THE FAR POST – COACHING STANDARDS TO BLAME NOT FOREIGN IMPORTS

Earlier this year, Greg Dyke and Rio Ferdinand’s commented about the number of foreign players in the Premier League hampering England’s chances of winning a tournament. Patrick Vieira also weighed in to the debate, saying that England’s failures were down to coaching standards, not foreign talent playing in the Premier League.

Vieira, who is now Manchester City’s elite development squad coach, stated:

“The problem is deeper than just saying there are too many foreigners.

“The methods in England haven’t changed as much as the game has changed.”

He continued:

“I believe the game has changed and if the game has changed that means we need to change our methods.”

Vieira believes that the influx of foreign players into the English game presents a convenient scapegoat for those looking to apportion the blame for failure and not the way to find a solution.

“I heard some comments about there being too many foreigners in the country, that that is why there is no chance for the English players to have a chance to play in the first team.

“But for me that is the comment everybody wants to hear.

“The truth is we need to ask how can we help the young players to develop?”

I’ve written elsewhere that the groundswell of opinion now seems to be behind the view that there should be limits on foreign players in the top division, but this is too simplistic a solution to a very complex problem. Whilst this measure has its merits, it has to be combined with other step changes in FA thinking and coaching. Individual player’s mental attitude also has a role to play. We have seen the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ of English football fail time after time on the world stage and the buck ultimately stops with the players themselves.

Perhaps the FA can learn a lesson from unfashionable Belgium.

Belgian Uefa A licence coach Michel Bruyninckx has been training young players with what he calls “brain centred learning”, a common idea in education but a new concept in football.

Bruyninckx’s theory and practice is based on the premise that the brain is at least 1,000 times faster than any computer, and he trains young players to take full advantage of the body’s “hard disk” and become more skilful and intelligent footballers.

Belgian clubs have reaped the benefit of his thinking, with young players from Mechelen, Westerlo, Anderlecht, Sint-Truiden, OHL Leuven, Vise, and KVK Tienen receiving coaching from Bruyninckx. This will also benefit the national side in years to come.

Lille in France and Espanyol in Spain have also contacted other teenagers that the Belgian coach has helped to develop.

Ex-Belgian national coaches Paul van Himst and Robert Waseige endorse Bruyninckx’s methods, estimating that 1 in 4 of the players that he has coached have turned professional or are in the women’s national squads.

Compare the success rate of this ‘one-man Belgian football academy’ to the development system in England where, according to Gordon Taylor, 5 out of 6 boys joining Premier League and Football League clubs at the age of 16 are out of the game by the time they are aged 21.

“We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body,” says Bruyninckx.

“Skilfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player’s cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning.”

Canada, the US, Nigeria, Egypt, Austria, Germany, France, Brazil and Turkey have all been in contact with Bruyninckx about his method. Notably, one country to show minimal interest has been England.

Ex-USSR international Sergei Baltacha, director of coaching at Bacons Football Academy and who has worked with Bruynincxk, has stated:

“In the UK intelligence is not valued, but the brain – it is the most important thing; it is everything.”

Ex-Bolton player and galactico Fernando Hierro said back in 2010 that the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF)’s commitment to its grassroots and youth-team programmes had been at the core of what the senior side had achieved up to that point in time.

“”When a good job is done at youth football we reap the benefits”,” Hierro said.

“[Our] World Cup victory is an acknowledgement for all those who have worked with the youngest players for all those years.

“The philosophy of Spanish football is to develop our players from grassroots with our own personality, our own way of understanding and style of football. It’s easy to say with hindsight after winning the EURO and the World Cup, but our great philosophy is to build upon the successes of youth football.”

Spain have won the UEFA European Under-19 Championship six times and the U17 title twice.

Hierro pointed to the regional structure implemented by the RFEF and its excellent relationships with the clubs as key reasons behind this expertise in developing young talent.

Spanish technical director Ginés Meléndez has also played a leading role in the side’s success. He has previously stated that the RFEF looks for mental strength in a player, and places great importance on character as well as skill:

“We want the players to be very level-headed, psychologically and emotionally stable. Euphoria or sadness [after a match] can lead to a drop in performance.

“Group cohesion is very important.

“We work on values which are fundamental in life but also in the development of a player”.

“They will be better players if they are good people. We have two fundamental goals: training and educating young players.”

Training and educating footballers to be good people as well as good footballers – what a good idea. Contrast this with some of the high-profile cases of young English footballers going spectacularly off the rails, such as Nile Ranger and Michael Chopra, who undoubtedly would have benefitted from this, although I’m sure many different individuals tried to keep them on the straight and narrow when they were growing up and progressing through the system.

Germany, the other consistently successful international team of recent years, have also reaped the benefit of a strong youth policy.

Frank Wormuth is the Head Coach of the Germany U20 National Team and the Director of Training for Football Coaches at the DFB’s Hennes Weisweller Academy, the central training facility of the German Football Association.

He has stated that:

“In my opinion, it would be better for young players to be loaned out to teams in the second or the third division so that they get the opportunity to train under professional circumstances and play competitive matches at a high level as well.”

“In Germany we have a Bundesliga [a separate first division] for U17 to U19 players. This is a further way to get experiences on a high level.

“But in the end they’ll have to train with the senior teams of the Bundesliga, have patience by sitting on the bench and use the chance when they play.

“Everything depends on the player himself but we have to give him the chance.

“At the moment head coaches in the German Bundesliga have confidence in their young players and their players are paying that confidence back.”

So, the solution to England’s problems are a cap on the number of foreign players in the EPL (maybe), better coaching and player development through radical techniques (definitely), and making young players put time in at lower league clubs with exposure to first-team football in grittier games (definitely); all the time making sure that they don’t turn into prima donnas and go off the rails (absolutely).

I hope that the FA can learn lessons from these three different approaches, and combine them into a cohesive player development policy that begins at grassroots level and feeds through to coaching techniques at St George’s Park.