Ahead of Euro 2016, both England and the Republic of Ireland will be in positive mood, but could a lesser known footballing nation show both countries the way when it comes to developing young talent in the future? James Cox discusses.
Alan Hansen once said “you won’t win anything with kids”; these words have come back to haunt the BBC pundit time and time again.
He was of course proved emphatically wrong as his statement referred to Manchester United’s fabled “Class of ‘92”, which included the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt. Sadly, English football hasn’t seen a golden crop of yonungsters like these since. The dawn of the Premier League era brought with it Sky television money, which has changed football for better and in ways for worse.
This is reflected in how hard it is for young players from Ireland and the UK to break into the top sides. Clubs can cherry pick top young talent from all over the world, making it more difficult than ever before for local lads to get their big break.
Don’t get this writer wrong, the Premier League is wonderful and the international stars in every side help make it the most competitive league in the world. However, gone are the days when the backbone of the top English sides was made up of British and Irish players. This has had an adverse effect on both international sides in recent years.
Ireland struggled badly at Euro 2012, their first tournament in ten years, and subsequently failed to qualify for the World Cup. While England failed to qualify from their group in the 2014 World Cup. A massive factor in this was a lack of young players coming through the academies of top Premier League sides. The debate on the solution saw a lot of radical suggestions including a cap on foreign players put forward by FA chairman Greg Dyke.
This will not, and should not happen. The solution needs to come at a lower level, and will not be a quick fix. Things have improved for both sides, with Ireland and England both in good form and optimistic going into Euro 2016. However it would be wrong to sit on their laurels now, this is the time to implement change from the bottom.
Previously, coaching models from other countries such as the Netherlands have been studied, particularly the academy at Ajax. Similarly, the FAI appointed Wim Koevermans as “High Performance Director” in 2008. Nobody seemed to know what the role involved, or what he had achieved before leaving to coach India four years later. There may be a much simpler template that both Ireland and England can learn from.
One small nation stands out as an example of how to develop young players, and in turn punch above their weight on the international stage. They will be joining us as one of the 24 teams in France this summer. Any ideas? It’s Iceland.
To put things into perspective, the country has a population of just over 300,000, and only 20,000 footballers registered with clubs. Iceland finished second in a group which included three “big” football nations in the Netherlands, Turkey and the Czech Republic.
In October 2014 the tiny nation shocked the footballing world with a relatively comfortable 2-0 win over a Dutch side that finished third in the most recent World Cup. They would go on to repeat this feat in the away fixture in Amsterdam as well as recording memorable wins over Turkey and the Czech Republic. Four years ago Iceland were ranked 131st in the FIFA World Rankings, today they have risen a remarkable 100 places to 31st. So how have they done it?
The success has not come overnight, or through some sort of fluke. The harsh terrains in Iceland make outdoor pitches difficult at grassroots and amateur level. However, the Icelandic Football Association has invested massively in state of the art indoor arenas to counteract this. There are thirty full size all weather pitches, seven indoor, and almost 150 smaller artificial arenas to ensure youngsters can continue to play throughout the harsh winters.
They have also placed a huge emphasis on coaching. Coaches, at any level, are required to undertake UEFA courses. A UEFA C badge is required even to coach at amateur level. There are 639 UEFA B licence coaches, a huge figure for a country so small. This figure is all the more impressive given the fact there are no professional clubs in Iceland.
Coach education is rightly seen as the foundation for success in Iceland. In the national team’s history 25 of the team’s 39 managers have been Icelandic. There is also an emphasis on playing football “The Icelandic way”, which is implemented at all levels. This is a fluid passing style which prioritises good attacking football.
Defence is not ignored either; the results of this are evident in the first team’s scorelines in qualifying. They notched up an impressive 17 goals while only conceding six. Iceland prides itself on giving young players a chance. Eidur Gudjohnsen made his debut in Iceland’s top division at the age of fifteen, although he is an exceptional case, being Iceland’s most celebrated player.
However, this is not an isolated occurrence, with teenagers often getting their chance early. Incidentally, Gudjohnsen would go on to make his debut for the international side as a 17-year-old in 1996. The golden generation brought on by Iceland’s grassroots coaching programme saw the team qualify for its first major international tournament in the 2011 European Under-21 Championship.
The subsequent qualification for Euro 2016 is the culmination of all this hard work, and it won’t stop here. Don’t be surprised if Iceland continue to punch above their weight and qualify for future tournaments.
England and Ireland will both bring young teams brimming with talent to Euro 2016. The likes of Delle Alli, Ross Barkley and Harry Kane will be key to England while Ireland will depend on players such as Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and maybe even Alan Judge.
A few years ago this kind of talent seemed to have dried up for both countries, they should both now look to Iceland to ensure there is no such threat in the future.
You can’t win anything with kids, or can you?
James Cox, Pundit Arena
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