You just don’t get that anymore”
But even as he sketched out how much the game had changed Pardew confessed, “It’s a shame. But I miss that football, if I’m honest.”
And that in a way is the problem of English football. That old mud bath, hoof it up and chase, get it on to the head of a big striker, still appeals. The rest of the world long abandoned it. English football knows it is wrong headed to play football this way but just cannot give up its love of the old habits. And to do that what is required is not just tinkering with who manages teams but change from the bottom up. And such a revolution is always difficult in England, the land that abhors revolutions.
Mihir Bose’s latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @ mihirbose