The Football Association, a national fixture since 1863, sustains energetic batterings when mired in its periodic crises, so it is only right that credit should be given at a time such as now, when its good work is luminously coming to fruition.
The success of Gareth Southgate’s England team, and of the manager himself, in reaching Sunday’s European Championship final is not a miraculous accident but the realisation of steady progress, planning and the building of sound foundations. The England team are somehow viewed separately from perceptions of the FA but the governing body runs the whole set-up and this pinnacle has been reached after 25 often gruelling years reshaping its whole focus and philosophy.
As the nation fixated on England’s men playing their first final since 1966, the FA issued a briefing on Friday emphasising most strongly the importance of grassroots football and its clubs. It featured a quote from Southgate barely relating to the England team, instead stressing the grassroots, where every player starts. “The key is enjoyment, and exercise, and the involvement for kids from whatever background they are, whatever part of the country and whatever the facilities that might be available,” the England manager said.
A map pointed to where every player in Southgate’s squad grew up, and the grassroots club they played for before they signed up to professional clubs’ academies: Jordan Pickford for Washington Envelopes in Durham; John Stones, Penistone Church in Sheffield; Raheem Sterling, Alpha & Omega in London.
In January, even as the FA was contemplating its own human and £300m financial cost from the disaster of Covid-19, the organisation nevertheless released a new strategy for the years to 2024 called, earnestly, Time for Change, with a vision: “Unite the game, inspire the nation”. Led by the chief executive, Mark Bullingham, the objectives span the England team to children’s football, including winning a major tournament, increasing the number of quality grassroots pitches nationally from 3,349 to 5,000, and aiming for “a game free of discrimination”.
The strategy stated: “Everyone must be made to feel welcome on our pitches and our terraces,” and features a picture of England players taking the knee. That shows how solidly established and supported the players’ anti-racism stance is, in the face of the booing from some fans, supported by Boris Johnson, and the divisive, ill-informed criticism from the home secretary, Priti Patel.
Lucy Pearson, director of FA coaching – now renamed, significantly, FA education – explains that Southgate’s own striking observation that the players, through their activism, have been “liberated in being their true selves”, runs through the organisation’s approach.
“Coaching is not just technical,” Pearson, a former headteacher and England cricket international, says. “It is also about creating a culture and environment that allow players to be their best selves. Being free, empowered, helps them express themselves on the pitch. That is the same for children at grassroots level and the England players – and it is important for coaches themselves to understand their own values, as Gareth does. That is why he talks so eloquently and with such authenticity.
“Knowledge and understanding is evolving all the time and, while we have elite programmes, including ‘Player to coach’ for former top players [including Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney, Carlton Cole and Michael Dawson], our focus on young players is about helping them fall in love with the game, by having a good experience, including more time on the ball, and scoring goals.”
The FA’s whole strategy for the game, including the improvement of the grassroots experience – “Survive, Revive, Thrive” – has been renamed “England Football”, to stress explicitly the common principles at all levels. Small-sided football took years to incorporate but is now recognised to provide the best experience at young ages: five-a-side at under-7 and U8s; seven-a-side at U9 and U10s; nine-a-side at U11 and U12s, moving to 11-a-side football only at U13 level.
It is difficult to encapsulate quite how much of a revolution all this modern thinking represents from the stagnant FA of relatively recent memory. Even having some kind of strategy at all was for a long time a frustrated hope among its more enlightened staff. The realisation that the elite can thrive only from strong roots, obvious though that is, took many years for the FA’s hierarchy to absorb.
The strategy recognises that there remains a long way to go, and the FA is still laden with the archaic council as its rule-making body and buffeted by events. But current developments build on years in which the FA gradually cemented a focus on its core purpose, with enough of English football’s great wealth finally applied to it.
St George’s Park, the permanent base, with magnificent facilities, for Southgate, Pearson and her 124 FA education staff, all England teams and all national coach education courses, was a stop-start, budget-busting project that the FA insisted it needed, against opposition in the 2000s from the Premier League and Football League chairmen.
Sir Trevor Brooking, the England playmaker turned FA director of football development from 2004-14, maintained that England needed to have that base, and learn in all areas from the alluring progress European countries had made, led by France and Spain. The complex, with 14 outdoor pitches including a replica of the Wembley pitch surface, coaching, sports science and rehabilitation areas, was finally opened in 2012, and FA people now say they can hardly recall how they managed without a base.
Southgate’s own development is itself the result of dedicated planning far beyond the FA’s previous record. He was appointed in 2011 to a new position as head of elite development, aimed at improving England’s technique and ultimately their ability to perform better in international football than they had during his time as a player. Southgate wanted more immediate involvement with players and left the role in July 2012, but he was recruited as under-21s manager in 2013, graduating to England manager in 2016.
Dan Ashworth, who replaced him as the FA’s director of elite development, is widely credited within the organisation for establishing the principles that have helped produce the steady improvement sought when the post was first created after England’s failure in the 2010 World Cup.
Ashworth developed the “England DNA” programme in 2014, a further fulfilment of Brooking’s vision, for consistent approaches to style of play, coaching, player development and sports science and analytics support through all age groups, from men’s and women’s under-15s to the men’s under-21s and women’s under-23s.
Even Wembley itself can be seen as a monument to long-term planning by the FA; a project that suffered years of delay and criticism but ultimately did produce an awesome modern stadium that has now delivered the bonus of home advantage. Some football people believe the FA should have held its nerve and sold the stadium to Shahid Khan in return for £400m that could have been invested in the grassroots, a 2018 proposal that looks more attractive from the other side of the pandemic.
Regardless, when Southgate and his players are acclaimed by the crowd at Wembley on Sunday, it should be recognised that the applause is also for the FA, English football’s historic governing body, and its determined work to attain these heights.