England’s 2010 World Cup thrashing prompted changes that produced Gareth Southgate’s exciting team
England’s golden generation trudged off the pitch in Bloemfontein, South Africa, having been torn apart by a far superior Germany team. Another disappointing tournament had ended in a chastening 4-1 defeat, and the fury over Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ was only a tiny facet of the post-mortem that took place behind closed doors.
Figures at the Football Association feared what was next. This was a core of players – Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, John Terry – in the twilight of their international careers.
There was a belief even before England travelled to South Africa that the quality of homegrown players in the Premier League was waning. Some figures raised concerns that future national team managers would be selecting their squads from the second and third tiers.
English football’s development system needed a major overhaul. Fabio Capello’s side had been beaten by a Germany team who had benefitted from an academy system revamped a decade prior. Inspiration for what would become the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was partly taken from the German FA’s changes.
The plan was a long-term ambition to improve the quality and quantity of English players at the elite level. That coincided with the development of an ‘England DNA’, which profiled the ideal future England player.
“What you were seeing around 2010 was a gradual decline, over time, in the number of homegrown English players who were playing at the top level in the Premier League. The worry was that, if we did nothing, that would continue to reduce,” Ged Roddy, then the FA’s head of youth development, exclusively tells Express Sport.
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England were torn apart by Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
“I always thought it would be eminently possible to create a situation where you develop better players but I was most worried about the idea of getting more players playing in the Premier League. I thought that would be the hardest nut to crack because the Premier League is the most competitive league in the world.
“So to get players playing in the Premier League, they’re going to need to be, by default, among the best players in the world. That was the one that worried me.”
This week, England are stepping up their preparations for the 2022 World Cup, a tournament some at the FA earmarked for success a decade ago. A talented squad, perhaps the most technically gifted the country has ever produced, will go to Qatar in November and many have come through an academy system redesigned by EPPP. There will be no need for Gareth Southgate to pluck his squad from League One.
“What the data is now showing is that those numbers have improved quite dramatically over the last couple of years,” Roddy continues.
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“Not only are you getting better technical players, but you’re getting more of them at the top of the game. It’s really pleasing to see that.”
EPPP was hugely divisive when it was introduced in 2012. The plan was viewed by English Football League (EFL) clubs as being balanced in favour of their Premier League rivals. ‘The death of academies – no to EPPP,’ read a banner at then-Championship Crystal Palace, where 10 years on, a grand £20million academy base in Beckenham is evidence of the plan’s success.
But even now, some clubs lower down the pyramid feel the plan is weighted towards those at the top of the food chain. “If I closed my computer and left it blank for five minutes, would that answer your question?” Les Ferdinand, QPR’s director of football, pointedly asks Express Sport when quizzed on the beneficiaries of EPPP. Ferdinand has lost 10 under-15 players to Premier League clubs during his seven-year spell.
Clubs in QPR’s position feel the compensation fees bigger clubs pay to prise away their best talent is generous. It would be remiss to not point out that the likes of Brentford and Huddersfield have closed their academies entirely.
To a degree, EPPP openly favours those elite clubs in its very nature – it aims to improve the quality at the top of the pyramid. But Roddy argues it also favours EFL clubs who want to develop their own players. The EFL remains a productive source of talent to the England team.
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“It was challenging and there were difficult conversations that needed to be had,” Roddy, who now works for FIFA, says. “Clubs in the EFL initially thought EPPP could be a disaster for them because the feeling was big clubs would hoover up all the top talent.
“To an extent, the plan clearly did go in favour of the biggest clubs in the country. But it was always balanced by those clubs that wanted to develop in this way and work their way through and achieve success through player development. That was a hard sell.
“What the last 10 years has shown us is that talent grows up all over the place. It doesn’t just grow up at Chelsea or on the streets of Manchester.”
There can be little argument that EPPP has been a success on its own terms. A plan to produce better technicians and more intelligent footballers has presented Southgate – another key brain behind EPPP – with Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Declan Rice, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Reece James and many more.
Academy players in England are playing more games. They are better educated. Their coaching is of a higher level. In 2020, the Premier League introduced the Elite Coaching Plan, an idea born out of EPPP that will improve the quality and quantity of English coaches.
But EPPP’s legacy stretches far wider. A dominant, assured and controlled 2-0 Euro 2020 last-16 victory over a Germany team consisting of some players who had helped thrash England 11 years earlier was evidence of an academy system that has largely embraced change.
It is significant that the German FA have reacted to that loss by announcing last week that changes will be made to their own system, over two decades after their last revamp from which England had taken inspiration.
That proves to the FA, though, that its own system cannot stand still. English football will need to evolve to stay ahead of its rivals. Roddy mentions one idea that would bridge the gap between professional academies and the grassroots game involving regional centres.
“I had been to Germany and they had put up 250 regional centres and were run by the German FA. These were coaching centres for young boys and girls that sat outside of the academy system,” he says.
“My pitch at the time was to ask the FA to develop something similar across England. For whatever reason, they didn’t step up to that particular challenge but I think it’s sitting there now waiting to be done. And it needs investment, of course.
“The rationale for it is that there are a lot of players who either don’t make it into the academy system, or they fall out of the academy system. When they fall out, they drop out. They literally fall like a stone. There is a big gap that is becoming even more pronounced between that academy environment with all those lovely facilities, and the grassroots game.
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“The idea was that you build this halfway house, you create a system which breeds, that allows players to move into the academy system, and gives them a way of moving out of it as well.
“That should be there at every step of the way. A number of the players who had stepped out on the pitch at Bloemfontein wearing a German shirt had come through that system. They hadn’t come through the academy system, they had come through the DFB’s development programme.
“Building these halfway houses in the counties could be a really important addition to what we already do. It will broaden and deepen the talent pool. That’s what English football continues to need to do if it wants to get to, and stay, at the very top of the tree.”
Ultimately, the success of EPPP will be decided based on the longevity of England’s position among the best nations in the world. For too long English football had stood still and watched its rivals surpass.
But for now, an academy system reimagined by EPPP has produced the core of the most exciting England team in generations. The onus is on its first crop of graduates to deliver a first World Cup in nearly 60 years.