Legend tells of a village living in fear. Within the midst of the lake that provides the village folk with its water lives the dragon. The beast is venomous and cruel and holds them to ransom – either feed him or he will poison the water. The villagers begin by feeding the dragon two sheep daily. However, in no time all the sheep have been sacrificed to the monster and the villagers need fresh meat. They turn to their children. With heavy hearts, full of despair and woe, the elders offer up their offspring to the dragon to save the village. Eventually, through the drawing of lots, it becomes the turn of the villages’ King to lose his daughter to the jaws of the demon. The King begs and pleads for his daughter to be spared. The villagers refuse his request and the Princess is taken off to fulfil her role.
As the Princess awaits her fate on the water’s edge a man arrives on horseback, St. George. The Princess begs him to flee before the dragon appears. He refuses and when the beast surfaces, the gallant knight wounds and ensnares it. With the princess, he leads the dragon back to the village. He swears to vanquish the monster and end their suffering for good if the villagers convert to Christianity. They agree and St. George slays the dragon, rewarding their faith and freeing the village from their endless misery. Giving them hope for the future.
Since the 7th Century, the tale of St.George has been told on English soil. In 1222 the Council of Oxford designated August 23rd as St. George’s Day. In the 14th Century, he became regarded as a special protector of the English. English soldiers were called to wear “a sign of Saint George” on chest and back. Following a pre-battle speech by Henry V, soldiers believed they saw him fighting on the side of the English. In 1415, the Archbishop Chicele declared him as the patron Saint of England. He was a symbol of bravery and hope for the English people.
Today, it is possible that the story may be repeating itself. But instead of a village full of despair and suffering – it is English football that is being saved.
History tells us that England, during a major footballing tournament, is a place filled with trepidation and fear. Within the global footballing community, there are monstrous nations waiting to destroy us. When they invariably do defeat us, the suffering and hopelessness felt up and down the land is palpable.
Since our one moment of being Kings of the footballing World in 1966, moments of joy have been few and far between. The sight of our players – trudging off the pitch, oppositions shirt slung over their shoulders as they applaud our fans with sorrow and disappointment in their eyes – has become an all too familiar occurrence. We have contested 24 major competitions since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. Three times we have managed to reach the Semi-Finals (Euro ’68, Italia ‘90 and Euro ’96). On six occasions we have reached the Quarter-Finals, been knocked out in the group stages or failed to qualify at all for the main party.
Invariably the story is the same though. At international level, we come up short. We struggle to maintain possession, our technique is poor and we lack the creativity to break down our opponents. In recent years, there even seems to be an absence of any sense of stylistic philosophy or approach. These weaknesses are exploited by the ‘top sides’. Since 2002’s victory over Argentina, England have failed to win whenever they have come up against one of the traditional top seeds. Like the villagers, England are being constantly eaten up by a more powerful beast.
And as with the villagers, who sent the Princess off to her death – England have lost all hope.
Can St. George save us again?
Long before he became a symbol for the English, St. George was a fabled dragonslayer from foreign fields. And this modern day re-telling starts in far away lands too.
When Germany were sent crashing out of Euro 2000 and Euro 2004 at the group stages, they were in a similar position to that which England have recently occupied. They had reached the 2002 World Cup final in Japan and South Korea, but this didn’t mask the problems facing German football. They were being left behind, becoming a lamb awaiting slaughter.
The DFB (the German equivalent of the F.A.) acted. They recognised the production line of German talent was running dry. And that any players it did produce were finding their route into the game blocked by mediocre imports.
They launched the Extended Talent Promotion Programme. The focus was on the philosophy and identity of German football. Building a system that embedded this philosophy throughout every aspect of the game. Millions were spent on Centres of Excellence and regional coaching bases, effectively creating schools to teach this philosophy. To improve the ‘footballing education’ of the country’s youngsters. They backed and funded 1,600 full-time coaches and encouraged them to embrace new technologies and training methods.
The DFB also used their powers for the good of the international side. They set rules that safeguarded future talents. It became compulsory for sides to have a Centre of Excellence and a quota of players within their youth teams to be ‘eligible’ for the national team. If they failed to comply – they risked expulsion from the league.
In 2014, Germany deservedly won the World Cup in Brazil. They beat Portugal, France, Brazil and Argentina on their way to glory. And the side that did it contain a core of players who 5 years earlier had won the 2009 U21 European Championships. Match winner Mario Götze was 22 years old at the time and a product of the famed Borussia Dortmund academy.
Mission complete. Demons buried. Dragon slayed.
It is a story, like that of St. George, that England hope to adopt as their own.
In 2012, the football association unveiled their Centre of Excellence for the national game. After losing on penalties to Italy in the quarter-finals of the European Champions held jointly between Ukraine and Poland, optimism was an all too familiar low. Having just been outclassed by the ageing but technically superior Andrea Pirlo, the fear of our inferiority was tangible. St. George’s Park, the F.A. told us, represented hope.
Launched in October 2012, at the cost of £105 million, the state of the art complex is the home of English football. All of English football. It was designed to be able to play host to the senior side, the youth sides and women’s team, all at once. Boasting a training pitch that mirrors the dimensions and texture of Wembley, 11 other pitches and an indoor 3G pitch – it has the space. It also has other useful facilities such as a running track, altitude chamber, pools and gyms. There are two hotels on site for players etc. to stay in during England meetups.
It is also devised to be a centre of excellence for the other aspects of the game such as sports medicine, sports science and psychology. And most importantly coaching. The vision being that it would be seen as a university for those who teach the game, at all levels, to learn their trade.
David Sheepshanks (Chairman of St. George’s Park) outlined the aims in 2011 when speaking to The Guardian; “We have a long-term vision that every footballer who wants to be coached by a qualified coach can have access to one,” he said. “At the moment we have 103,000 qualified coaches and by 2018 we would like to have 250,000 qualified coaches. While the main interest for many might be around the elite, it’s incredibly important that what St. George’s Park stands for permeates right the way down the football pyramid and is a catalyst and an inspiration to the grassroots game.”
In short, St. George’s Park was an investment in not just football facilities, but in teachers.
There was also a fresh take on what the F.A. wanted its coaches to coach. Alongside the shiny new building was a shiny new philosophy. It is a three-pronged approach. The F.A. has put forward its vision for how it wants the national team to play. As Dan Ashworth, F.A. Director of Elite Development explained to the BBC – “the vision is a ‘possession-based game with creative attacking that remains true to traditional characteristics of the English game – hard work, pressing and quick transition”.
To realise this vision two further initiatives were also implemented. The “England DNA” and a coaching programme called “The Future Game” dovetail with the goal of creating world beaters. It is a complex and yet comprehensive approach. Put simply England DNA lays out the ethos and philosophy that the F.A. want to see in all its players. This includes how to play both in and out of possession, as well as the culture and attitude players should exhibit. These fundamental attributes and values are broken down into 3 development phases: Foundation (5-11), Youth (12-16) and Professional (17-21).
‘The Future Game’ is then, effectively, a coaching manual to help develop the required skills. Highlighting the need for age appropriate training drills, it changes the parameters of youth football. It rids us of the sight of twenty-two 8-year-olds running around on full-size men’s pitches in favour of smaller pitches and fewer players to help develop technique and skill. It emphasises the need not to coach a player based solely on their physical attributes. In theory ending the idea of placing the 8-year old that is as big as a 12-year-old up front or in defence where they can use their size. Instead, there is the realisation that doing so hinders that players development once his or her peers catch up with them physically. It encourages players to take collective responsibility and have an understanding of the game as a whole.
Similar to the plan put into practice in Germany – it is a top down initiative that works from the bottom up. The aim being a consistent coaching approach with a shared goal starting from grassroots all the way to the academies. And whilst it could sound like a prescriptive view to coaching, there is still plenty of room for innovation. It just provides a framework that any coach in the country can use.
And as within Germany, the need to aid youth development within England has been recognised by the league clubs. In 2012 the Premier League announced its Elite Player Performance Plan which, amongst other things, ensured that top flight clubs had top class academies. It also establishes more opportunities for youth players to actually play. It established the Premier League 2, Premier League Cup and Premier League International Cup, as well as the Under-18 Premier League and U18 Professional Development League 2. The simple acknowledgement that players develop better by playing and competing in a more meaningful way.
The final piece of the master plan was to ensure that there was a pathway for players into league squads. The ‘Home Grown player rule’ was devised to provide young English players a greater chance of breaking into the first team. In essence, each Premier League team can only register 25 players over the age of 21 for first-team matches. Of those 25 players, no more than 17 can be non-Home Grown players. In other words, you have to have at least 8 Home Grown Player in a squad of 25.
This all amounts to bold action by the F.A. and English football to address the most important obstacle it has faced to winning trophies. Namely, creating technically gifted players, with a clear identity and footballing philosophy.
And it hasn’t stopped there, with Greg Dyke (F.A. Chairman) recommending that the Home Grown quota increases from 8 to 12. He has also pushed for youth teams to be included in League football. This season Premier League and Championship sides with Category 1 academies were allowed to enter a ‘B’ teams into the EFL Trophy (The Checkatrade Trophy) – a whole other story altogether. This is all with the aim to help these fledgling talents to be part of proper competitive football.
And it certainly seems to be paying dividends. The Summer of 2017 has been highly successful. The England U17s reached the European Championships final, losing on penalties to Spain after drawing 2-2. A predominantly U18 side retained the U21 Toulon Tournament trophy defeating the Ivory Coast in the final. The U19s and the U20s won the European Championships and World Cup respectively. England’s first major honours – at any level – since 1966.
Each of these sides has attempted to stay true to the England DNA. Possession based football with an emphasis on moving forward quickly, utilizing the individual creativity of the players. It hasn’t always worked perfectly, nerves and inexperience will always creep in. But there is a clear identity to English football at youth level. 4 Finals in one summer is validation that the approach is working.
The talent is there too. Impressive team performances aside, Jadon Sancho (U17s) and Dominic Solanke (U20s) were named the Player of the Tournament in their respective competitions. It would seem that St.George has come to England’s rescue again.
However, the U21s European Championships semi-final defeat to Germany showed there is still one final issue. Germany’s starting XI from their final group game against Italy have won 693 top-flight appearances between them, compared to England’s 537, while the Germans also have more top-flight goals (83 to 45). And whilst it is true that other U21s such as Rashford and Dele Alli could have played for England, the Germans were also missing players such as Emre Can, Joshua Kimmich and Leroy Sane. The truth is English youth players hit a wall in terms of their development when the time comes for them to get first team football at their clubs.
The difficulties these youngsters face can be further highlighted by Chelsea’s summer transfer dealings. Solanke, Tammy Abraham and Nathan Chalobah – stars of Englands successful youth sides – have all left the club in search of first team Premier League football.
It would appear that, as with the legend, whilst the possibility of being saved is within reach – there is an issue of faith. St.George required conversion to Christianity before he would kill the dragon. Similarly, Premier League managers must be willing to show faith in the new generation of players whose development has been masterminded at St.George’s Park – if Englands senior team is to taste success.