In the great debate over where it all went wrong with England’s humiliating World Cup exit, Frank Brownlow examines if going back to basics is the streetwise way to stop the rot
George Best, one of the greatest footballers of all time, honed his skills on the streets of east Belfast.
He was allowed to develop his unique talent unhindered by coaching methods and eventually went on to become a Manchester United legend and a global icon.
Best never got the chance to parade his skills with Northern Ireland at the World Cup finals.
And what impact he would have made on the ultimate international stage will never be known.
But it was an opportunity that appeared wasted on England’s lacklustre players as they slumped to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Germany in Bloemfontein on Sunday at the last 16 stage of the tournament.
That debacle followed on from three poor performances in their group which saw England scrape through as runners-up behind the USA.
Ironically, England manager Fabio Capello showed a marked reluctance to use one of his most gifted players, Joe Cole (pictured below), who didn’t start a single game at the finals in South Africa.
Like Best, as a youngster at West Ham, Cole’s natural instinct was to run with the ball and take players on. Since moving to Chelsea he has found his first team opportunities more limited — although he has plenty of medals to show for his efforts — and is now on the look-out for a new club.
Is Cole’s situation with club and country symptomatic of the English and British game? Is skill now being actively discouraged? Is talent being coached and drilled out of kids?
Would they benefit from going back to the future.. to a modern day version of the close control school of Bestie’s back alleys?
Former Spurs boss and TV analyst David Pleat contends: “Years ago, when we played football in the streets and confined spaces, we learnt naturally. We had to learn to dribble in three-versus-three or four-versus-four games, with the coats down. Too many coaches now insist on static pass-pass-pass football for kids. Youngsters should be allowed to develop naturally up to the age of 11, in small areas, and later encouraged to appreciate space and use dribbling ability. We are so shorn of the Gascoigne-type creativity.
“We have been unable to break out of the straight jacket of English football, which places an unequal emphasis on sweat, power and pace rather than control, subtlety and thought.”
Pleat also feels there is too much emphasis on power and pace in the English game.
He said: “In this tournament England looked lifeless when they approached the opposition goal. They lacked the imagination to find the space to manoeuvre clear chances in the all important last 30 yards.
“Yet other countries, such as South Korea, Japan, Slovakia and Mexico, with less tradition and arguably no better players, have looked more dangerous. Germany were able to create space and open up shooting chances.”
Former England boss Graham Taylor feels the power of Premier League clubs hinders England’s international team.
“Club football reigns supreme,” Taylor said. “There needs to be a better understanding between the clubs and the FA in terms of how we can prepare for tournaments in a better way.”
But Taylor points out that the players must shoulder their share of the responsibility for England’s World Cup failure.
“I definitely don't think I've seen an England side defend so poorly. All the basics seemed to disappear. We didn't seem to know what we were doing,” he said.
Legend Harry Gregg, the former Northern Ireland and Manchester United goalkeeper and a student of coaching methods worldwide, believes foreign players in the Premier League have much to offer.
He said: “You dare not take the foreign players out of the Premier League because you would be removing most of the skill from the league.
“In many cases, the foreign players help raise the game of the English — or home — players up to their level.
“When lads play for England they are not playing alongside the same high quality of player so their performance levels fall. So the Premier League should continue with its large number of foreigners for the time being but from grassroots level up to the very top we are going to have to take a very humble view of where we are at.
“I like to try and be constructive but I have to say that England’s World Cup performance has been coming for a long time.”
Leading local youth coach Paul Evans advocates small-sided games as the best way to develop kids’ skills.
He said: “They should be encouraged to get on the ball, play a bit of football and enjoy it. About 20 or 30 years ago a lot of kids spent their time outside with a ball at their feet. Now we have the computer generation so that isn’t happening.
“Another massive factor is that there is very little open green space nowadays — houses are being built.
“Most facilities that are available have to be paid for. That’s perhaps something the government need to look at.”
There are different opinions on ways football on these islands can progress. It’s just a matter of finding the Best one.