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the square ball week: the wilkinson effect

the square ball week: the wilkinson effect

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Image by The Beaten Generation

Although I’d rather ignore it, Adnan Januzaj had a great debut for his team last Saturday; and now like schoolyard footballers – or the Leeds defence at Derby – all England is magnetised by the Belgian born son of Kosovan and Albanian parents. “Do you wanna be on our team?”

There are several problems with this unseemly rush to adopt a player who has executed one decent volley. For one thing, I saw Jamie Forrester execute several extremely decent volleys as a youngster at Leeds, and while he ended up scoring a heckuva lot of goals in his career, he didn’t trouble the England squad above youth levels. Secondly, while Januzaj for England could technically be within the rules of international football – although it probably isn’t, rendering the whole debate somewhat moot – it’s hardly within the spirit. 

There are so many abstract nuances around what constitutes nationality to make any conversation around it extremely difficult, but the rule that a £300k transfer from Anderlecht doth not an England player make is a good one; if international football is to stay distinct from club football, it should resist any development of a transfer market. Leeds United can sign anyone, from anywhere, to improve the team; England are stuck with players who are ‘from’ here, in line with the FIFA rules, and we just have to make the best of them.

Which is the third major problem with Januzaj, and perhaps the biggest. The guy no doubt has talent, and he can certainly, you know, volley. For a Red. But the fervent requests to claim him for ‘Team England’ and annoint him as our winged saviour isn’t so much because Januzaj is a rare and precious talent, but rather because there is little faith out there in the English players coming through. There are thousands of young players at various levels of youth football, hoping to get into their club side, and maybe one day their national side; but it shows a distinct lack of trust in their abilities when it becomes a matter of national importance that a player like Januzaj opts to play for England. Across the country, a generation of teenage left wingers slump their shoulders, and sigh. It’s bad enough when your club signs a flash foreign player in your position. But when it’s your country?

Howard Wilkinson’s presence on the eight man commission The FA have organised to look at increasing the number and quality of players available to England ought to reassure me, but it doesn’t. It does, at least, counteract the presence of Glenn Hoddle, but the problem is that Howard has a long track record of being absolutely right, and then being almost completely ignored. 

“I think from the moment the Premier League was formed it was fairly clear that we’d finish up here,” Wilkinson told Sky Sports this week, “And that’s one of the reasons I persuaded Leeds United to form their academy up there which produced a great set of kids who went on to play in the Champions League semi-final.”

The concept was simple, with four easy stages. In an interview with The Square Ball back in 2010, Howard listed them: find talented youngsters; put them with talented teachers; spend as much time as possible practising and learning the game; then give them the opportunity in the first team.

It’s the last part where England, and the Premier League, are falling down now. Patience is a virtue in youth football; Wilkinson said as much when the national football centre opened at St George’s Park in 2012. That was Howard’s idea too; he put the blueprint in place when he was FA Technical Director in 1998. Fourteen years later, when it finally opened, he said, “Planning and having a plan, you have to stick with this – people will look at this with relevant results in Brazil. But this will have little effect in Brazil, you are looking at six or eight years down the line.”

That’s the last part of the four-step plan: the opportunity. “We have good development centres, I think we have good development and our problem is opportunity,” Howard said this week. “Our problem is 17/18 year-old boys facing a glass ceiling. I think in that case, losing motivation. It’s not easy if … you go out on loan and you’re out on loan amongst a lot of people you don’t really know, a sense of loss of identity is there.” 

You have to have faith in the products of your own academies. Not randomly selected Belgians. “You have to stick with this.” In 2000/01, O’Leary and Ridsdale didn’t stick with Wilko’s plan, even though the academy Wilkinson built was dropping quality player after quality player in their laps. Patience, and sticking with a plan, were not part of O’Leary or Ridsdale’s vision. It was perhaps telling that the players who seemed hardest hit on the pitch at Bolton when Leeds went down – Smith and Robinson – had been raised in a Wilkinson culture. 

It wasn’t part of their vision because they’re not visionaries. Ten years in the future doesn’t exist to them, let alone twenty. Similarly, The FA aren’t visionary; that it took them from 1998 to 2012 to implement a concept that Howard Wilkinson had promoted since 1992 and proven to work by 1997 shows that. That they can’t be trusted to stick with the training centre they’ve spent £100m on, and instead want to rush towards the first Belgian in a red shirt to make splash in the Premier League, shows they can’t be trusted with a good man’s vision anyway. 

From 1992 to 2012, Howard Wilkinson’s ideas remain the right ones for English football, and the visionary ones. He has been right for twenty years, but the world can’t – or won’t – catch up with him. I’m hesitant to compare Wilkinson to the late Steve Jobs, but twenty years of foresight is an ability companies like Apple would pay huge amounts to harness. The reason for my hesitance partly because Jobs had whatever force was necessary to make his ideas reality, and quickly – ‘The Jobs Effect’; whereas Howard finds himself in 2013 on yet another commission, trying yet again to convince Danny Mills and Glenn Hoddle of the exact same things. 

It wasn’t with arrogance that Wilkinson said, “I think from the moment the Premier League was formed it was fairly clear that we’d finish up here”; it was with the sigh of someone who can’t get the world to hear. In the interview, he also said, “Hopefully people are ready to accept change. That will be the crunch point, whether people are prepared to accept radical change.” Steve Jobs was right about the future, and people listened. Howard Wilkinson might have to settle for just being right.

There are eight people on The FA commission. I hope the job of seven of them is to listen.

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