Roy Hodgson may be bullish, but few think England can win the 2014 World Cup. We ask the experts for the grassroots blueprint to help a Home Nation hoist the trophy
Mick Clegg, former Man United coach
Chris Powell, England left-back-turned-manager
Ben Lyttleton, author and penalty expert
At a time when Greg Dyke, the chairman of the FA, claimed that if Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City won this year’s Premier League it would be “depressing” due to their dearth of English players, it’s easy to get caught up in pessimism about the Home Nations. Once again Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland failed to qualify for a major tournament and England could easily find themselves eliminated in the group stage. But it doesn’t have to be this way. ShortList talked to three experts – coach Mick Clegg, ex-England left-back Chris Powell and Ben Lyttleton, an author who has recently written a book on the art of the perfect penalty – about how Britain could produce a World Cup winner.
The World Cup is around the corner. Expectations are low and pessimism is high. Are things that bad?
Chris Powell: I don’t think so, no. Look at Roy Hodgson’s [provisional] squad. Seven players in it are under 23. The thing is, these youngsters aren’t in there to make up the numbers as a gimmick, they have earned their place and you could make an argument for them starting games.
Do you share Chris’s optimism, Mick?
Mick Clegg: To a certain extent. I like that the squad has plenty of youth, but I’m still not sure things are right. We still put too much emphasis on overseas players and that is preventing our young players getting their chance. The proposals for a B League are all very well, but I think youngsters should be getting into their first teams.
CP: Mistakes will be made along the way, everyone makes them, but we need to produce players of a standard so that they can play regularly for their first teams. That’s the key. With that, the England manager has a bigger pool to choose from. Clubs are achieving this. Look at Southampton; look at what their academy is doing. Liverpool have improved their young players this season and enjoyed success. It is there, happening in front of us. That has to be the endgame. We have loads going on within the English game, but we must ultimately be judged on the players we produce and who are playing in the Premier League and the Championship.
You say there’s loads going on, Chris. How is British football changing and improving?
CP: As a nation we are more outward looking and we take things on from all over the world. Take futsal for example – the smaller-sided game used in countries such as Spain and Brazil – that has helped youngsters with their technique. That is now being introduced in our academies. Street football has died. We know that, we know the social reasons for that with a lack of park space and the fact that parents don’t like their kids to be out. We are trying to replicate that street football ethic through things such as futsal.
MC: You’ve hit the nail on the head. I worked with a guy called Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United. From a young age he decided he wanted to be the best in the world and was going to go on a mission to get there. As a coach, I listened to what he needed and tried to help him achieve just that. Part of that was giving him space to hone those skills. Cristiano would stay behind for 40 minutes every day and, without anyone watching, he would work on his skills without pressure. Skills thrive without pressure. You need to work on your own and then bit by bit you add the pressure. The kids need space. If a child grows up in a small, constrained house they will most probably grow up to be small and constrained adults. Give kids space to do their thing.
Is simply copying successful nations enough?
CP: It’s not enough, but it is fine to look and observe. What’s wrong with taking the good parts from successful systems abroad and marrying them to the good stuff happening here? And there is good stuff happening here. England especially are producing technically gifted players – Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley – and Luke Shaw is a full-back and gifted. They are tactically aware and are used to all sorts of formations. That comes from the work being done in this country. I found out recently that there are coaches in Germany and Spain who are really impressed with the set-up in this country. They like what we’re doing with the Pro Licence and what we’re doing with the Youth Awards [a highly recommended course for aspiring coaches]; things that aren’t happening in their countries and they are impressed with us. It works both ways, they can learn from us too.
MC: It’s not just this generation of players. We also need to tap into this generation of coaches. I worked with the likes of Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and the Neville brothers at United, and these guys can pass on so much knowledge to the next crop of players. We need to tap into their minds. You can look at tactics, data and stats all you want but you would never get to the root of why they were so successful as a team. Tap into their stories, though, and you would be flooded with information that would help others.I had a sports scientist come into United when we had Cristiano. He wanted to compile data and stuff off the computer on him but he wasn’t interested in what I knew about the Portuguese – what he was like, what made him tick. He couldn’t understand the essence of what Cristiano was and how he came to be such a great player. He was taking lots of data and things, like how many reps he did and what his heart rate was at a certain time, but he was ignoring simple but vital things about the individual. Knowledge is a far better tool than any sports scientist can muster.
What about the British winning mentality? Ben, you have written a book on the art of penalties. Is our failure to win shootouts testimony to our frail mindset?
Ben Lyttleton: Absolutely. England don’t have bad penalty takers. In international shootouts, England’s conversion rate is 66 per cent. The average is 78 per cent. Germany’s is 93 per cent in shootouts. In club football, looking at players of English nationality in the Premier League and the Champions League, the conversion rate goes up to 82 per cent, better than any other nationality. Germany’s drops to 76 per cent in the Bundesliga. The old joke that English players can’t take penalties is false, it is a case of English players struggling to convert them when they are playing for their country.
MC: But isn't it all about practice? Psychology is all well and good but shouldn't players practice to perfection and then use a psychologist?
How much of the problem stems from the media? Do journalists inadvertently just pile on the pressure?
BL: England players are far more aware of the consequence of defeat than other nations. Our press have a scapegoat culture, so the memories of past failures are heavy to bear. Stats show that if you lose a shootout you are more likely to lose your next. It becomes a vicious circle of psychology. Everyone in the world knows we have an issue. I spoke to Ricardo, the Portugal keeper, in 2004 and 2006. Against England in 2006, we were reduced to 10 men with Rooney sent-off, but still Portugal played for the draw because they felt they had the better chance of winning on penalties. They were proved right. Analysis proves that the most stressful part of the shootout is not walking to the spot, but in the centre circle. Moving forward, players need to suppress negative thoughts and focus on the process, not the outcome.
In conclusion, then, are you optimistic about the future?
CP: I am. As a nation we’ll never agree on everything, but I like that debates are occurring. Feelings ran high after Greg Dyke’s recent four-point plan, but whatever you think about the recommendations he made, we are actively trying to make things happen and not just sitting still. That has to be a good thing.
Mick Clegg is a fitness consultant for Powerade, the official sports drink of the 2014 FIFA World Cup; Youtube.com/powerade. Twelve Yards: The Art And Psychology Of The Perfect Penalty by Ben Lyttleton is on sale now (Bantam Press)