So another World Cup has passed us by and once again, despite having no expectations, England have still managed to under-achieve. The media who cried out for the inclusion of youth are starting the blame game of a lack of experience in the squad - where was Gareth Barry? what about Michael Carrick? Both players villanised as the "old era" of English football. Had they been taken to the World Cup and England were knocked out at this stage, they would have been made the scapegoats. Instead, we find the blame levied at the feet of Wayne Rooney, whom the media once again placed on the national pedestal, before snatching it from under him on the grounds that he did not "cover" Leighton Baines enough against Italy - despite playing in a less than favoured position on the left and covering more ground than any other England player on the night. Oh and let's not forget Steven Gerrard - "captain fantastic" - who is now being pressured to retire following the mediocre performance at the World Cup. Well captain fantastic was frowning in his press conference today - and my sympathy goes out to him and the team.
Our football club purchased a World Cup replica last week, to get the kids and parents excited about following what would be many of the children's first tournament. I took it to a couple of venues last week and was greeted with high, yet realistic hopes of a families bubbling with the excitement of the national euphoria that is only evident during a major tournament. I took the World Cup with me this weekend too - just 24 hours after Italy failed to do England a favour and beat Costa Rica. As expected, when offering children as young as 3 years old the chance to pose with the World Cup for a Kodak moment, everybody made the usual comments - "well that's the closest we'll ever get to the World Cup" - "Hold on tight to that Harry, you might never see another Englishman win it!". It got me thinking - will England ever be "good enough" to win something ever again?
The World Cup always brings about a million questions - should we sack another manager for failing to win a trophy? does the squad need a drastic overhaul? do we need to bring in more foreign managers so that every team in the Premier League can play tiki-taka football? The footballing experts are now beginning to have their say - Matt Le Tissier calling for Roy Hodgson to "experiment" against Costa Rica (what could possibly go wrong?) and Glenn Hoddle warning that experienced members of the squad are still needed to guide our younger players. The surprising thing is that, other than the lonely voices of Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate, nobody else seems to be looking at the wider picture. This barren spell being experienced by our national team has been on the horizon for quite some time. Our Under 21s, Under 19s and Under 17s teams have not won...well anything for a significant period of time now (the Under 21s last won a championship in 1984 - although they did get to the final in 2009 - but were drubbed 4-0 by the Germans). So what is the real issue?
Now, I'm not going to just jump on the "grass roots" bandwagon and come along for the ride. I'm going to hijack the wagon and pull it over for a second. As a nation, we are starting to understand the benefits of small sided games and a greater number of touches of the ball. The FA are starting to implement changes to the "rules" of the game at young age levels in order to encourage these principles. However, the FA and football in England lack an overall philosophy and belief. Every pundit on earth has their say, and they generally conclude that "we don't have the answers, but we have raised important questions". Well, I am going to give everybody the answer to this nationwide conundrum - fear.
Not the type of fear experienced by our national team at major tournaments, but the fear of the "win at all costs" mentality. The fear of being shouted at by a team mate for losing the ball. The fear of being berated by a parent on the touch line for not being in the right place at the right time. The fear of the ball. Why not remove this fear? Allow children time to develop their skills in football classes at their own pace and deliver encouragement and praise to enhance confidence. Simple right? A child that is confident, is a child that is happy. A child that is happy, is a child that is passionate about what she/he is doing. A child that is passionate, well they can achieve anything.
So no more questions - just the answers...
Step One: Remove the fear factor - praise a child for trying a Cruyff turn on their own goal line at the age of 5 years - one day they'll attempt it in the opposition penalty box and then bend the ball into the top corner - but only if they don't fear trying it.
Step Two: Give children time on the ball under absolutely NO pressure. Give them their own personal space to develop and a passionate and caring coach to guide them through the skills. A child that performs a Maradona turn and falls flat on their face needs to be encouraged to try again by the smile of their favourite football coach.
Step Three: Let them play. Yes they need to know the basic "rules of the game", but they do not need constant coaching. A good coach realises that a child plays in the playground every week by themselves - why all of a sudden do they need 13 coaches on the sidelines on a Sunday morning?
Later on we will worry about understanding the game and how to dictate the pace so that we can raise lots of mini-Pirlos, but for now, let's let the kids enjoy the game and coach them with a smile on their face, no pressure or fear of failure and raise a future national team of smilers and not frowners for 2030.