“You have to be willing to try something a little bit different and you don’t want to have the fear of failure,” said Matt Le Tissier in 2014.
For those who watched the Southampton attacking midfielder in his prime in the mid-1990s, even now it seems incredible that his international career amounted to only eight appearances. In an era when English football was largely dominated by the rigid 4-4-2 formación, the player known as ‘Le God’ on the south coast because of his penchant for spectacular goals always seemed destined to join the long list of mavericks, including Rodney Marsh, Alan Hudson and Glenn Hoddle, who won fewer caps than many thought they deserved.
Aún, whisper it, perhaps the days when England managers were not supposed to be able to trust the so-called “flair” players have finally been consigned to history. According to John Allpress, the Football Association’s national young player development coach between 2000 y 2013, the abundance of technically gifted stars such as Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and Phil Foden in Gareth Southgate’s squad Euro 2020 is no accident.
“Our game has evolved and if you look back 20 años, society has also changed a lot," él dice. “We have seen a massive influence from overseas since Arsène Wenger took over at Arsenal and that has also included a lot of skilful players. They brought with them their training habits and all of that has helped to encourage the development of more technically gifted players. It was a natural evolution.”
Allpress adds: “We were very insular as a country before but once our kids started playing with these overseas stars on a daily basis, you could see the influence they were having. You can almost see people like Foden thinking: ‘Oh, I can do that.’ It’s almost like it’s all right to be that kind of player now.”
Nick Levett, who has worked for the FA as national development manager, says the greater acceptance of skilful players is also down to the introduction of coaching courses such as the FA Youth award in 2009 that focused on young talent.
“There was a definite shift towards trying to bring through people with natural creativity," él dice. “As well as emphasis on the individuals, there was also a swing towards more of a game-based approach and that started to allow the kind of players who could get on the ball and do different things to come through.”
Joe Cole may be remembered as one of England’s failed “golden generation” that could not get past the quarter-finals at any major tournament but Allpress believes the West Ham academy graduate marked the beginning of an era.
“Joe was a trailblazer because of the way that he played with freedom," él dice. “Now it is recognised that skill is a good thing, although it’s still also about hard work. I remember when I went away with the young England teams and we would say to the coaches of France and Spain, ‘We really like your players for their technical ability’ and they would say [they liked ours], ‘Because they run and they never give up’. It’s about getting the blend of both and I think with this team under Gareth hopefully we are getting that balance between the English traits that are good and the technical skills that we have got now.”
Thanks to years of investment made possible by the finances clubs receive from the Premier League, English academies that are the envy of the world have played a pivotal role in the development of every one of Southgate’s squad and beyond. Jadon Sancho – who began his career at Watford and Manchester City before moving to Borussia Dortmund in 2017 – is a prime example of a player given the freedom to express himself from an early age.
“Arguably we didn’t have too many players like Sancho or Grealish before, whereas now we have an abundance,” says Levett. “I think a lot of that comes down to the academy system and coaches being brave to keep some of these players on and then give them game time. I’d say it was an evolution rather than a revolution. Now there is an acceptance of skilful players and coaches are better at putting on sessions that allow them to thrive.”
Allpress says: “At academies, it’s about putting good players together. Often coaches will decide a player needs some time playing in midfield if they are usually a defender. They may not be the best midfielder you have available but that gives them the opportunity to develop the all-round skills that they will need and also an appreciation of each other’s position. It’s about education, not just winning matches.”
Most England supporters are desperate for Grealish to be unleashed from the start against Ukraine in Rome on Saturday night. “Gareth obviously trusts Jack to be in the squad and then it’s about how he uses him most effectively,” says Allpress. “You can’t argue at the moment because when he has come on he has been massively effective. Players also have to be ready and that is another decision that the coaches have to make. Playing for England is a massive pressure but he looks now like he is thriving on it.”