TEAM ENGLAND, THE FA AND THE GREAT EPPP GAMBLE

TEAM ENGLAND, THE FA AND THE GREAT EPPP GAMBLE

As far as can be observed from social media, there were two responses to England being beaten by Iceland in Euro 2016. The first was blind fury, rage at overpaid footballers and incompetent coaches. The second, the more favourable one, was uncontrollable laughter prompted by the singular failure of technique, passing, shooting, crossing and, in some remarkable instances, controlling a ball. Both are equally valid but option two had the added frisson of the hilarity gleaned from seeing our Wayne tripping over footballs, the ground and his feet, on several occasions.

Option two also prompts the question, ‘why?’ Was there some fundamental flaw in the coaching of these players that rendered them impotent at the rarified level of the last 16 of an international tournament? By chance, the FA have recently published a book entitled “Advances in Coach Education & Development”. The aim of the book is "to highlight and communicate the advances in coach education and development through collaborative research …"
 
It’s essentially an overview and analysis of work undertaken by the FA since 2003/4, when the "coach education pathway” was refreshed and further refined in 2010 as part of the publication of the catchily-titled ‘Future Game’ document, less catchily known as the 'FA Technical Guide for Young Player Development': this guide is now a minimum requirement in professional youth academies as part of (and deeply embedded in) the Elite Player Performance Program (EPPP).

The focus of EPPP is to promote the development of world-leading academy systems as a long-term plan to promote: the financial viability of clubs, excellence in players (specifically home-grown players) and a successful England team. In contrast, the focus of the book (aimed at coaches and coach educators within the system) is to:

  • set out the FA’s strategic priorities
  • assess developments within their system and coaching overall
  • investigate developments in coaching in other sports (refreshingly)
  • benchmark and develop coaches and coach educators, specific mention for youth coaches
  • make their 'reflective practice' approach to coaching more consistent
  • analyse the (contested) worth and nature of ‘mentoring’ (with regards to their Grassroots Club Mentor Programme)
  • how coaching must remain relevant and innovative beyond youth coaching level
  • analyse practice activities in coaching session (in elite youth football)
  • study coaching of disabled footballers
  • assess the progression of black and minority ethnic footballers into coaching professionally

Sorry for the dry list, there is a point to outlining exactly what it seeks to do and illustrating its breadth and depth. So, the issues discussed in the book are intrinsically linked to EPPP, contributory in the success of EPPP and, therefore, the success of the England team. While a very dense and academic book it is, however, of interest in the wake of this latest tournament defeat for Roy’s former boys, another knock-out round exit at a major tournament.

Therefore, the existence of this book at this moment in time is potentially illuminating both of itself and in the wider world of English football and the national team. Before passing comment on the book it’s worth noting that I am not a football coach, nor a coach educator, but I have knowledge of the issues and also experience of performing similar over-arching studies in different areas. But I am still a layman in terms of football coaching and education so you are at liberty to disregard the rest of this piece. However, my overall impression of this book is that it is very good, it is thorough, has seemingly considered other sports for comparative purposes, understands the necessity of benchmarking, re-assessment and evaluation and has a pragmatic approach to self assessment within the FA. In short, if you read this book you will be left with the general impression that the FA is on top of increasing the quality of English coaches and, while everything may not be rosy right now, they have thought about the future and are on the right path. Good.

While the book is all those positive things and it’s a very encouraging sign that the FA is continually/finally modernising, there are two major problems and both of them are massive elephants in the room. These two problems, however, are not with the book itself, nor indeed with the excellent way it seems the FA approach the nebulous topic of coaching, they are problems with the system in which the book’s subject sits. One of these problems is a fundamental one and, potentially, a huge flaw in the ‘Future Game’ project and has ramifications for the overall goal of Team England success. The second is a known issue that is perhaps surprisingly overlooked in this book and, seemingly, elsewhere in FA reviews and thinking.

The second problem is quick to deal with, so is best addressed first. Over the past three international tournaments much has been made of the number of coaches in various European countries who possess ‘UEFA Pro Licences’ or equivalents. These baubles are seen as a measure of potential success, at least they are equated with it. At these tournaments England was a LONG way behind other big European nations in the number of coaches it had with such qualifications. This has been consistently noted as a contributing factor to England’s poor tournament performance. This issue has not been addressed here and, while it may not have been in the scope of the project, it arguably should have been worth at least comment, especially when it seems to impact in such a significant way on the overall goal (England). Essentially, England still has significantly fewer top grade coaches than their more successful counterparts in Europe and there’s no obvious idea how to address that.

The first and main problem, however, is illustrated most starkly as late in the book as the penultimate chapter: ’13 - Candidates Experiences of Elite FA Coach Education’. This chapter questions elite coaches on their experiences while on FA coaching courses. Setting aside the slightly concerning findings that many candidates found the coaching courses lacked relevance and a notable number of candidates admitted they were risk/change averse and resisted new ideas, the (linked) problem with these findings was the reasoning behind them. Elite coaches found FA courses lacked relevance not because the content was bad or wrong, they felt they lacked relevance because those coaches had such a lack of job security that they preferred stasis to new ideas and they were risk averse because their job was constantly on the line. While exploring new ideas should be of use to both Premier League sides and the FA/England team, there is a sticking point. Coaches in elite clubs are there to implement whatever coaching the head coach/manager of the first team wants, not what coaching the FA thinks they should be implementing. Even if the FA is right. And, tangentially, English clubs lack of success in European club competitions could suggest the FA IS right? Because both club and FA are intrinsically after the same thing, success, you’d think there would be no issue, however a Premier League head coach / manager is concerned mostly with immediate success, he does not often get a chance at long term success, nor is he concerned with the long term success of the national team.

This is not a minor issue, this is fundamental. EPPP is fundamental not only to the FA, the success of the FA and the success of the England team, it is the fundamental system in which sits all the coaching and educational knowledge discussed in this book. EPPP is noted and summarised in this book as early as page 2 which, as you might think, means the FA themselves see it as pretty important - something so intrinsically relevant to the book’s topic that it needs to be referred to and explained immediately.

What’s the narrative then? The FA are, largely, tasked with educating footballers at their youngest age through a variety of channels from schools to grass roots clubs. It is in the FA’s interests in the very long term (the England team) to ensure coaches coaching at this age group give these players a good grounding. They aren’t the only source of funding for this but they do most of it and even more of the distributing of it. Where this young-age coaching succeeds by unearthing a good player, the coaching of that player is then effectively taken up by a Premier League club who hones that ability. The coaches who coach those players will still be educated by the FA (on the whole) but employed by the clubs and paid by the clubs. If a Premier League club’s coaches succeed in honing the skills of a player to a decent level they have a valuable commodity, more importantly a distinctly financial commodity. Despite having trained the player at a young age and provided the coaching knowledge with which that player is trained, the FA has no claim on the financial benefits achieved through that commodity, they will get no return on their investment. Yet. There is no value judgement placed here on whether that is right or wrong, it is merely noting the situation. The theory implicit in the FA’s overall plan, the goal of EPPP, is that these elite players will then be good enough for the England side and the increased ability of that player will help the England team to succeed, thus giving the team (and the FA) more funds to boost the running of that system.

The issue with this system is that if it doesn’t deliver England players and the FA does not benefit, despite funding a large part of it. Also, it’s worth noting the EPPP model focuses almost exclusively on Premier League clubs, indeed the summary in the book refers only to the Premier League and the FA as beneficiaries of the system. The problems with relying so heavily on Premier League clubs are obvious, the clubs do not share the goals of the FA. Getting a good England team does not benefit clubs at all, indeed it only really hinders them through injuries and tiredness. A long term coaching and education plan does not suit clubs because they regularly change coaching teams due to frequent changes in their financial circumstance, changes in management and even changes in owner. The very coaches the FA are relying on to deliver their plan for future England success are neither employed by them nor encouraged to share their goals, thus making the long term viability of EPPP a very fragile notion.

In summary, the very tools with which the FA have hoped to chisel out the future success of the England team are detrimental to that success - and are almost entirely out of the hands of the FA.
To roll back a few years … in context, it is actually perfectly understandable for the FA to seemingly put all their eggs in one Team England-shaped basket. After all, aside from the increasingly diminished FA Cup, the FA’s only significant income is derived from the England team. They can only continue to exist if the England team brings in the money. Thanks to past events, the FA can only achieve England success with players contracted to Premier League clubs. But, to get the Premier League club’s to do this, they have had to provide a lure. That lure has, effectively, been driving a deeper wedge between the Premier League and the Football League - and indeed the National Game clubs and further down into non-league. And they’ve done that with EPPP.

In many ways, this is the last roll of the dice for the FA, the events of 1990/1991 (the creation of the Premier League) have forced them into a corner. EPPP is their only logical way out of that corner but it’s a huge gamble and entering into it has largely alienated any existing or potential future allies they might have had. EPPP is so embedded in the Premier League that everyone below has effectively been discriminated against. The level of funding required to maintain an academy is onerous on all but those at the highest level. Also, it is now easier for Premier League sides to simply poach good talent from smaller clubs, EPPP having removed the 90 minute travelling rule between a players home and their (potential) club. Furthermore, part of EPPP means that recompense for the loss of a good player from a smaller club to a bigger club has been markedly reduced. Compensation is now capped, rather than a transfer fee payable at market rate, and does not necessarily reflect the player’s notional worth in the market. Indeed, a club coaching a poached youth might not even cover money they invested in that player’s education. With EPPP the FA has burnt a lot of bridges.

The FA’s gamble was not just with potential allies but also with their own existence. The very nature of getting EPPP off the ground meant the terms had to be more attractive to Premier League sides, they owned the means of production. In giving concessions that increased the Premier League’s power in the national game, the FA sought to ring-fence their own by creating a symbiotic relationship they hoped would benefit them in the only arena they had left to compete, the International arena. What they actually seem to have done is create a relationship where any minor success gained by player production is not the FA's (financially) and the chances of any major success is hindered by factors outside the not-so-symbiotic relationship. Essentially, they are in an abusive relationship of their own creation and have no obvious exit strategy. But they didn’t really have much choice.

Of course, this is all theory based on extrapolating some circumstantial evidence gleaned from a book on an assessment of coaching education in England. At this early stage of EPPP, the signs are possibly not good for either the FA or their national side but you could successfully argue it is too soon to say. The system is too new to have seen players come through and into the England team, with only really Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford of the Euro 2016 squad being young enough to have experienced it. However, if there is to be a continuance of youth being given its head in the England side, the next two international tournaments should give us more of an idea of whether EPPP has been, or is going to be, a success. In theory, by 2018 and certainly 2020, we should see some talent in the England squad that has been through coaching systems influenced by ‘Future Game’ and EPPP. That talent needs to perform for the future of the FA. On the upside, the FA do seem to have come up with a potentially superb coaching system. On the downside, in creating it they’ve rolled the dice and it will take about four more years to see if they’ve boxcar’d it, or whether old snake eyes is staring back at them in the form of a system only useful for the Premier League to print yet more money.

Follow Damon @Damon_th.

 

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