Look who’s talking

by Robert O'Connor

VieiraAmongst the speculative target setting and Blairite declarations of intent that peppered Greg Dyke’s inaugural FA policy speech, in which he outlined his vision for the Association’s evolution under his tenure and beyond, one grubby little word stood out and boiled the new Chairman’s action plan down to its central theme. Quota.

Though it had looked for a while like Dyke would dodge this particular landmine. He ducked and weaved his way artfully through the wood of evergreen disquiets about the problem of foreign influence on the game, and how where once it crept up it now hammers at the door of all that is pure, wholesome and English about the national sport, like some oily-haired, closely-groomed wooden horse. But through the tricky footwork Dyke eventually slipped.

By the time this salaciously in-vogue four-letter-word was dropped on the room the thrust of Dyke’s argument had already been made and needed only underscoring. In asserting that his new commission will be “looking at if it’s possible to introduce quotas” on the number of non-English players we allow into the country the FA’s new flag bearer has lit the touch paper for another decade of cyclical failures and blame shifting.

The two sides of the debate on how to reverse three generations of entrenched non-achievement – or to ‘turn the tanker of English football’ to plug a new but already flagging Dykism – made camp a long time ago but both continue to mine the ranks of football celebrity for new recruits.

Last week Patrick Vieira, a world and European champion, footballing savant and irrefutable icon, has come out in defence of the internationalised domestic game and made a familiar case for the endemic weakness of English coaching regimes. That kind of endorsement, derived from know-how and delivered with the charisma that Vieira’s reputation affords, packs a punch and with Dyke, a footballing novice in any administrative sense, as the new face of old-style protectionism the contrast strikes of imbalance.

Dyke of course has won his fair share of public approval in the past. Lauded as a champion of journalistic license in the fall out from 2004’s Hutton Report the former BBC Director General has demonstrated a knack for scything through stubborn bureaucracy and rewiring mammoth organisations in micro format. Whether that will help him go toe to toe with a growing movement that seems less and less convinced that imported talent is putting an anchor on the flight of the national team is far from certain.

What is certain is that commentators on both sides of the line have been agreeing for some time that England’s footballers are technically out of their depth when major tournaments come to the crunch. To weed out some answers Dyke would do well to look at what has changed over the last twenty years and what has remained the same.

Whilst the number of eligible players in England’s top flight has fallen drastically since the advent of the Premier League the record of the national team has remained consistent. So too has a coaching ethic that values strength and speed over technical craft. If you can measure it, you can manage it, and these trends demonstrate how teaching methods and results are holding one another back, whilst the domestic club game scales new heights.

That 30 second empirical assessment alone should be enough to set heads turning at Lancaster Gate and as club football slowly but systematically becomes divorced from the fortunes of the national side policy makers would do well to keep their eyes on the road in designing a new format for developing young talent. The Premier League became untameable a long time ago and is now a vehicle for growing exclusively corporate interests. Vieira recognises that and if Dyke isn’t careful the tide of public opinion may just wash him away before he’s had a chance to steady the ship.

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