Andy Murray’s success has led to much talk of how British sport is finally getting rid of the sporting monkeys that have so long perched on its back. This is an understandable reaction.
When you win a coveted sporting crown after 77 years you are entitled to celebrate. And the triumphant feeling is all the more understandable given that it has crowned two years of success which has done much to make the British feel that the nation is no longer a sporting pariah. This was felt all the more keenly given that most sports the world plays was invented in this country or, at least, the laws were codified here.
So during that period we have seen Britain stage a very successful Olympics, the English cricket team not only retained the Ashes but thumped Australia in Australia with the sort of victory margins that were once the preserve of the Australians. Justin Rose conquered the US Open in golf. Then there has been the cycling success led by Bradley Wiggins, that in rowing and squash and the Lions victory in Australia coming just a day before Andy Murray made history. Of course, as often happens in such moments of ecstatic elation, various sporting triumphs are being lumped together
So some of these victories are English, as with the cricket team, some British, like the Olympics, Murray, Wiggins and rowing. And some, like the Lions, through a unique sporting team which includes players from another independent country, Ireland. And a country that for a long time claimed a part of Britain as its territory and is not part of the Commonwealth.
But then that has always been the nature of sport in these isles, the only country which is allowed to field more than one team in several sports such as football, cricket, rugby and hockey to name only four. But, despite this caveat, the recent sporting victories form a very impressive list and are worthy of acclamation.
However, there remains one sport that stubbornly refuses to get rid of its pet monkey: the football team. Indeed this summer this sport has touched a nadir with both the Under-21 and the Under-20 teams failing to even get out of their groups in their respective international competitions, the European Championships and the World Cup.
And this is where the future is depressing. To understand look at the reasons for the sporting success. The cricket success can be traced back to the leadership of Lord Ian McLaurin. The man who got rid of green shield stamps, and launched Tesco on its great march to becoming the No1 supermarket in Britain, was also the man who reshaped English cricket. The essence of that change was to aim for international success, which is what really matters in cricket. McLaurin decided that to do that you needed, in effect, to create a club England cricket team. This meant having the best coach you can get, converting counties into finishing schools to provide players who can form part of club England and give these players long-term, central, contracts. And further more so reshaping cricket that once players are selected for England their only obligation is to perform for England not their counties.
He could make such dramatic changes because counties only survive because of the hand outs they receive from the England and Wales Cricket Board. In football the Premiership clubs require no FA money, indeed they give money for grass roots football.
Some of the other sporting achievements are individual achievements like that of Wiggins, Rose, Murray or Carl Foch in boxing. Also some of these sports do not have a huge reach. If you exclude India with its population of 1.2 billion top class cricket covers a very small part of the global population. Rugby may talk of being a world sport but at the highest level it is really the northern hemisphere nations of Britain and France and three southern hemisphere countries. It does not in any effective way touch either Asia, Africa or even much of South America let alone North America.
Murray’s success also shows how specialised it can be in an individual sport as opposed to a team sport. He has succeeded not because of the Lawn Tennis Association but inspite of it. He did this by going to Spain at an early age and then winning Grand Slams by hiring Ivan Lendl as his coach.
But such top down solutions for success cannot work in football. There you need grass roots solutions and this is where football in this country faces immense problems.
These problems were well analysed for me recently by Glenn Hoddle. One of the finest players of his generation and a fine football mind, despite the unacceptable comments he made about disabled people, Hoddle is convinced that England’s coaching strategy has been wrong for almost 50 years. Kids are not taught how to control the ball. This should be the first principle of coaching and other successful football nations do not need to be told that. It may no longer be the case, as George Best once said, that the first touch of an English player amounts to a 50 yard pass but it has not improved much since Best made that comment.
I was talking to Hoddle as he was helping launch a game where fans have to match his selection of a European XI against Ossie Ardilles’ selection of a World XI. Hoddle’s revealing comment was he could only think of one Englishmen for his team: Ashely Cole.
His even more penetrating observation concerned grass roots level coaching for 8 to 15 year olds. The coaches in charge of the kids are, he says, paid peanuts. And as the old saying goes if you pay peanuts you get monkeys in this case poor, mostly unqualified, coaches who take the easy way. They teach their charges to lump the ball high, get it as far away from their goal line as possible and, in essence, sacrifice technique for the spurious delight of winning a youth match. That, as Hoddle rightly says, requires no coaching.
But surely, you say, Spain for years struggled just like England with strong, iconic, clubs sides but dreadfully poor, underachieving, national teams, failing to qualify for four World Cup finals since the Second World War. But Spain has had its revolution. It brokered a peace between Barcelona and Real Madrid, no mean feat this given its origins go back to the Spanish civil war, and then used the Barcelona model to reshape its football team.
England’s task is much easier but there is no hint that such a revolution could happen here.
It is easy to say this is all the fault of the Premier League. England have failed to qualify for the World Cup three times: 1974, 1978 and 1994. The Premier League was not even conceived in the 70s, and in 1994 it was two years old.
Yes the club versus country argument has acquired an added edge since the creation of the Premier League. But it is an historic one because the development of football meant there are two organisations: the FA for all of football and the Leagues for professional football. There is nothing you can do about that.
But the FA could do something. And here it must have a football version of Labour’s Clause Four moment. This is when Tony Blair announced that Clause 4, which effectively committed Labour to a collective state controlled economic future, had been abandoned. It was, and remains, a historic political act.
The FA’s Clause 4 is the five passes rule of Charles Hughes, the former guru of football development in this country. Hughes argued you only needed to pass the ball five times to score a goal. Why pass more he said and even felt Brazil would score more if they adopted his philosophy. This came before Barcelona unveiled their style where, it seems, the goalkeeper has more than five touches before releasing the ball.
But ridiculous as this idea now sounds I have not heard the FA admit how destructive it was, remember all the coaches now working were brought up on this idea, let alone that they have consigned it to the dustbin where it always belonged. This step must be the start of a new blueprint operational all the way from Hackney Marshes to Wembley.
It is only when this is done will there be any chance of the monkey getting off English football’s back. Even then it will take a long-time. Hopefully not as long as 77 years but then it is already 47 since that historic moment in 1966.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. Now a freelance journalist his latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99