On the road to nowhere

February 13, 2007
By Dale Johnson
(Archive)

It's the scenario which most feared: the destruction of the national team leading to fans in England feeling so far detached from the squad to the point of disinterest.

National Football Centre
GettyImages / CliveMasonNational Football Centre is unlikely to ever be completed by the Football Association

The worrying realisation is that it's likely to get worse before it gets better.

The finger of blame can point in many directions for the collapse of support, but the Football Association now stands accused of ruining the potential of England's so-called golden generation and setting the game back in this county by at least five years.

Wembley Stadium has again been in the news this week, a project which has cost the jobs of many people and seen chief executives come and go from an organisation which has lost its way completely since Adam Crozier was hounded out by the media in 2002.

While there remains the probability that international football will finally return to the north London venue this calendar year it's hard to see the quality of the team matching its plush new surroundings.

The turning point for England's long-term fortunes came in early 2004, before the European Championships, after Sven Goran Eriksson was snapped meeting Chelsea officials in a London hotel. The Swedish coach had already courted controversy in the press over his liaisons with TV personality Ulrika Jonsson and it was thought his secret engagement with Stamford Bridge bosses - as they looked to lure him to the club as a replacement for Claudio Ranieri - would be his undoing.

England fans had already begun to grow somewhat tired of Eriksson's style as well as the baggage he brought. But rather than show Eriksson the door the then-FA chief executive, Mark Palios, chose to hand Eriksson a new contract - extending the deal to finish in 2008 rather than 2006. He was effectively handed a new four-year contract.

The effects of that deal are still being felt today. And tomorrow. And the day after. Eriksson finally agreed to step down after the 2006 World Cup - this came after the Faria Alam/Palios love triangle scandal and his meeting with a fake sheik over a possible takeover of Aston Villa - but until he finds other employment the FA continue to fork out a reported £13,000-a-day. Not to mention the £5million-a-year salary he had previously received. Value for money indeed.

Eriksson certainly gained results in his first two years and galvanised a team bereft of confidence. There is, however, a definite danger of outstaying your welcome both in terms of the national psyche and your effectiveness to do the job. Few would now disagree that Eriksson should have been shown the door after Euro 2004.

While Eriksson continues to be paid more each day than many of Britain's residents get in a year - just for sitting around sipping champagne - the National Football Centre, which was to mirror the infamously successful Clairefontaine academy in France, remains a wasteland.

The FA had already over-stretched themselves with the Wembley project. The wages of Eriksson and the subsequent financial implications meant that the site at Byrkley Lodge in Burton is nothing more than that.

Brian Barwick
GettyImages / CliveMasonBrian Barwick: Leaving at the end of the year.

Last August the FA confirmed there would be no further financial commitment or any risk taken on the project. It was then announced the ill-fated site would be sold off at a £25million loss - until FA council members forced a rethink.

So where do the next crop of young players come from? With so many of England's top football Academies increasingly flooded with youngsters from Spain, France and North Africa the opportunities are dwindling.

At least the National Football Centre would have provided an arena for the young talent to gather and be nurtured outside of representative football.

Again, it's an opportunity thrown away by those in power at Soho Square.

The FA's latest CEO, Brian Barwick, arrived in January 2005 amid positive press spin - probably because of his media background with ITV and the BBC - but it is this man who is now responsible for ruining the England team.

After Eriksson's position with the England team became untenable, it was Barwick's job to search out and find a successor. But rather than approach the task as a footballing decision it was more like he was hiring a manager for a company. In fact, after confirming Steve McClaren as the new coach, it was Barwick who referred to the time scale for the appointment as 'on a par with any major business'. Selecting the new coach of a team is entirely different and is not subject to the same market forces.

And let's not forget the selection panel included Dave Richards, who jumped ship as Sheffield Wednesday chairman, amid their impending meltdown in 1999/2000, for the Premier League. Now he is picking the manager of England.

There's nothing wrong with appointing from within if the structure is successful. But McClaren was promoted from a failing coaching team which already had its favourites, its style of play and rigid organisation. Just how a stuttering and disjointed team was going to progress as most of the status quo remained is a mystery.

It's not even as though he was popular at Middlesbrough, as few were disappointed to see him move on despite reaching the UEFA Cup final last season.

Of course, McClaren was the unanimous choice of the FA's selection committee. Well, that's what we're led to believe. Maybe Barwick and Co flew out to Portugal just to have a bite to eat with Phil Scolari rather than to discuss the soon-to-be vacant job.

Barwick became obsessed with deadlines, vowing to appoint a new England manager before the World Cup, and that cost him the chance to appoint Scolari - a highly qualified international coach who would have suited the English style.

And that came after the process that had led Guus Hiddink, another manager who has had almost uninterrupted success, to pull out of the running and head to Russia. Evidently flow charts and Venn diagrams do not form the basis of a normal Hiddink interview that usually lets his record do the talking. Martin O'Neill, meanwhile, reportedly gave a highly disappointing presentation. Presentation?

Steve McClaren
Empics / MikeEgertonSteve McClaren has done nothing so far to prove his many doubters wrong

Many, of course, were eager for England to go for an Englishman after more than five years under Eriksson. Football, for some reason, seems to be obsessed with this. The England cricket team, for instance, did not suffer from having Zimbabwean Duncan Fletcher in charge and Australian Troy Cooley as the bowling coach when winning the Ashes in 2005.

Why appoint a substandard coach just because he is English when there are far better candidates who can move the game forward in this country rather than hold it back? McClaren does not have either the charisma or the belief of the fans to succeed in the job. But at least he's English.

Many now claim that the England team is not good enough, that there are too few quality players. Well, that's simply rubbish. If you have a coach who knows how to get the best out the players at their disposal, is tactically aware and able to recognise strengths and weakness of both their own team and their opponents, you do not need a team bursting with world class players.

Did Greece have this in 2004? No, they had a side in which each player knew his job and they worked for each other as a team. Does it look like the current England squad works for each other or as individuals? It's not a hard question. England does have the talent but does not have the team.

While McClaren remains in charge the England fans will become more and more disillusioned. After taking the bold and popular decision to boot out David Beckham after the World Cup he has systematically failed to address the Gerrard-Lampard conundrum and drop the Chelsea man in favour of a more suited central midfield partner for Gerrard. Will he have the bottle to do this or will the 'power' of the senior players in the squad tell? I know what my money is on.

When England dismally fail to qualify for Euro 2008 the nation will be left with a team which no longer understands how to get results in the international game. A new coach will come along and will have to start all over again in qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa. Hopefully the new coach will show greater leadership and ingenuity than McClaren otherwise more than five years will have been wasted.

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