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The Mark Catlin column: Now the dust has settled for England fans

Okay, I am going start by stating the obvious; the curse of the penalty shoot-out costs us again. Factually this is true, England went out of Euro 2012 not losing a game and showing a passion that has seemingly been missing for many years.

However, listening to the radio today I resisted the temptation to call in defending the players and management team as some media pundits and England fans felt the need to vent their frustration into team tactics and individual player performances.

For the record, I thought it was 100% nailed on that Harry Redknapp had got the England job, which to be honest I thought at the time would be a good choice, but having watched Roy Hodgson closely over recent weeks, I am not only proud that he is now the England manager but I also think that it was an inspired choice for the future of English football. Let me explain why.

I was brought up, and firmly believe, that all you can ask of anyone in life is to ‘give your best shot’; ‘give it 100%’.

Like most of us, I watched every second of every England game, and in my mind there was not one player that did not do this (give 100%). However, despite the passion, the commitment, the spirit, and the heart shown, we simply were not good enough.

This is not a knock to our players, but in my opinion it is a fact. Yes, we could have quite easily won this tournament, we could have possibly beaten Italy on penalties, caught Germany off guard in the semis and ground out a win against (possibly) Spain in the final, but unless you were watching a different game to me, then it was clear that the tools at the disposal of Roy Hodgson are simply not good enough to beat Europe’s best. Good yes, but brilliant - that which it takes to win a tournament - no.

So, in my mind at least, whilst I think we all can agree that English players are pretty decent, and while they have plenty of heart, commitment and passion; they lack the key ingredient of technical ability to compete against the very best in the World.

Root of the problem

The harsh reality is that even if you are Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, or even Lewis Hamilton, you are only as good as the car that you drive. Put any of these great drivers into a Force India car (no disrespect to that car!) and see if they end up a formula one champion, I doubt it. Sport at the highest level is decided by tiny fractions, and football is no different.

There cannot now be any knee-jerk reactions to what is effectively a problem that has evolved over many years, and it will take many more years of hard work to see the project to fruition. The simple truth though is that technically, at this moment in time, we are nowhere near the technical levels of many of our international counterparts.

To change our international fortunes I now firmly believe that we need to go to the real root of the problem, and it may take as long as a decade to see the fruits of this change that will give us a chance of winning a major tournament in the future.

Having spent 10 years living in Spain, many of these spent involved in football and watching the emergence of the Spanish as a true football superpower, I have witnessed first-hand the differences between the two nations, especially at a very young age.

The whole emphasis on Spanish football is not based upon how tall is the player, if he is strong enough, or what’s his 60 metres time; it’s based simply upon ‘is he a good footballer?’

When I was in Spain I spotted many good young players and called friends involved in football back in England, but the questions were always the same, all based upon the youngsters height, physical presence and speed.

Kids up to the age of 13 in Spain never got near a full size pitch, they all played ‘seven-a-side’ on a half size pitch which effectively meant lots of touches of the ball showcasing those showing fantastic technical ability. This is no so in England where at age 11, if you are big and strong you are the best player, especially on a muddy pitch that suits the strongest, and not necessarily those with any sort of technical ability.

Too predictable

I often travelled back to England whilst living in Spain and watched training and matches at various ages from 11-18, and had to agree with the English managers that had expressed concern at some of my five-feet-four ‘baby boy’ looking Spanish 14 year olds competing against English near six footers - even at age 14! The English lads at 16 looked like grown men, the Spanish still like boys.

The differences in physical strength were not the only difference. In Spain, from a very young age, for a goalie to hoof the ball up-field is bordering on being despised, whereas in England this is the norm. To reinforce this view, statistically England’s best passer against Italy was Joe Hart; brilliant, no problem with this, but to who? ANDY CARROLL!

In Spain, at the start of the season each kid is given his own ball. This is his ball, he warms up with it, walks with it, sleeps with it, no long runs (and if there is, it is with a ball), no physical work outs, everything is done with a ball at his feet.

You may think looking at the Euro matches that the Spanish (or Germans/Italians etc.) were far fitter than us, but that is simply not the case. The difference is not in the distances that were covered by individual players, but that we did most of our running without the ball.

Spanish kids are taught a very simple rule: make the ball yours, pass, and then move into space to receive the ball again. This does not always need to be lung bursting 30 metre runs, but just a simple move to the side, a step backwards, a two metre move into space.

I lost count the number of times English players had the ball, passed (so far so good), but then just stopped; not moving into space or looking to get the ball back again. Invariably the player with the ball was put under pressure, passed back to Joe Hart, who then hurriedly kicked up-field for Rooney or Carroll to fight over. Don’t get me wrong, this does have its place, but it just became too predictable.

The fault does not lie with the manager or players, and it’s impossible for English players to suddenly start playing like Spanish players, as it’s not how they have been brought up to play. However, if we are serious about winning tournaments in the future then clearly there needs to be a change at grass roots level.

We do have additional obstacles!

1) The weather: the English game (from a very young age) is perfectly suited to a ‘100 miles per hour game’ and a cold winter climate. But when was the last time a tournament was played in the cold winter climate of any country? The Spanish/Italian players are perfectly at home playing in plus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the style of play suits summer conditions perfectly.

2) The Premier League: Truly (in my opinion) the most exciting league in the World, but as per the weather is the style of play similar to how the international teams play? It’s brilliant watching (for example) Manchester United v Liverpool; all that passion, commitment, end to end 100 miles per hour games - but in the summer heat how many players can replicate that commitment? I watch many Spanish matches and they all have a ‘Euro’ feel to them; a bit boring but possession and technical ability is king.

It’s not all doom and gloom

1) With our existing team, plus the introduction of possibly only three or four players in key positions, it could make all the difference in the world. Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverly are two young players that technically can keep hold of the ball, and always look to receive it. If we can get just two or three more coming through with this type of quality then the whole balance of the England team will begin to change.

2) Gareth Southgate and Trevor Brooking: two respected people that I believe have already identified much of the above and are already working hard behind the scenes to change our football ‘culture’ at a very young age.

3) Finally, Roy Hodgson: with his International managerial experience, his knowledge of the English game, and the respect that he commands from people within the game, he will turn out to be the perfect choice to oversee our change into what I truly believe, will become a ‘golden age’ of English football in the future.

By Mark Catlin, Bury FC director

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