- England have enjoyed upturn in success since opening new home
- St George’s Park has boosted cohesion across all England teams
- Technical Director Dan Ashworth feels they are “knocking on the door” of success
The last 15 months have been something to savour for England fans. Since lifting the FIFA U-20 World Cup last June, they have reached the final four of every one of FIFA’s international tournaments.
Picking up two titles – including the FIFA U-17 World Cup, a bronze medal at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and their best FIFA World Cup™ finish since 1990, they have every right to feel satisfied with how things have gone. That’s even without mentioning their senior women reaching the UEFA Women’s EURO semi-finals and the men’s U-19s being European champions last year.
“We’ve been really pleased,” Dan Ashworth, the FA’s technical director since 2013 – who is set to take up the role at Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion at the end of the year – told FIFA.com. In his eyes, the reason we’ve seen this rush of latter-stages success hinges on one thing. “The catalyst for it all, I think, has been St George’s Park.”
If so, then what a change of fortunes the £105m centre, opened in 2012, has brought about. Including England’s run to the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ semi-finals in 2015, the last three years have brought about five finishes in the last four at a global level. The previous 20 years produced just one.
“What we’re able to do is bring all the teams in at the same time and the players can share, the coaches can share, male and female games can share and coach education teams can share,” Ashworth explained, allowing them to accelerate progress across the board.
This also greatly benefits both the men’s and women’s sides of the game – with England ranked in sixth and third respectively in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – as both enjoy the same facilities, while being afforded similar strategies and approaches where they can.
“We’re aware that there are some differences between the two codes,” Ashworth reflected, “however we try to make sure we give them the same opportunities, the same standard of coaching, games, programmes and national teams.”
With all eyes on climbing peaks at the top level – “Ultimately, it’s about senior success. We want to be world and/or European champions in the male and female game” – ensuring players garner a wide range of experiences has been a central pillar on the blueprint.
While tournament football provides a treasure trove of learning opportunities, priming teams before they get there has been key, too, sending groups to USA and Brazil to get a taste for opponents they could square up to in the finals. And while qualification has always been a must, one expectation which there hasn’t been stands out.
“What we haven’t had was a need to hit X number of semi-finals, finals, medals, trophies,” Ashworth said, with the experiences themselves being the most sought-after prize. If we get to the semi-finals of a EUROs at U-17s and lose to Spain on penalties, it’s actually a really good learning experience for the players.”
The fact coach Paul Simpson, having lifted the U-20 title, revealed: “If we could have set the script perfectly, we would have had a penalty shootout and won it,” says it all.
“We want them to experience the 'go-home-tomorrow' games, as we call them,” Ashworth continued. “To win on penalties, to lose on penalties, to understand what it takes to get out of a group, to understand what it takes to qualify. All those things we felt were really important.”
And now, with those boxes steadily being ticked for many in the men’s and women’s ranks, he believes that elusive, ultimate success could be reachable. “We’re knocking on the door. I think stats will tell you that teams have to do that first – there’s not many teams that come from nowhere to win at senior level.”
France certainly did, first winning the U-20 World Cup and falling agonisingly short at UEFA EURO 2016 – losing in the final – before triumphing in Russia. “It gives me great hope, and we might have to do that for another tournament or two, but we want to make sure that we’re up on that podium at the senior end of the game.”