Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Gray's prejudice is a symptom of an uneducated game

When the news broke that Andy Gray had been sacked over the Sky sexism storm, it was hard not to smile. The queue of people lining up to defend Scot was very short, consisting of just one person – his former Aston Villa boss Ron Atkinson.  Atkinson is no stranger to controversy himself, having been sacked by ITV after being recorded off air saying of Marcel Desailly “that’s what’s known in some schools as a fucking lazy, thick nigger”. 

Interesting. And, you, Ron, are what’s known in some schools as a dickhead, but let’s not squabble, eh?

What makes the comments of Gray and his co-presenter Richard Keys about lineswoman Sian Massey all the more depressing is that they ignore the fact she will have been subject to strict criteria before being allowed to run the line  - a laudable attempt by the referee's association to professionalise officiating not apparent in the English game itself where calls for managers to gain qualifications before they take up a job are routinely ignored.

Instead, former players think they can walk off the golf course or out of the TV studio and into a top job, before predictably falling on their faces. I mention no names. (Alan Shearer.)

A pair of tits

While anti-intellectualism may be a stain that runs deep through the game in England, look at the two most successful managers at work in England today.  Arsene Wenger gained his first coaching qualification aged 24 (and has a degree in economics to boot) while Sir Alex Ferguson gained his at 25.  Sir Alex freely admits he takes annual refresher courses.  But why does he bother? No one could teach him anything, right..?

Uefa research shows coaching is the 'golden thread' leading to success in the game. Germany has 34,970 coaches holding Uefa's A, B or Pro badges (the game's top qualifications); Italy 29,420; Spain 23,995 and France 17,588. England has just 2,769. It goes with out saying (but I'll say it anyway) England have not appeared in a major tournament final since 1966, in which time those four other nations have all won both the World Cup and European Championship at least once. 

While the other major European football nations all have long-established centres of excellence (Coverciano in Italy and Clairefontaine in France to name just two) the FA's St George's Park project, upon which work was started in 2001, is still not complete. These places are football universities where the brightest minds aren't just taught about the game but are asked to question the way it's played and develop new ideas.

By contrast, English tactics are stuck in black and white. The nation is wedded to 4-4-2 and the players are not tactically flexible enough to change to a different system.  In fact throughout football's history some of England's brightest coaching minds have had their success abroad, in part because their ideas were not welcome in their homeland.

Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham were the founding fathers of the Dutch school of Total Football, which in turn influenced Barcelona upon which the success of the current World Champions, Spain is built.

When the Hungarians handed England their arses at Wembley in 1953 the Mighty Magyars credited their success to Jimmy Hogan an English coach who had been shunned by the FA some 35 years before. 

Them From Abroad 6 John Bull 3

But woe betide the modern footballer actually think about things when there are fights to be had, pints to be drunk and Wags to be shagged. England international Graeme Le Saux wrote eloquently in his auto-biography of how slurs about his sexuality almost forced him to quit the game. His major crime? 

"For much of my career, reading The Guardian was used as one of the most powerful symbols of how I was supposed to be weirdly different. Pathetic, really. It gave substance to the gossip that I was homosexual: Guardian reader equals gay boy."

Quite right. You couldn't say that of a Telegraph reader. Of course, the abuse wasn't just restricted to the dressing room, but also poured down from the terraces throughout his career. Yet this is all hardly surprising.  Football is not distinct from society, but merely a part of it and the British - the English in particular - have a deep distrust of foreign ideas.

The country is on the edge of the European Union literally and metaphorically.  The Metric Martyrs battle heroically against the dictatorial imposition of a logical, sensible measurement system that's been used on mainland Europe for oooh.... over two hundred years and let's not even start talking about the Euro.

Learning a foreign language is no longer compulsory in English secondary schools, which might partly explain why less than one in six pupils achieved the new English Baccalaureate. Yet that in itself highlights the problem - why not just buy into the established and superior International Baccalaureate.  Oh, hang on, it's run by foreigners, that's why...

While Gray, Keys, and Atkinson may have been extreme cases they are symptomatic of an ethos within football and wider British society that shuns learning and new ideas and allows deep-rooted prejudices to fester.
It is significantly, that the influx of foreign managers and players to the game over the last twenty years with their funny ideas that looking after your body, enhancing ball skills and thinking about tactics might actually make you a better player has clearly made a difference.

Like it or not, the winds of change are blowing through the game and that's no bad thing.

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