With Darren Fletcher reported to have been granted a free transfer from Manchester United, Adam Bate looks back at his career at Old Trafford.
...is that the draw for the next round is pretty shocking. Blackburn v Stoke, anybody? We also have mails on LVG and ManUnited, who drew plenty under Fergie...
Whenever England go out of a major tournament, there is a clamour from those learned and otherwise to examine the reasons for this particular instance of failure. A psychologist would inform us that this is a very healthy action, that only through adequately assessing the reasons for error can the brain fully allow improvements to be instigated.
However, experience of English sport (and indeed English culture) would suggest that, in fact, our reasons for picking apart every action, decision and preference after defeat simply highlights our love of blame culture. Whether it be negative managers, unfit players or a flawed social system, we must always formulate a plan in our minds of exactly who or what is responsible. More importantly, having done so we must then grumble and gripe about what must be done before quietly accepting that, in likelihood, nothing ever will be.
This time, 'coaches' seems the be the buzzword. I have read three articles (both in print and online) that point to figures suggesting that England has under 3,000 coaches holding UEFA A, B or Pro badges, whereas Spain, Italy and Germany all have more than ten times this number. The ratio of players to highly-qualified coaches is 1:817, whereas this number drops as low as 1:17 in Spain. Clearly, there is a relevant argument here. Technically, mentally and emotionally, constructive guidance is vital from a young age. There must be a link between the quality of coaching and quality of youth development, and the adage would be that whilst the best coach cannot turn a poor player into one of international class, a poor coach could stunt the footballing growth of a potential superstar. There are hopes that the National Football Centre in Burton will provide impetus and drive, but this is long overdue.
However, there is a flip side to such a thought process: Is the quality of coaching equatable to the quantity of coaches? Is the next Mourinho or Guardiola likely to be cooped up in an office, blissfully unaware of his untapped potential? And are eight-year-olds with the potential for greatness really slipping through the net?
On Monday night England's U19 team defeated France 2-1 in Estonia to qualify as group winners in the European Championships, and on Thursday face Greece for a place in the final. They defended doggedly at times, but actually beat a side against the odds (when did the senior side last do that?) Moreover, this team has form. The U19s are now unbeaten in fifteen internationals stretching back to May 2011, and this is the same age group that won the U17 Euros in 2010, beating Spain in the final. That victory was England's first tournament win at any age group since 1993 so, although they are second favourites to win this tournament, does this not give optimism for the future?
Every member of England's U19 squad was born after the beginning of the Premier League, none were older than six when Gianluca Vialli named an all-foreign starting eleven in the Premier League in 1999, and all will have reached 18 years of age before our National Football Centre finally opens. So, if this pool, this mini-generation of talent, has succeeded (and England's U17s reached the semi-finals again last year), then this has been done with the presence of other continually blamed parties (Premier League, foreigners, delay in St George's Park creation). Does their success not hint that perhaps the number of coaches is not at critical level? Whilst as a figure the raw number of our coaches is comparatively low, the volume present within a relatively small area still ensures that the most promising potential is quickly led into our largest academies. The most crucial action is to ensure that these individuals are given a chance on the highest stage domestically. This is the sticking point, for me.
England's 18-man squad for the current tournament shares three Premier League starts between them (two for Everton's Ross Barkley and one for Liverpool's Jack Robinson). In comparison, the Spanish squad contains players who have made 78 appearances in La Liga, for clubs including Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia. Those that haven't have been playing for the 'B' teams of their clubs, gaining extended experience in the second and third tier of Spanish football.
What is interesting is to look at the team sheet for an U19 game between England and Spain from just two years ago. Spain's starting eleven contained players such at Alcantara (65 games for Barcelona), Romeu (22 games for Chelsea last season), Canales (on loan at Valencia from Real Madrid) and Machado (starting for Benfica). All but one of that side played top flight football last season. From England's side, only four played Premier League football last season (Nathan's Baker and Delfouneso for Villa, Declan Rudd for Norwich and Steven Caulker on loan at Swansea), none played in Europe and not a single one of the match day squad now plays for Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea or Liverpool.
The biggest challenge is not necessarily getting children coached effectively, but allowing them to establish themselves on a rewarding domestic stage in their late teens. Often crucially and cripplingly underused, playing small to no doses of competitive football around players of higher quality will do little to develop talent; reserve and academy leagues do not suffice.
Things are not going to get any easier. The Premier League's new TV deal is worth £3billion, and is a 70 per cent increase on the previous offering. With five of the top 20 richest sports teams in the world, this new money postpones the worries of Financial Fair Play, and persuades the largest entities to continue to quest for European glory, whatever the cost. The team that finishes bottom of the Premier League in 2013/14 will earn more from TV in a year than Manchester City were awarded for winning the title, an eye-watering figure of £60million. With these funds, clubs will always look to buy young talent from abroad, despite the financial outlay. By 21 years of age, these players have more experience and greater professionalism, learnt by simply playing for their clubs. This season Barcelona failed to win La Liga, but nine Spanish players aged 21 or under made league appearances. The total of English players under the same age used by the Premier League winners Manchester City? 0. And Champions League winners Chelsea? 0.
Our clubs cannot be blamed for such a stance; they have no duty of care towards the England national team or its players. They will make token offers to community schemes (and, in fairness, some go beyond this) but have no responsibility to stick a local youth in at left back, particularly if each place up the Premier League gets them £Xmillion. It can make us sigh and cry but clubs will always think of themselves, whilst the Football Association is forced to think of them too.
We have heard much about increasing the number of coaches as if it will somehow instigate a masterplan, a thorough and intricate web of coaching and scouting, but it is a premise that depends on a multitude of factors. Coaches have to be prepared to stand in the cold and rain for six months a year. Children have to want to play in the same conditions, rather than sit in front of their TV or computer. And parents have to have the financial resources to drive the child to and from training and games. And even if all this can occur, and a 19-year-old star is found on the streets of Bolton, Brentford or Barnsley, our Premier League clubs will probably have found a better version in Buenos Aires or Barcelona. And done it yesterday.
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter