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Interview: John Curtis on improving English football

With England's youth teams turning out winless performances during the summer, Sports Mole caught up with former England Under-20 captain John Curtis to discuss how the nation's football fortunes can be altered.

Played 16, won none, scored five and conceded 18 goals. That is the type of record that you expect to be attributed to a Sunday League side on Hackney Marshes and not a team that is supposedly made up of some of the brightest young footballers that England has to offer.

Not since 1997 have England won a match at an Under-20s World Cup - a sequence that dates back five tournaments and includes coming up against the likes of Iraq, North Korea and Uzbekistan. With the greatest of respect, hardly powerhouses in the world of football.

So, what are the underlying issues behind such an unfavourable set of results?

"Is it that we do not have the players capable of competing at that level? Or is it that the way we play isn't conducive to getting positive results at an international level? Maybe it is the style of our play," John Curtis, who captained the last England Under-20 side to win a match at a major tournament told Sports Mole.

"There are probably lots of reasons. The argument as to why England has not been successful at a senior level has been put down to the fact that we are a club-focused country. Football in England is run by the clubs in the Premier League, even more so now than back when I was playing. The power is certainly held by the top teams. They dictate almost to the Football Association how football should be because ultimately they are the guys with the money."

Former Manchester United defender Curtis was part of a team 16 years ago that included the likes of Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Kieron Dyer, Danny Murphy and Matthew Upson. They reached the knockout stages with a return of eight goals from their three group matches, but their progress was halted by a Juan Roman Riquelme-inspired Argentina.

John Curtis training with England© PA Photos

Four years earlier Nicky Butt and his namesake Barmby displayed their potential as England finished in third spot. Despite not lifting the trophy, both teams had made an impression nonetheless.

Now, though, it seems that even the so-called lesser nations have started to keep pace with their more illustrious counterparts.

"We are producing quality players, but the problem is that the rest of the world is also doing it. The demand for the game is huge. In the likes of Iraq now there will be young kids kicking tin cans around. They've got a passion for the game which is arguably greater than ours. Perhaps our passion has waned. Our kids now are spending their time playing on games consoles rather than playing football in the streets or parks like before," said Curtis.

"In other countries, football is seen as a way out for them and a necessity that they succeed so the desire is huge. The rest of the world has caught up with England. Any country now with a decent-sized population is capable of producing a side that is at least difficult to beat.

"In that tournament that I played in there was the United Arab Emirates in our group and they weren't easy to beat then. They will only have got better and better, even though they are not widely considered to be footballing nations. Things have changed and if we as a country want to maintain our position within the top echelons, we need to be doing things a little bit better and accelerate that process."

Not that the Under-21s have fared much better in recent years. Aside from 2009, under the guidance of Stuart Pearce they failed to advance beyond the group stages of two of the last three European Championships. Such form resulted in former Nottingham Forest defender Pearce losing his job earlier this summer.

England u21 boss Stuart Pearce shouts from the touchline during a game with Norway on June 8, 2013© PA Photos

In fairness to the 78-capped Pearce, his hands had been tied to some extent in terms of selection. Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere never featured at a tournament, while Phil Jones, Jack Rodwell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all turned out for the senior side in relatively meaningless friendlies in May and June of this year when they could have been part of the Under-21 squad.

The previous two winners, Spain and Germany, have not been as apprehensive with their talent, having fielded the likes of Juan Mata, Thiago Alcantara, Mesut Ozil and Mats Hummels.

"[English youngsters] should be playing in as many tournaments as possible. A lot of the Spanish team have played together since a young age and won many youth competitions as they developed as players. They've also developed good habits, they know how to win and how to handle the pressure. They will also now hope to cope with penalty shootouts in semi-finals and finals," stressed Curtis.

"Our guys, because they are playing for their clubs rather than the Under-21s or younger sides, they are not getting exposed to the same kind of pressures. If you succeed in that environment, it becomes familiar to you and you are better suited to replicate that in senior tournaments. That's why a country like Spain has been so dominant in recent years. We should be blooding our younger players in the Under-20s and Under-21s.

"Myself, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher for example, all of us were national schoolboys. We went to the National Centre of Excellence at Lilleshall. We were exposed to international matches on a regular basis and so we were used to representing England. We trained in that kind of environment solidly. Maybe that is something that we are missing right now."

At all levels, it has been England's apparent difficultly to keep retention of the ball that is widely considered to be the major factor behind their failings. But, as Curtis's former Man United teammate and now England coach Gary Neville insisted in a recent interview with The Times: "When people talk about the DNA of English football, we've got one. We work hard, we're organised, structured, resilient, hard to beat. Not bad qualities." He pointed to the fact that from open play, the likes of Italy, Portugal and Argentina have been unable to defeat England in recent tournaments.

Are these "qualities" not a little dated in the modern game, though? Particularly when the Spanish national team, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have passed their way to glory in recent seasons.

Munich's players celebrate with the Bundesliga trophy on May 11, 2013© AP Photos

"If you look at those qualities that we have from an international perspective, they are fantastic and what other countries want. I don't think we could stop working hard, being organised and being tough to beat and then just start concentrating totally on the technical side or the athleticism that you see with the German sides in particular," claimed Curtis.

"What we have to do is add those to our game - that is key. It's not going to happen overnight, it's going to take years. The systems that are in place now at the category one clubs are going to allow the people that are in charge of elite development at the Premier League to see very quickly what works and what doesn't.

"They are going to be able to advise the clubs, or at least hopefully that is what they will do, what helps to produce the best players. If we can keep that secret within our shores, even better. That way, we will have a competitive advantage over other nations. It's our national game and we need to be doing much better than not winning a game since the 1990s."

Having retired in 2011, 34-year-old Curtis is now part of Everton's coaching setup at their American base in Connecticut. Now in the process of gaining his UEFA A licence, he believes that stubbornness among some of his peers has stunted development on the international scene.

"When I was at United, if Sir Alex Ferguson asked me whether I was going to play for United or England, as a 19-year-old lad, it's tough to be strong in the face of someone like him or an Arsene Wenger, giants of the game, and say that you want to be released to play for England. The pressure put on by clubs must be huge, particularly if they are playing week in and week out, which the best young players are," added the 2002 League Cup winner.

"The Premier League and FA have to work together, not only for the betterment for the Premier League, but also for the national game. That's going to be tough because it is driven by money and there isn't the revenue there that the Premier League produces. An international side can simply not make the same amount of money that a Premier League team can generate. Whoever has got the money, has the power.

"I've spent time in Australia, America and Italy and in my opinion, the standard of coaching in England is very good. Could it be better? Absolutely it could. If you look at the coaches at the top academies, they are comparable with the guys that are working at other European clubs. The sport science, the medical departments, the psychologists - these are components that we have been a little slow to grasp and are still a little reluctant to grasp. The foreign players and coaches take them on board better than we do. It's reluctance by some to see that the game changes. If you don't change with it, you'll get left behind.

Ashley Young hits the bar during England's penalty shootout against Italy.© Getty Images

"That is the only weakness in academies across the country - the psychological and social aspects of football. It tends to be neglected. Maybe that is a reason as to why we struggle in shootouts, as we are renowned for it. That is a real psychological issue and maybe an avenue that we haven't looked enough in to.

"I go on coaching courses now and the psychological side of that is huge. Do all the coaches embrace that particular component? Some do, some don't. What we have to work on for the benefit of the players is every little aspect possible. People like Sir Dave Brailsford in the cycling tries to squeeze everything out of every area. Our knowledge of the game as a country is superb, but our knowledge of other things, as to how we can improve our players, that is where the weakness lies in England."

"When Steve McClaren was at United, he would go to places all over the world. He'd go and watch basketball sessions, anything. If there is an edge to be had anywhere, doesn't matter what it is, if it is a training method that is going to help our players to improve we have to embrace it."

If this summer's results do not prompt the powers that be to "embrace it" as Curtis is keen to highlight, then nothing will.

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Alex Ferguson with the Premier League trophy in 1993
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