THE BLOG

England and the Unorthodox Genius

21/02/2014 00:15 GMT | Updated 22/04/2014 10:59 BST

In a rare turn of events for the middle of winter, football has been replaced on the back pages by cricket in the last week. Kevin Pietersen's sacking by England dominated the sports sections until it was finally deposed by the start of the winter Olympics in Sochi.

Most sports websites have been awash with opinion pieces about Pietersen's 'influence on team morale' and suchlike, but less have delved into the deeper issue in English sport in general, something which has been hinted at by the KP saga.

The fact is that for almost as long as English sport has existed, coaches have deeply distrusted those with unorthodox talent. The geniuses. The innovators. The mavericks.

Pietersen is just the latest casualty of a system which prizes orthodoxy above all else. Examples can be seen across the sporting spectrum in England (Danny Cipriani in Rugby Union, Pietersen and Jack Russell in cricket to name but a few), but football seems to take the biscuit for having the biggest homogenised mass of samey players.

This isn't to say that English football never produces any talented players. Men like Michael Owen, David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand have all been at or near the top of the world game in the last 15 years, but they remained very much in the safe mould of the 'proper English footballer'.

You'd probably have to go back to Paul Gascoigne for England's last audacious and naturally talented player whose game wasn't distorted beyond recognition by the cookie cutter "long pass, lose ball, chase hard to win ball" style by the time he reached 25.

A near obsessional fixation on the ideal of the oft-cited 'team ethic' has led to several supremely talented players being excluded for not fitting in. This ethos can be traced back around 50 years to World Cup winning manager Alf Ramsey, who said "I don't necessarily pick the best players," preferring instead to pick players who fit his managerial style and his rigid formations.

As the 80s and 90s passed, Ramsey was long gone as England boss, but his idea lived on. Glenn Hoddle, one of England's most talented players according to Matt Le Tissier, won just 53 caps in his long career.

Le Tissier was another victim of the system. The Guernsey born midfielder won just eight caps for England in his spectacular career, significantly less than players like Paul Merson, Rob Lee and Carlton Palmer, who all played in the same era. Merson et al were good, hard working professionals, but none of them had the dazzling skill of Le Tissier.

There's little question that Le Tissier was a once in a generation talent, but he found himself out in the cold for England as managers doubted his motivation whilst ignoring the fact that he had the ability to turn a match that few other players in the world, never mind the country, possessed.

Flair players not getting into the England side 20 years ago has given way to them not getting the opportunities at any level. The structure of our youth coaching has been criticised in many parts of Europe, with accusations of "overcoaching" youngsters and stamping out any particularly individual or unusual talents. Players are discarded at a young age for being "too small" to cope with the physical, well-drilled style of play that many coaches demand.

At most youth teams in England, a player like Lionel Messi would never have had a look in. A laconic, deep sitting passer such as Andrea Pirlo would be called lazy, "not a team man", and made to chase the ball up and down the field like everyone else.

There's a growing outcry about the lack of 'world-class' English players coming through at the moment and the obvious place to look is the grass-roots. Jack Wilshere gave a very telling quote last year when he said "We have to remember what we are." He continued, "We are English and we are tough on the pitch. Spain are technical; England are brave and tackle hard."

It's exactly this kind of approach that is in danger of turning England into permanent underachievers at the international level. A solid, hard-fighting side without a special talent can only get a team so far and England have reached the peak of what's possible with sheer willpower and grind.

If England are to challenge for a major trophy any time in the near future, then it's time to embrace the maverick.

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