England should follow Iceland’s soccer development model

By | June 29, 2016

England SquadBy Scott Nicholls

They came, they saw, they whimpered.

England and international tournaments don’t mix well. This England team, remember, went 10-for-10 in qualifying, and never even looked like losing a game. As soon as the games mattered, though, England’s “Lions” turned into “Cubs.”

England fans still have base expectations of a still-very-good set of players, but there’s a pattern of failure that has plagued England since their World Cup win in 1966 and nothing has been done to change it. The worst thing about it is that all England fans have come to expect disappointment at international tournaments.

When England turned on the style against Wales to come from 1-0 down, it was like watching a different team — they looked like lions, not cubs. Hodgson’s men had flair, bite, courage, and no fear. It made you forget that Hodgson was the manager that was ultimately a huge problem for this England team.

But then the blame shouldn’t fall squarely on Hodgson. It should fall on the English Football Association as well. Too timid to approach a controversial figure, Greg Dyke and his cronies have always favored ‘’yes men” above all else. Roy Hodgson was that man this time, Steve McClaren was that man the time before that, and it’s likely we’ll see someone like Gareth Southgate — the bookies’ favorite — take over after Roy.

Just like owners are said to take on the form of their pets — a soccer team takes on the form of its coach. Look at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, for example. Mourinho instilled an “us vs them” mentality at Chelsea, and while they did eventually crumble it was because Mourinho did. Strong personalities create and/or bring out other strong characters within the camp, and Hodgson’s post game whine just sums up where he goes wrong with this. “These things happen,” whined the former Fulham manager.

These things happen? Really? That’s all you’ve got for what most are calling “England’s most embarrassing result ever?” The mind boggles.

Hodgson might be the most uninspiring manager that has every walked the Earth. He sits drearily on the sidelines watching from his (probably) Audi-sponsored plush chair on the bench, looking on pensively but really not knowing what he’s going to do next. Hodgson’s biggest failings at this tournament were 1) being afraid to change the game when he needed to, and 2) dropping over half the team for a must-win game after an emphatic performance and comeback against Wales. Talk about putting your team out of rhythm.

Hodgson epitomized his incompetence yesterday when he attended a press conference and sulked like a three-year old boy after somebody took his iPad away.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I thought my statement last night was sufficient,” complained the freshly resigned England manager, before adding, “I’m no longer the England manager. My time has been and gone, but I was told that it was important for everybody that I appear — I suppose someone has to stand and take the slings and arrows that come with it.”

There is no accountability here and that is part of the bigger problem. Furthermore, with no John Terry to grab the players by the scruff of the neck — there’s no leadership either.

Hodgson was peeved he’d been strong-armed into facing the media, but his petulant reaction is a massive slap in the face to an England fan-base that has seen its nation’s players crash out of the 2014 World Cup in the group stage, and in the knockout round to Germany in the 2010 World Cup. Let’s not forget that under another “yes man” — Steve McClaren — the Three Lions failed to qualify for the European Championships in 2008.

England have won six games in the knockout stages of tournaments since 1966. Most of those six wins are scattered between Bobby Robson, who managed to finish 4th at Italia ’90, and Sven Goran-Erilksson, when he guided England to the quarterfinals of two straight World Cups.

Since Sven? Round of 16, Group Stage at the World Cup; Did not qualify, Quarter Finals, Round of 16 in the European Championships. It’s getting worse, and worse.

So what are Greg Dyke and the FA going to do to combat this? When Germany went through a period (not as bad as this) like this, they completely restructured their youth setup. In fact, most countries have focused an amazing amount of money and time on youth development. England? We’ve been more focused on negotiating TV deals that bring our club teams billions of pounds every year, and buying foreign superstars for brand Premier League.

Following Roy Hodgson, the media heard from Martin Glenn, the man charged with finding a replacement for the beleaguered Three Lions. Glenn let the room know at least twice that he “is not a football expert.” Sounds promising, then.

The harsh reality is that until something is done, England will continue to be surpassed by the rest of the world. The trick isn’t just a simple change of coach — although that would go a long way as England does have some very talented players coming through — but a complete organizational shake-up from top to bottom.

Iceland recognized the problems it had regarding youth development and acted accordingly. The sport’s governing body — the Knattspyrnusamband Íslands or “KSÍ” —saw that its coaches had to go overseas just to earn UEFA coaching badges, and how expensive it was. For the past decade or so now, Reykjavik has offered cheap coaching courses that have allowed Iceland’s prospective coaches to earn their UEFA A and B licenses.

Because of this action pretty much all of Iceland’s children are being coached from a very young age by people who know what they are doing. In contrast, I was coached my by friend Graham’s dad Mick. I’m pretty sure he didn’t have an FA level one coaching badge, let alone a UEFA A or B license.

The most frustrating thing about the performance on Tuesday evening wasn’t that English fans know that they have a more talented team than Iceland and didn’t get a result, but that “top-tier” players like Wayne Rooney, like Daniel Sturridge, like Dele Alli, and like Harry Kane barely looked like they knew what they were doing. That is a country wide, institutional failure from the top down, and the FA doesn’t look like addressing that soon.

The ratio of children to UEFA A or B licensed coaches in England is close to 1 coach for every 10,000 people. In Iceland it’s 1 coach for every 500 people. Of course you have to consider the population, but as a nation with a rich football culture, why isn’t England giving more people access to this kind of education in order to turn drag the sinking ship that is England’s national team out of the deep end?

The KSÍ also commissioned 15 publicly owned indoor pitches around Iceland because their biggest foe, the weather, kept kids from playing the sport all year round. Since then, the KSÍ has built 20 outdoor “3G” turf pitches, and more than 100 “mini-pitches,” scattered across the country.

Iceland beating England wasn’t the biggest upset that’s ever happened in soccer history. It was the culmination of almost twenty years of youth development. Iceland beat England because they’re a good team. Better yet, Iceland beat England because they’re better than England right now.

Six years ago Iceland was ranked 112th in the world. Toda, they’re ranked 34th. In their run-up to qualifying for the 2016 European Championships they finished 2nd in Group A, beating the Netherlands both home and away. They finished 2 points behind group winners, the Czech Republic, and 2 points ahead of Turkey.

To call them “well-drilled” is kind-of an insult to a team that was 2-1 up, and still had 3 or 4 men in the opposition half at the end of the game. That’s the mark of a team that is comfortable dealing with an opponent.

England has a choice. It can either sit and wallow in the embarrassment of losing to probably the most improved team of the last decade, or it can look at its failings and find the solution to fix them.

My suggestion? Let’s have Greg Dyke make a phone call to the Knattspyrnusamband Islands (KSÍ).


Follow Scott Nicholls on Twitter @scottnicholls