Plenty to worry

England is banking on its hugely expensive new coaching centre, set up by the Football Association, but it may take years before things truly improve and the native talent comes through. By Brian Glanville.

Can England go back to Brazil? Back for the 2014 World Cup for which they still may not qualify. The coming season puts them against Montenegro, the group leaders, and Poland at home, difficult Ukraine, who had the better of a draw at Wembley, away. At half time in the recent drawn friendly game in Rio, you would hardly have given them a chance. With Neymar, due the following day to leave for Barcelona who have paid a fortune for him, running riot — though less to be seen in the second half — only the superb goalkeeping of Joe Hart and some erratic Brazilian finishing kept the game scoreless.

Gary Lineker’s derisory comment, that England with their 4-4-2 tactics and shaky draw at Wembley against humble Ireland seemed all too relevant; even if in Rio, England were playing with only an isolated Wayne Rooney up front. Brazil duly and deservedly went ahead and things would change dramatically and surprisingly only when the manager Roy Hodgson sent on 19-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, deploying him moreover not on the flank, where he had previously been used, but in central midfield.

There, he immediately began to make a difference, in the steps of his father Mark, whom I watched at the Maracana in 1984, when England with a thrilling solo goal by John Barnes defeated Brazil 2-0. What Alex splendidly displayed was the so called big-match temperament.

He more than justified Hodgson’s boldness — in sharp contrast with all the criticism of his being cautious — by taking the game to the Brazilians and giving Rooney the support, which had been so notably lacking. And with a perfectly executed shot with the outside of his boot, he proceeded to equalise. Wayne Rooney, coming vibrantly alive, then put England ahead with a scorching drive from some 25 yards. Brazil would eventually and deservedly equalise, but the result was a huge and unexpected bonus for Hodgson and England. Besides being a reminder of that old football truism, a team which dominates the play but cannot score will always be open to counterattack which scores against them.

My own view has long been that Hodgson should have had the England managership as long ago as 1994. It was then that he piloted an unfancied Swiss side all the way to the World Cup finals in America, having much the better of a shocked Italy team in the qualifying group. But he didn’t get the job and though he has it now after years of international experience, he was surely in his impressive prime in 1994.

Meanwhile, the fact remains that there are at present no absolutes in international football. In the previous friendly at Wembley, England actually beat a flaccid Brazilian team, in which even Neymar did little or nothing. Spain were beaten there too. While in Rio, England were without their one and only playmaker, Jack Wilshere, outstanding on that occasion and the propulsive Steven Gerrard.

As for Brazil, their bright display, especially in the first half, against England came after a gloomy series of mediocre shows, with just one win against Bolivia amongst it, with big Phil Scolari, once a winner of the World Cup, under critical fire.

It has been pointed out that only 36% of footballers in the Premier League are English thus severely limiting what you might call Hodgson’s choice.

Trevor Brooking, once such a salient creator and scorer in England’s midfield, now a leading figure at the Football Association, laments a crisis of coaching, pointing out that the Germans, when things were going wrong at international level, poured GBP50 million into their coaching programme, and today have a profusion of gifted young internationals.

Brooking obviously pins his hopes on the hugely expensive new coaching centre set up by the Football Association, even though he concedes that it may take years before things truly improve and the native talent comes through. Yet is this begetting the question? In a word, who coaches the coaches? The original FA coaching scheme was set up long ago by Walter Winterbottom, who always believed that this was a more important role for him than England team manager. But over time the scheme initially successful drifted into orthodoxy and jargon.

Much more recently, when the controversial Charles Hughes became the coaching chief, there was the ludicrous theory of the discredited long ball game, with the cutting out of the midfield. Alas, Hughes had all too many fervent coaching disciples.

Today, England need better wingers. Theo Walcott, so quick and talented but, as we saw in Rio, so inconsistent, James Milner pedestrian; though the pace, skill and flair of Wigan right winger Callum McManaman, dashingly confident in his team’s Cup final conquest of Manchester City, gives hope on the flank. Yet with John Terry gone, central defenders are at a premium. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear whether you are Ray Hodgson or anybody else. Even if England can at least hope again.