The man from Norfolk who helped England to the verge of World Cup glory
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
England's World Cup exploits haven't happened overnight – they are part of a long and well-thought plan, as Chris Lakey reports
If you can't beat em, join em, they say.
Germany are perhaps not the best example given they are watching the World Cup from wherever their players decided to hide following their humiliating exit.
But their model – and those of several others – has brought success over the years. It's just taken England a longer to grasp the nettle and sort out a plan.
The intention: to create generations of English national teams, at all levels, singing from the same hymn sheet.
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It's not something that can be done overnight, but what Gareth Southgate and his players have done in Russia is the result of that plan.
It was three and a half years ago when the Norfolk-bred Dan Ashworth presented his 'England DNA', the white paper that would put in place a system whereby all England teams would work in unison. As he said at the time 'only the size of the shirt will change'.
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Ashworth operates from St George's Park, the patriotically named hub of all England football teams. It's the national team's football HQ – very different from the red tape officialdom of the other HQ, at Wembley, where the suits, rather than the track suits, have their home.
Over far too many years, the national team has been damaged by poor managerial appointments and a plan that lurched every time the managers jumped. Different ideas were introduced with each appointment – until Ashworth stepped in, unveiling an 11-page document, in December 2014, his manifesto if you like. Ashworth was and still is director of elite development, a fine title which barely covers the enormous responsibility of the role.
Ashworth – whose playing roots included local football, some time on Norwich's books, but more exceptionally, coaching and development roles at Peterborough, Cambridge United and West Brom before he took his current role in September, 2012, the year St George's Park was opened.
He is at the heart of this, make no mistake.
After England's exit from the 2012 World Cup, Ashworth grabbed the bull by the horns, with the backing of then FA chairman Greg Dyke (he of the suit not the tracksuit) and set about devising a plan which would see all age groups following the same regime. A bit Orwellian perhaps, but the gist of it was that the tactical familiarity would become second nature so that transitions up the England ladder would not be as difficult. When you are dealing with elite players, you are not necessarily just teaching them football skills – they have that built in. They need to be told how to use them.
The lack of continuity at international level has been preposterous: why no one ever thought to devise a plan that worked the whole way through beggars belief.
Fortunately, Ashworth did.
England DNA is, to quote Ashworth and Gareth Southgate on its own website: 'The playing and coaching philosophy of the England teams.'
It has five core elements: who we are; how we play; the future England player, how we coach and how we support.
When all of this was being revealed to the public, Southgate was manager of the England Under 21s. Now he is senior manager. He and Ashworth are FA veterans and examples of the continuity theory, which had Southgate pencilled in as a future senior manager.
When an unsuspecting Sam Allardyce sat around a table and began discussing things you should not discuss, the door was open. Southgate walked through it – and knew exactly what to expect.
He knew all age group teams would use the same travel arrangements, the same training drills, that all players had interactive wristbands to download video clips and key messages – at all times.
While the top clubs and Elite Player Performance Plan provides the top young players, the England DNA message needs to spread far and wide – the FA may run the England team, but it doesn't necessarily mean it runs football in this country.
England lagged behind compared to its rivals, who had far more players making the leap from age group teams to seniors, so more England development teams were created.
Ashworth explained: 'We looked at seven European countries, ourselves included, and three South American countries - the ones who had been most successful in getting to tournaments.
'We looked at the differences between those teams and the nations who went on to win things. The successful teams tended to have players who had more experience at international level, more caps.
'One of the reasons was because our competitors had more teams than us, so we have introduced an U15s, U18s and U20s to keep those teams and players connected.'
He continued: 'We worked out that if you came in as an U15 boy and played in every single game and qualified for every single tournament across the age groups, then you would have had around 60 experiences, 60 games.
'On average our players were 20 caps down compared to our competitors once they move into the senior team.
'Now with the three extra teams and tweaking around with some of the friendlies, we are now up to around the mid-80s.'
That attention to detail is why England are in the World Cup.
It is why England won the Under 17 World Cup, and the Under 20 World Cup.
It is why there is a belief that this summer, in Russia, football is coming home…