Fewer Jeers For Pearce, More Cheers For Mancienne
Criticisms of the England U21 team’s performance in the European Championships have a familiar ring to them. Players can’t retain possession. No movement. A lack of flair and ambition. All eerily reminiscent of the senior team in South Africa last summer.
What is also familiar though, is the preference to blame the manager and the lethargic journalism that supports the idea that poor tournament performances must equal poor management. In particular, Pearce’s abilities as a custodian of England’s best young talent is being called into question. The usual crop of duplicitous journalists and ‘esteemed’ publications including The Telegraph, The Times, The Daily Mail and even the BBC have raised question marks over whether Stuart Pearce should be ‘trusted’ to develop our current crop of English youth.
The idea that developing the ability and skills of a U21 player is the responsibility of his national team manager, is a flimsy and flawed assertion right from the start. Firstly, the national team manager has far less exposure to his players than their clubs. So far this year, including roughly 2 weeks together at the Euros, Pearce has had somewhere around 30 days with his squad for coaching, preparation and games. Assuming 4 days a week of training for a young professional footballer, in the same period this year his club manager will have had somewhere in the region of 76 days with him on the training pitch. If he’s a young player who’s playing regularly (granted this is rare but Wilshere is one example), that figure could be as high as 95 days of training and matches. So who has the greater responsibility for ensuring players can kick with both feet, are comfortable in possession and tactically aware? The England manager or the club manager?
Yet this analysis itself is also flawed, assuming as it does that the bulk of this sort of development occurs between the ages of 16 and 21. Research has consistently shown that to develop a high level of technique that becomes second nature (such as close control and using both feet), it is the years between 7 and 14 that are critical. For those sceptical of ‘research’, then simply take a look at the work of the leading club academies at Barcelona, Manchester United and Milan. Barcelona’s La Masia for instance accepts boys only between the ages of 6 and 8 and work on technique begins immediately. Work with the ball is considered the most important aspect of youth development – at La Masia, everything involves the ball as developing fitness and physique is considered counterproductive to growth until a player reaches his teens.
It would be fair to conclude that on the whole, grassroots football in England does not support this sort of development outside the larger professional clubs. It is common knowledge now that the FA has only recently approved the introduction of smaller goals and pitches for youth football, an astonishingly overdue move.
However, if grassroots football is failing, issues at the other end of the English game are also a barrier to the emergence of young talent. The increasingly rich Premier League (which is now the richest league in Europe by turnover by at least 36%), has had a predictable economic effect – wage inflation. Concurrently, impending legislation on ‘home grown’ players coupled with a curious latent preference for English players has seen incredible transfer price inflation for English players. Take for example, Ashely Young, Chris Smalling, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson, all sold for fees that would only have been agreed in England. So English players are overpriced and overpaid.
The knock on effects of this are numerous. Firstly, foreign clubs won’t buy young English players even if they wanted to, because they’re far too expensive and frankly not good enough anyway. But that’s a moot point because English players on the whole hate moving abroad. Historically this was due to cultural barriers – language, food, culture – but more recently is due to the fact that no Spanish, German or Italian club will meet the wages that an average English player can demand in the Premier League. Take 19-year old Daniel Sturridge who demanded £75k a week from Manchester City after just 21 league appearances. Take a look at his peers and the salaries are equally incredible. This also explains the numerous English players moving to big clubs and sitting on the bench, or worse, in the reserves, thus further stunting their development. It seemed Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell were happy to take a 2-year career break at Chelsea picking up massive salaries whilst hardly playing. You can add Wayne Bridge to that list, and several others.
For all the accepted wisdom that foreign footballers are the barrier to English development, they’re not – young, ambitious English players have nothing to stop them from moving abroad to further their development and get regular game time, but they’re incentivised not to. Which is why Michael Mancienne’s move to Hamburger SV should be applauded. At the age of 23 he has chosen to move to a renowned and ambitious club in Germany to hopefully gain regular football at a high level – Mancienne has never played more than 30 club games in a season. Let’s hope that like the small society of other Englishmen to move abroad, David Beckham excepted, he does not become an invisible and forgotten man.