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Les than zero - How the FA has regressed since sacking Les Reed

The FA have regressed since sacking Les Reed. Here's how.

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Les Reed left the FA in 2004, shortly after Trevor Brooking was appointed as the association’s Director of Football Development. A couple of years later word began to spread that Reed was suing the FA, having been sacked without notice, without justification, and with Brooking telling him he had done nothing to deserve it.

But had he done anything right? It seems like he had

An FA spokesman said. "There is a contractual dispute between Les Reed and the FA, but any details will remain confidential". And remain confidential it did. There is no documentation online of the case ever reaching court.

In light of the above it’s impossible to know exactly why Reed departed. Reed might not have done anything wrong, but had he done anything right? Looking into what was put in place during his tenure, it seems that during his time as the FA’s Director of Technical Development, he made a number of positive changes.

With England embarking on yet another ‘new era’, it seems like a good opportunity to look at what Reed did at the FA, and what have the FA have done differently in the years since.

Reed, the way he tells it, was a striker who trained with Arsenal but wasn’t offered an apprenticeship, and ended up training as a PE teacher at Loughborough University. While playing for the university team, he was spotted by none other than Graham Taylor.

Taylor- who of course later had an ill-fated spell as England manager, is perhaps not the high priest of the percentage football to which the FA has been in thrall for much of its existence, but he is certainly one of its bishops; a fellow traveller of Charles Hughes, Wing Commander Reep and the like.

That he should have even a cameo in the career of a man associated with a much more progressive outlook is surprising, but Reed acknowledges that Taylor played an important role, and still counts him as a friend. Taylor never picked Reed for Watford’s first team (he would finish his professional career without having played a single league game), but he did encourage him to take his coaching badges. Reed soon had his full badge and started running FA courses.

During that first spell with the FA Reed would help set up the Centre of Excellence programme within the professional game, which fed the National School at Lilleshall.

This was a forerunner of the academy system and the subsequent Elite Player Performance Plan now in place, and trained players like Sol Campbell, Joe Cole, Jermaine Defoe, Scott Parker, Jamie Carragher, Andy Cole, Glen Johnson and Phil Neville, as well as identifying Alan Shearer, Stephen Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Jamie Redknapp, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler.

The Premier League’s director of youth Ged Roddy has publicly stated that "many aspects of the EPPP were actually written by Les probably 1-15 years before when he was working at the FA".

Reed has said that what they were doing was, at the time "way ahead of Spain and the rest, but politics and resistance led to these programmes being abandoned". As recently as 2009 Reed still maintained that "we could have been leading the world". Lilleshall was copied by associations from Germany and France (who based their legendary Clairefontaine school on it).

Far from being a haven for intractable characters like Reep and Hughes, (the latter was known to reduce experienced professionals to tears on his coaching courses), Lilleshall seems to have become an important English outpost of football’s coaching network. England have been stymied by a superiority complex, but being an island and therefore to some extent cut of from the rest of Europe and the exchange of ideas taking place on the continent probably hasn’t helped them over the years. Yet at Lilleshall, coaches like Wiel Coercer and Andre Vilas-Boas spent time studying the game, and presumably discussing it with their peers.

Reed is staunch in his defence of what he and Wilkinson put in place:

"Academies were launched and the Charter for Quality was implemented, England Youth Teams began winning tournaments [it’s unclear which tournaments Reed is referring to, but they did well at U17 level while he was in situ] and the Germans, French and Spanish all came to see what we were doing. All England Teams below 21 played 4-3-3 in a flexible and dynamic style based on passing and movement. We had planned and begun work on the National Football Centre, we had undertaken a worldwide study of what brought success at International level. We visited all the top European countries, went to Brazil and Argentina, learned the lessons and the future was beginning to look bright. I managed a staff of around 50 coaches, scientists, scouts, medics and other specialists. We had international teams doing well in every age group. These guys are virtually all at top clubs now; Manchester United and City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and more. Five years into the programme it was abandoned, Trevor Brooking was brought in and the Technical Director role was made redundant, the Technical Department disbanded and the National Football Centre project was mothballed."

Perhaps the best evidence of Reed’s reforms lies in two FA coaching manuals; Reed’s own- Basic Team Coaching (2004)- and its precursor, The Winning Formula (1990), written by Hughes.

The Winning Formula consists of text worded in a way that recalls Pathe News documentaries, alongside a series of child-like diagrams depicting players running and kicking the ball largely in straight lines, and simplistic strategies ("Do not run when it is muddy"). Hughes sets aside a separate chapter for "The Winning Formula" itself, in which he pontificates about the shortcomings of "patient possession football" before triumphantly presenting flawed statistics (debunked in Dawkins-esque fashion by Jonathan Wilson in the brilliant Inverting The Pyramid) in an attempt to prove the greater effectiveness of "long forward passes".

In Reed’s book, there is a chapter entitled ‘Learning from successful teams’. The first of eleven listed characteristics of these successful teams is ‘more possession’. There then follows a pair of case studies, on the World Cup winning Brazil team of 2002 and the France team that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Despite having had Taylor (who collaborated with Hughes before eventually falling out with him) as his mentor being an exponent of football by numbers, it seems that Reed had an openness to the forensic approach of scholars like Andy Grant that ultimately led him to renounce the insularity of English football. He has espoused the benefits of academia "It's no surprise that Sven-Goran Eriksson and Gerard Houllier have got teaching backgrounds and that Arsene Wenger's got a university degree"- networking (since his arrival at Southampton the club has swapped ideas with Barcelona and Villarreal) and knowhow from other fields, e.g. medicine. "You have to put your ego aside and use people with expertise", he told the Telegraph in 2003.

It is perhaps telling that Reed, while explaining that Southampton’s academy teams play 4-3-3- has specifically said that they do so "not because it’s the winning formula", but because it encourages flexibility. He has also lamented that "in the Charles Hughes era the FA used to dictate what the coaching syllabus should be". Reed has been at pains to point out that Southampton do not have a "secret" to producing excellent young players, and that they review their curriculum every six weeks, as well as having an annual review.

Indeed England’s loss, it seems, was Southampton Football Club’s gain. In April 2010 they appointed Reed Head of Football Development and Support, and since then there has been a continual progression. What he seems to have done during his time at the club is more or less what he wanted to do at the FA, who have chopped at changed with typical regularity in the years since disposing of him and, Reed says, allowed the numerous new England managers to alter the infrastructure. Reed always emphasised the importance of consistency and continuity of thinking- "corporate memory" as he called it- and told Gary Neville in 2014 that this has underpinned Southampton's success; in spite of managers coming and going, the club's overall strategy has remained the same, particularly with regard to trying to produce players for the first team. The philosophy remains broadly the same at all age levels.

Reed's departure from the FA remains mysterious (when there is no record of a claim for wrongful dismissal ever making it to court it is often because the claim has been settled out of court). Why, having overseen the development of England’s ‘Golden Generation’, was Reed removed? Was it a coincidence that it happened the same year that Basic Team Coaching contradicted much of what the FA had preached for the preceding years? Hughes had been removed when Wilkinson and Reed were installed- "almost forcibly"- according to former Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith, who was among the first coaches to be awarded the FA Advanced Coaching Licence after attending one of Hughes’s courses, but one wonder if his legacy may have endured.

Even if they ever really went away, there might now have been a rebirth of Hughes’s ideas. A few years ago it transpired that the FA had enlisted notorious long ball fundamentalist John Beck to help coaches through their UEFA B badges. My own experience of this course, with it’s focus on the development of the technical ability required for position football, suggests that unless Beck has experienced an epiphany in the years since he awarded bonuses to the players who could kick the ball the furthest, his presence in such an environment would seem incongruous. The FA courses, by comparison, still contain remnants of Hughes's thinking- during my Level 1 course in 2012, while participating in a training game, I was given a rollocking for passing to a better placed team mate instead of shooting, on the basis that the more shots a team has the more likely they are to score.

Hughes himself received a lifetime contribution award from the FA in 2013, and as recently as 2014 the FA website recommended not Reed’s book on coaching, but another of Hughes’s, Soccer Tactics and Skills. It was originally published in 1980.

Another name synonymous with ultra-direct football is Aidy Boothroyd. Boothroyd is now in charge of England U20s and was appointed by Dan Ashworth, the FA's director of elite development (who, incredibly, seems to have been handpicked by Roy Hodgson- another example of the "top down" thinking Reed has criticised). Upon taking up that role, Ashworth assured the press that there would be no 'jobs for the boys' culture. Yet Ashworth and Boothroyd had previously worked together at Peterborough. Boothroyd later appointed Ashworth to assist him at West Bromich Albion's academy. Ash worth's mentor Hodgson was also at West Brom.

Both West Brom and Hodgson have had modest success over the last decade, but neither club nor manager is known for playing particularly progressive football. Hodgson made his name in Scandinavia in the 1980s, and even then there was grumbling from the indigenous football public about the rigidity of his teams.

Then there is "England DNA", and Ashworth’s chilling assertion that "We are England, we are English. We play like England." What does this mean? Surely, even by the luddite standards of English football, it would be ridiculous to believe that a player's ability to pass a football depends on which side of the English Channel he or she was born on. "There are lots of different playing styles within our professional leagues. You've got a vast contrast and you don't have that so much in other nations. I think it's important at some stage that we state what our playing and coaching philosophy is as a country, not necessarily based on what the clubs have." This is all rather vague, perhaps deliberately so. Yet it’s difficult not to infer that the FA have rediscovered the conviction- in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the style peculiar to England can triumph. The English style evolved while it was detached from the rest of the football world (by simple geography, as well as a ban from European competition), starved of innovation from abroad and informed by the misapprehension that having invented the game granted England a natural preeminence. This was in spite of being regularly humbled at international level. In 1953 England were dismantled at Wembley by the Hungary side of Ferenc Puskas, and this began a pattern of frequent humiliations at the hands of more technically and tactically accomplished nations. Yet here we are, with Boothroyd ensconced and Sam Allardyce- whose reputation for ‘anti-football’ goes before him- now the England manager.

In their excellent book The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally use statistics to demonstrate that football in the top European Leagues is much the same, and that any differences are superficial. There are roughly the same number of long passes, short passes and shots on goal in the Premier League as there are in Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Networking and the financial might of those leagues, which allows them to attract the world’s best players- has rendered national characteristics obsolete. As Reed demonstrated in Basic Team Coaching, successful teams at international level tend to share many characteristics.

Nonetheless, English football seems to be constantly searching for evidence that its traditional methods are sound. Look, for example, at the glee with which Leicester’s miraculous title win last season was seized upon as proof that "good old 4-4-2", as Danny Higginbotham referred to it, is still the best way to play in 2016. Never mind that, rather than having two players isolated up front, Leicester defended with Shinji Okazaki operating as an auxiliary midfielder goal side of the opposition’s deepest midfield sitter. Never mind that England’s best showings in World Cups have come when 4-4-2 has been abandoned (for a 4-1-3-2 when they won in 1966, and- mostly- for a sweeper system when they reached the semi finals in 1990). "England," said Ricky Tomlinson’s fictional England manager Mike Bassett "play 4-4-2". You can bet that the traditionalists will be further emboldened by Leicester’s success, especially their anomalous achievement of winning lots of games despite having less possession than their opponents, and they will continue to cheer 4-4-2 like it is the national team itself.

Which brings us back to Reed and 4-3-3. Reed explained the reasoning behind its use in youth football to a coaching seminar in 2014.

"We use through our academy 4-3-3 as a basic structure in terms of the style of play... because to play 4-3-3 properly you have to develop a whole range of things that you don’t have to develop if you play 4-4-2, where the team is very straight and structured and up and down. 4-3-3 requires rotation in midfield, it requires full backs to push on, it requires centre backs to be able to split and have plenty of the ball."

The 4-3-3 wasn’t actually a Reed innovation at Southampton. One of his predecessors- the French coach Georges Prost, who is perhaps the godfather of Southampton’s academy in its current incarnation- had the U18s team of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Adam Lallana playing in that system by the time they reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2005. Yet the reforms and upgrades in facilities he has overseen since his appointment have seemingly worked. England have profited from it too: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers- all of whom learned the game at Saints’ Staplewood campus- have all won full caps, while the U21s are captained by James Ward-Prowse and have also included Matt Targett and Jack Stephens. Harrison Reed, Sam Gallagher and Callum Slattery have all featured for other England age group teams.

Despite this, the FA don’t seem interested in hearing what SFC have to say re youth development. Apparently they are once again convinced that the idiosyncratic English way will eventually prevail. "Let's not get away from the good attributes and good assets we have as a nation", urges Ashworth, who during his time at West Brom was known more for recruitment than youth development, and doesn’t seem to have been outstanding at either.

Martin Hunter, Southampton’s technical director, summed up the FA’s attitude in one of the many fawning articles about Saints’ academy over the last few years. Southampton’s youth programme was judged Europe’s most profitable in a recent report by the CIES Football Observatory also take the training of their coaches very seriously. Hunter told "Henry Winter:

"Les has been invited once to a meeting. He was then going to be invited back for a course on coach education. Nothing’s happened."

The futurist Alvin Toffler once said that "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." "Thirty years of hurt", went the famous anthem. It is now fifty, and yet unlike Reed and Southampton, England remain, by Toffler’s definition, illiterate.