It emerged yesterday that Kick It Out have written to Football Association chairman Greg Dyke to question the lack of diversity on the commission into the state of the game in England.
Days earlier Gary Lineker used Twitter to spell out his view, describing the eight men who make up the panel as “utterly pointless”. The former England striker exempted Glenn Hoddle but that brutal assessment seems hard on another member — Howard Wilkinson’s CV is far from pointless.
Wilkinson remains the last Englishman to win the top-flight title — his Leeds team triumphing in 1992, the last year of the unified Football League.
He managed England twice, filling in for Hoddle and Kevin Keegan. The 69-year-old gently reminds me: “During my five years as FA technical director, a lot of things happened. We introduced mandatory [coaching] qualifications when people were not very keen on it. We introduced academies. Were they as good as they could be? No. Did they have faults? Yes. But overall they have changed the face of youth development. Premier League clubs are now investing a lot of money and employing a lot of good people to work in them.”
He dismisses Lineker as one of the “critics on the sidelines [who] will have opinions” and states: “Everyone needs to go into the commission with an open mind. If you want to get better, you have to look at people who have created best practice. So you have to look at Jose Mourinho and why he has been so successful; at how Arsene Wenger sustained a system — recently under a lot of criticism — which has not only continued to import players but also produce good ones. Why and what Alex Ferguson created which developed a lot of excellent young players, a lot of them Englishmen. Hopefully, we will have a lot of experts [in front of the commission] who will give their opinions. People must be prepared to think outside the box.”
Wilkinson is prepared to go beyond football to cricket and rugby. Both Micky Stewart and Sir Clive Woodward visited Wilkinson when he was at the FA to see how their sports could improve. He says Stewart even used some of the ideas to develop the cricket academy at Loughborough University. Wilkinson says: “Cricket has had its problems but seems to have found a solution. How have the England cricket team had the wind change in the last few years? How have they sustained a level of performance which hitherto they didn’t have?”
But while all this sounds impressive, surely the commission are missing the most crucial player given that the Premier League are not represented.
“The Premier League have experts who are capable of giving a lot of useful information to the commission,” he says. “Therefore, they decided they are better represented by their experts.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as the answer expected from a man who is still at the heart of football establishment. Chairman of the League Managers’ Association, Wilkinson is believed to be the first person Dyke invited to his commission. However, Wilkinson highlights the obstacles to any proposals recommended. “There are political problems. The powers that be have to deal with that. The chairman of the FA and heads of the Premier League and the Football League will have to sit down and discuss the recommendations.”
Then he reveals: “I chaired a group in 2008 where the problems we discussed were [the same]. As a result of that, I came up with a report. That group was disbanded. Why? My proposals did not get past go because of the politics. They did not get before the powers that be.”
Wilkinson will not elaborate, merely saying: “There must be a copy at the FA.” But he does discuss why Germany and Spain have been able to transform their national teams and England have not.
Slow progress: A year after their Euro 2000 agony Germany were still a team in transition as this hammering by England showed“People say look at Spain but when Barcelona and Real Madrid start their season, I don’t think they anticipate the difficulties that Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool etc . . . experience in every game. For starters, the intensity of the competition is different.
“And in Spain, particularly at international development level, the clubs are very much more acquiescent to the needs of the national team.”
Germany had a total overhaul after crashing out of Euro 2000 with only a point, losing to England on the way. “I don’t think we have had what I call root-and-branch change in English football. The Germans have a reputation for taking action, sometimes some of it radical. It is a different situation in this country. The gap between their Bundesliga and their federation is much narrower, that is the difference.”
However, Wilkinson sees little merit in railing against the gap. Instead he praises the Premier League as “the best football league in the world, the most successful both financially and every other wise, a fantastically strong organisation”. Then sounding very like a man who understands the politics of the English game, he emphasises: “At the end of the day, the solution has got to involve the Premier League. It has got to be politically doable. That is much more difficult [here] than anywhere else.”
Wilkinson also feels strongly that the climate for change has not been helped by recent comments on the state of the national team.
“The blame game in the last month does nobody any good.” So it is no surprise that he says to those who argue that the Premier League has destroyed English football: “I don’t want to get into that.”
What Wilkinson will argue is the need for people to accept the historic standing of the national team.
“Since the 1950s, the Alf [Ramsey] period apart, I don’t think we have ever been in a position of the likes of Brazil where you think, ‘Yes, they will win it this year and, in four years’ time, they will probably win it again’. We have never been rock solid favourite more than once. This commission is a time for action.”