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No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin


No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin

Author:Michael Calvin
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Random House
Published: 2017-04-20T04:00:00+00:00


12

Room with a View

DAN ASHWORTH PUNCHES a security code into a console on the right-hand side of a door on the top floor of the National Football Centre. The password-protected room gives up its secrets quickly, because within three steps the visitor’s eye is drawn to a rectangular digital clock, where red numbers are counting down to the World Cup final in Qatar on December 18, 2022.

This clock, according to Greg Clarke, the Football Association’s latest blindly opinionated chairman, is ‘a joke’. It might be wild, emblematic optimism, yet, since it signals England’s avowed ambition to win the global game’s greatest prize on that day, it is an inevitable focal point of an office that has the feel of a draft room in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball.

The walls are lined with names and thumbnail photographs of England’s best young players, arranged into seven age-group squads, from under-15 to under-21. Each section features a fixtures programme and an optimal starting eleven set up in a 4–2–3–1 formation; potential substitutes are arranged around the team, like moons orbiting the mother planet.

This is a visual representation of the talent pool available to the men who occupy eight chairs, tucked under a table on which a gaudy green representation of a football pitch is etched. There are workstations available for the national age-group coaches, and the manager of the senior side. On one, in the corner, rests a replica hand grenade.

This symbolises a running joke launched by Aidy Boothroyd, the under-20 coach, who tosses the toy on to the table whenever he wants to make an incendiary point during post-tournament debriefs, which cover everything from travel arrangements to tactical substitutions. Coaches are encouraged to challenge one another; they, like senior support staff, are also expected to stand before the group and name three young players they believe will make the full England team. FA talent reporters continually assess youth football. Fifty-strong longlists are drawn up for the under-15 and -16 squads; older age groups select from thirty-three players. Ashworth classifies 459 players, from under-15 to under-21 level, as England’s elite. One hundred and seventy-five are female and statistics suggest 19 per cent of them will represent the country at senior level. Only 5.28 per cent of the 284 males in the international programme will progress to the senior team.

When I first met Gareth Southgate for the purposes of this book, in late September, he was manager of the under-21s and the responsibility for picking the senior team was less than a week away. Neither he nor Ashworth were aware that the end-of-the-pier show starring Sam Allardyce was about to close over a pint of white wine with undercover journalists.

Our subsequent conversations have enduring relevance, since they concentrate on the issues and philosophies that will shape Southgate’s tenure in the most over-exposed job in domestic sport, which is scheduled to last until at least 2020. The odds on him seeing out that contract are prohibitively small; England managers might have three lions on their chest, but they are uncomfortably aware of the metaphorical targets on their backs.



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