How can the Football League help England?
In an attempt to solve his striking conundrum for this week’s friendly against France, Fabio Capello turned to the Football League. The callup awarded to Cardiff City’s Jay Bothroyd was derided by many supporters of Premier League clubs, and by quite a few fans of Football League sides too, but they all missed the point.
A decade on
This is an example of the Football League aiding England’s cause in the most supportive way imaginable. Let’s rewind ten years. Specifically to when England’s Under-21 side saw off Mexico by three goals to nil in a non-competitive encounter, the goals being scored by Jermaine Pennant, Jermain Defoe – and Jay Bothroyd.
Pennant has thus far spent his career on the fringes of being welcomed by England without really making a solid case for his involvement. Defoe, although not the all-conquering goal machine at international level that he perhaps once threatened to be, is clearly an England squad regular nevertheless.
But while Pennant enjoyed a brief spell farmed out to Watford during his Arsenal days and Defoe’s time at Bournemouth remains one of the most successful loans of recent times, it is Bothroyd who has enjoyed the most rewarding Football League experience.
He could have been left to rot, just another kid who couldn’t handle the day-to-day pressure of being a professional footballer after being bombed out of Arsenal for disciplinary reasons. But, via unspectacular sojourns at Coventry City, Perugia, Charlton Athletic and Wolverhampton Wanderers, it is Cardiff who have finally extracted the best from the talented Bothroyd.
For their hard work, Bothroyd, Cardiff and the Football League were repaid in howls of derision from many quarters when the Championship’s top goalscorer received a call from Capello. If this is the state of English centre-forwards these days, we may as well all pack up and go home now, they implied. This quarter begs to differ.
The Football League should not just be seen as a classroom for the Premier League’s most lauded youngsters. It can also be an extremely valuable place for clearly gifted individuals to gain a work ethic and re-discover their natural talent.
For all his relative mediocrity in previous campaigns spent in the top flight, it could be argued that Jay Bothroyd is only seven years in individual terms – and one year in the lifespan of his club – away from rivalling the claims of unlikely media darling Andy Carroll.
Bothroyd’s age clearly counts against him. If he was just five years younger, there would be far more weight thrown behind the calls for his inclusion in future squads. But it will be fascinating to see whether these calls grow, despite the passing of time in a career heading towards his thirties, if and when he begins to play regularly in the Premier League.
Whether with Cardiff, seemingly bound for promotion at last, or with another club, given that his contract runs out at the end of the season, Bothroyd’s current form dictates that he will be plying his trade against the very best next term. We can only wait and see.
Bothroyd provided a focus on the Football League’s relationship with the English national team when he was chosen to don the Three Lions, but the question about how the Championship in particular can aid England’s cause runs far deeper than the selection of arguably its best player on current form.
Sooner or later, they’re going to come for us. After all, most other avenues have been exhausted. Weather conditions were apparently suited to England in South Africa. They were going to win it. Until they didn’t. The Golden Generation had their shot, but that has passed us by now too.
The Football League may soon receive the scapegoating treatment that has already been meted out in such unforgiving fashion in so many different directions. Lest we forget, not every country in the world has a four-tier professional league system containing 92 clubs. Some bright spark or other is bound to suggest at some point that the setup of the Football League is to blame for the deficiencies of England’s footballing elite.
They may suggest that there are too many clubs. That those clubs do not train their youngsters properly. That we should follow the latest model that guarantees success.
A decade ago, that meant Clairefontaine. More recently, it has meant La Masia. And, after their remarkable performances at this summer’s World Cup, many hurried back to a good old-fashioned glance of envy at the Germans.
Pulling up trees
And so Burton will, eventually, be built and the root-and-branch review of English football from the grassroots up will, at some stage, take place.
Quite why the continued failure of England players to be able to pass the ball accurately to a team-mate standing ten yards away, before then moving into space if feeling adventurous, can be solved by foliage remains something of a mystery.
The past week’s backlash against Bothroyd brings the lesson that the Football League will cop it eventually. So we’d better batten down the hatches and await the inevitable assault.
The Spanish model will be the first jabbed into our collective chest in an accusatory manner. Why don’t Arsenal’s youngsters play competitive football week in week out, for example? They all go out on loan to various teams lucky enough to attract them anyway. It makes more sense if they are allowed to stay together, play together and grow together. We can do away with Stockport or someone. It’s for the good of the English game.
It worked for Barcelona. Half of the recent World Cup-winning side rose through the Barca ranks and their two most recent graduates, Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets, both played extensively for Barcelona’s B team, then coached by Pep Guardiola.
Would earlier competitive football in an Arsenal-lite environment have helped the likes of Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere in their development?
It may seem a trivial notion, but so was franchising once upon a time. The authorities have demonstrated their disregard for the tradition and history of the Football League in the past and they will do so again. And if something is deemed to be for the good of the national team, then perhaps it will gain more support than similarly outlandish concepts that have come and gone over the years.
One thing that must change is the capture of young Football League players by Premier League clubs that clearly have no pressing first-team need for their services.
Take the examples of the extremely promising Sheffield United youth graduates Kyle Naughton and Kyle Walker. Both were signed by Tottenham Hotspur in a joint deal, despite both being best deployed in the right-back position, a role already filled at White Hart Lane by the likes of Alan Hutton and Vedran Corluka.
Naughton and Walker both find themselves back on loan in the Championship this season, at Leicester City and Queen’s Park Rangers respectively, having already been farmed out to Middlesbrough and Sheffield United during their brief time at Harry Redknapp’s club.
Let them stay, let them play and how about we wait until players have played at least 100 times for their club before they are permitted to join a top-flight outfit?
No player has completed his education after a handful of games at first-team level and this period of learning is undoubtedly stunted upon being transferred to a big club’s reserve setup, no matter how valuable it may be to pick up tips from international stars at world class training grounds.
The Football League can help England improve. But, in order to do so, it must first receive trust.