Kenneth Clarke, a most longevous Bow Group (and Cabinet) alumni of past and present, can often be heard recounting a rose-tinted tale of when he was a young man; As his story goes, before his almost peerless contribution to the Bow Group and British politics, Clarke’s greatest contribution to his nation was informing the Russian linesman presiding over the 1966 World Cup Final at Wembley, in Russian tongue, that Geoff Hurst’s goal was over the line and should count as part of our infamous World Cup victory over West Germany.
It is among the finest fireside tales a consummate Englishman could have in his arsenal for any occasion, but regardless of his crucial watershed contribution, that Kenneth Clarke was a young man the last time England won anything in an international football tournament, underlines the urgency of a nation and its past time to return to the fields of glory.
The Olympics demonstrated what British victory in sport can do for a nation at home and on the world stage, and though many caught up in the fervour of London 2012 may disagree, we are first and foremost a footballing nation, and a national victory on the football field would eclipse any number of medals on the track.
As with any great victory however, it can only come from a long and hard road of clever preparation on a truly national scale.
Our tactic until recently as a nation in seeking victory in the football has been to haphazardly draw in the world’s most expensive managers with vast sums of money, give them a free reign to pick the best players we have to offer at the time, hope for the best, and then sack them when we fall somewhere around the first major hurdle.
This tactic has happily recently changed, quite dramatically, but to take England to victory we will need to go further still and employ some truly radical and groundbreaking long-term strategies.
Today sees the opening of the St George’s Park in Burton, an FA training and recuperation facility, coming at the cost of some £100 million, designed to foster new English talent into the ranks of our national team, and act as the foundation for English football.
Its vision is rather shamelessly based on INF Clairefontaine, the centre credited with producing the World and European Cup winning French national teams of 1998 and 2000. Clairefontaine was certainly groundbreaking for a national football side, and the quality of its product is without dispute, but the model will struggle to work in England.
France relies on drawing many of its players from its African colonies, no French team, at least in the late eighties and nineties, could compete with the investment in scouting resources of the national side, and so Clairefontaine was able to act as the first port of call for young (potentially) French talents drawn from all over the world.
In the UK, or in the world now, with the thorough development of the international scouting reach of major football clubs, it is highly unlikely that any player of talent, even in their early teens, will be wandering lost across the colonial plains without a club, looking for a British national centre of excellence to begin their careers.
The best way to create a brilliant footballer and nurture their talent is for them to play regular football at the highest possible level. It is no coincidence that Spain has since eclipsed France in becoming one of the most successful national football sides of all time, and in a startlingly short period. Spanish success on the national football field runs exactly parallel with the resurgence of top Spanish teams and La Liga as the world’s best and most competitive football environment.
Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have among the best youth talent centres (“Cantera”) in the world, but certainly not significantly better than their English counterparts. Where they surpass English clubs is that their youth and reserve teams play in the main national leagues, and those leagues are strong. For example the Real Madrid Castilla (B team) currently plays in Liga 2, our equivalent of the Coca Cola Championship. This means their youth and reserve players are experiencing highly competitive football week in, week out, combined with the world’s best, coaches, physios and training facilities.
Having our best coaches and facilities available to young English footballers at the St George’s Park is useless unless those players are easily combining the facility with regular competitive football as their Spanish counterparts. If players aren’t doing that by their early teens, they are highly unlikely to be national stars of the future. In other words St George’s Park needs to play football as well as teach it.
With the unfortunate rising incidence of bankruptcy in the English football league, which has been a spectre in the national game for a decade, there is no reason why the F.A don’t invest some of the money set aside for St. Georges Park and other projects into buying a league football side, and no reason why Parliament does not legislate or provide funds where necessary to support it. There was huge outcry and discord created when Wimbledon FC was sold to become the MK Dons, but what could soften the blow of losing your beloved team more effectively, than to know it was to go from being mere parochial pride to England FC. A team made up of solely English talent under the age of 25, funded and managed by the FA competing in the football league, its aim to contribute to our national game week in week out, but to truly change the scope of our international chances every two years.
Aside from the £100 million already spent on St George’s Park and the some £25 million spent on foreign managers for the English side over the past decade, over £ 1 billion was spent on building the new Wembley Stadium, the home of English football. This is an incredibly high price tag for a football side that hasn’t won anything for 50 years. For the same price we could have founded our own British Real Madrid and Barcelona. As England FC would be likely to be highly nationally (and internationally) popular as a club side it is probable that any FA or government investment would be returned comfortably within twenty years. It’s a policy that, if the government were able to take ownership, would potentially be a true gift to the nation, and as trite as it may be, if successful, one received with far greater gratitude than almost any other policy. With Ken Clarke currently sitting as Minister Without Portfolio, the advocacy of such a policy by the current government may mean the old pro has another World Cup victory in him yet.