It was a drastic decision that, if one had listened to the cynics at the time, was doomed to failure. Yet a little more than 20 years after the Football Association’s then technical director Howard Wilkinson proposed that responsibility for the national under-15 and under-16 teams be taken away from the English Schools FA as part of his ambitious Charter for Quality, Saturday’s events at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata should have provided the final confirmation that the last English manager to win the league was on to something.
The thrilling 5-2 victory against Spain in the Under-17 World Cup final provided the perfect ending to an unprecedented year of success for the FA’s age-group teams. Since Steve Cooper’s side were beaten by the same opponents on penalties in the final of the European Championship in May, England have also been crowned world champions at under-20 level and won the European under-19 title in ruthless fashion, not to mention the triumph at the prestigious Toulon tournament for the second year in a row.
“It’s fantastic evidence that we have the best youth developers in the world in this country and they are developing the best players in the world,” says Wilkinson. “But it’s not a transformation – this has been a long progression that started with the introduction of academies and the building of St George’s Park. Once that was in place, it’s all been about the benefit of having a plan and sticking to it.”
In 2007 England qualified for the Under-17 World Cup for the first time, reaching the quarter-finals in South Korea, before losing at the same stage four years later. But the appointment of Dan Ashworth as technical director in 2012 when the FA moved into its £100m headquarters proved to be another watershed moment. Much maligned for his role in the Eni Aluko/Mark Sampson controversy, the former defender who spent most of his career playing for non-league clubs in Norfolk deserves credit for introducing the joined-up approach by which all England’s coaches now work out of the same office at St George’s Park. “All the national coaches are very close, from Kevin Betsy with the under-15s to Gareth Southgate with the senior team,” Cooper told BBC 5 Live on Sunday. “The teams are expected to play in a certain way and, if it is a good one, the more you practise it the better you become at it.”
Wilkinson believes that has been made possible thanks to the support of the academy system he helped to introduce in 1997. The FA invites coaches from all over the country to attend regular sessions at St George’s Park which explain its long-term vision to develop future internationals. “You’re asking them to entrust their players into your hands,” Wilkinson says. “If you’re going to do that, then you’ve got to be able to show that the process is worthwhile for their players and will improve them rather than detract from their development. I think over the years academies have come to appreciate that this isn’t a conflict; this is a joint effort.”
The Crystal Palace academy director, Gary Issott, has seen the youth-team products Nathaniel Clyne and Wilfried Zaha progress through the age groups to win senior caps for England, even if Zaha eventually opted to play for Ivory Coast. He remembers the then England Under-21 manager, Stuart Pearce, coming to the training ground to implore them to make their best young players available for international duty in an effort to give them the experience they need.
“In Spain and Germany all the best young players would have accumulated something like 80 caps through the different age groups by the time they are ready to step up to senior level,” Issott says. “So we were being educated as clubs as far back as eight years ago. The FA has definitely engaged more with the clubs in recent years. There is an improved scouting network that means most of our games are being watched. It’s just about trying to build a relationship with the clubs and trying to understand what they are trying to do.
“It’s also about trying to keep the players grounded because there’s a spin-off every time you get called up,” he adds. “It’s almost like alerting every agent and every predator club in the country. That’s almost the biggest challenge. I remember one period when we had several players in the England Under-19 side and you could see their mind-set: ‘Well I’m the best in my position in England and I’m almost guaranteed to make it.’ We’d pull them over and say: ‘Yes, you’re the best for your age in this country but the Premier League is the best out of 70 countries in an age band of 17 to 35.’ The next level is really tough for them to crack.”
For England’s under-20 coach, Paul Simpson, and Cooper, however, following Brazil’s class of 2003 into the record books by winning two world titles in the same year is just the start of the process they hope will lead to silverware when it matters most. “The results have been fantastic but we are very much still in the infancy,” Cooper says. “We want to be as successful as we can but we also want to work in a way that’s beneficial for the future. It was fantastic to win on Saturday but, even if we hadn’t, it would have been a successful tournament. We played in a World Cup, with five internal flights, a penalty shootout and playing against the best teams and beating them. We have to keep one eye on the future. What we really want is to be successful at senior level.”
Whether that becomes reality will be fascinating to watch unfold, although the manner in which England’s young players have conducted themselves this year – culminating in the stirring comeback from two goals down after 30 minutes on Saturday – has been a credit to their coaches.
“You can’t develop a player without developing the person,” says Wilkinson. “Under pressure people with the right mentality and the right temperament then produce the best performances. England were always the best team from kick-off to finish but in the opening stages they were naive. They left themselves bare and paid the price. But fortunately talent always rebounds and that’s what they did.”
The Guardian Sport