Sir Trevor Brooking needs a new knee. You wouldn’t know it from the way he bounds into our interview, but it seems the 647 games he played for West Ham, not to mention the 47 caps he won for England, have finally taken their toll. ‘I’ll probably wait until after Christmas to get it done,’ he explains. ‘I’ve needed it done for a while but it’s been a busy year.
He’s certainly clocked up the air miles as, prior to finally retiring from the Football Association after more than 10 years as their Director of Football Development, he was in Brazil for the World Cup before jetting off to Canada for the women’s Under-20s World Championship. During what should have been the highlight of his year, England’s desperate showing in South America surely brought about mixed emotions for Brooking.
On the one hand the Three Lions’ early exit will have been a bitter disappointment for a man who represented his country with such distinction, yet, in some way, the poor showing will have been further vindication to his long-held argument that things must fundamentally change in the way we coach our young players if England are to ever succeed on the international stage again.
‘The problem is the Premier League is too concerned with the present and no one is prepared to look beyond this year or next year at most,’ he told Blowing Bubbles. ‘No one knows if they are going to be there in five months, let alone five years, so managers are not putting the necessary long term planning in place to develop youngsters.
If you go into most clubs no one ever asks about how the Under-12s or 13s are doing and that needs to change.’ Brooking believes England’s young players are as naturally talented as those from any country in the world but claims a fundamentally flawed approach to coaching is preventing those players progressing into Premier League footballers .
‘I’ve seen with the younger age groups that we are just as good as anyone, but we need to get the right coaches working with them,’ he explains. ‘My argument has always been that you need to split it into three age groups. Five to 11, 12-16 and 17 and up. ‘If you are going to be a top international footballer you have to be good enough to break into Premier League teams when you are 18 so the 12-16 age group is where a lot of it is falling down
‘The reason is a lot of the best coaches who are working with this age group move up to jobs coaching the U21s as they can get £40-50k a year there when they might only be on £15k with the younger ages which is a total nonsense. ‘No one acknowledges the importance of offering a decent wage to the two younger age groups but you could have the best coach in Europe working with a 17 year old but if he hasn’t been developed properly at the younger age group it is pointless, it is too late
‘At the moment the coaches, if they are any good, move up to the higher age group to get a better wage when we really need to be putting our best resources at a time when the players are developing at the fastest rate.’
It seems ridiculous that the cash rich Premier League clubs are failing to produce their own players because they are skimping on coaching, and Brooking laughs at the irony that big clubs will happily pay their stars hundreds of thousands of pounds a week but refuse to invest a fraction of that in giving youth team coaches a living wage. ‘We’ve argued that four full time coaches would cost you a maximum of £225k a year but clubs are not willing to sacrifice that kind of money as long term investment,’ he adds. ‘We say flip the coin. Pay more money here developing your youngsters at an earlier age and you’ll save it on transfer fees but very few clubs are willing to approach it in that way.
The controversial Elite Player Performance Plan, which now governs how club’s academies can operate, was designed to solve many of these problems. However, Brooking says the new rules – which created a four-tiered academy system and, critics claim, make it easier for the big clubs to poach talent of teams lower down the football pyramid – will not help the national team unless clubs embrace the philosophy of developing their own talent and invest in it. ‘We’ve got it into the rules that clubs must have two full-time coaches working with the 12-16 age group, but they are only offering £15-20k a year which is a total nonsense.
We need to get to a position when an English 16-year-old, when he gets signed full time, is in a position where he will be able to play for the first team in the next three years which is exactly what happens in Spain and Germany. ‘It’s why you see so many clubs bring in overseas youngsters to fill the gap. It’s the reason they are bringing kids over from other countries at 16 years old, because they are far more developed at that age then the English players .’
The concept of Spanish 16-year-olds swapping Bilbao or Valencia for a rainy Chadwell Heath would have been unthinkable when Brooking himself was making his way through the West Ham youth team in the early 1960s. Back then, of course, most of the academy were local lads brought up in East London or Essex and, as our conversation turns to his own playing days, it brings into sharp focus how much the sport has changed since the Sky driven Premier League was launched in 1992
‘We had some great days,’ he laughs. ‘We were capable of beating anyone, but, thinking about it, we were capable of losing to anyone too as we didn’t have the depth of squad.’ For most West Ham fans the defining image of Brooking will be his stooping header against Arsenal as the second division side overcame the odds to lift the FA Cup at Wembley. It’s a story he must have been asked to tell 10,000 times, so to spare him from playing an old record one more time I ask what his other favourite memories of wearing the claret and blue were.
Unsurprisingly it is the big European nights under lights at Upton Park that stand out. After beating Bobby Moore’s Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup, the Hammers came within a whisker of winning their second European trophy the following year as they got all the way to the final before losing a thrilling match to Anderlecht. ‘We played Eintract Frankfurt in the semi-final and that was some occasion,’ he says. ‘Graham Paddon scored a great strike to put us ahead but we lost 2-1. It set it us up perfectly and the second leg at Upton Park was a pulsating one.
‘I scored a couple and Robbo [Keith Robson] scored as well to put us 3-0 up. But with two minutes to go they pulled one back which meant if they scored again they would have gone through on away goals. It was a frantic ending and I remember Tommy Taylor blocked a shot on the line that if he hadn’t kept out would have cost us the tie. It was a great night.
West Ham’s next jaunt to the continent was less successful, as they bowed out at the quarter-final stage to eventual winners Dinamo Tbilisi. The tie was effectively over after the first leg when the Georgians, representing the Soviet Union, thumped the Hammers 4-1 at Upton Park in a performance that earned them a standing ovation from all corners of the Boleyn Ground.
In true West Ham style the Irons rallied to win the second game, but Brooking admits there was a huge gulf in class between the sides. ‘They had some amazing players,’ he mused. ‘In those days you didn’t get to see them on TV so you only knew them by reputation but it was a great experience to play a team like them.
‘They were a very experienced European side and it showed. We got a bit of respect back by winning the return leg but in all honesty, they’d won the tie when they went 2-0 up in the first 20 minutes at Upton Park.’ For supporters younger than about 40, the idea of West Ham taking on and beating some of Europe’s elite clubs is something of an alien concept
Yet, if the start to this season is anything to go by, it is just possible the good times may not be as far off as they seemed during the last campaign. Brooking, who has attended almost every game so far, admits he has been delighted with how the new-look side have started under a rejuvenated Sam Allardyce .
‘I’ve seen a lot of them and it is going very well,’ he said. ‘Southampton was the only disappointment really. To be fair their results suggest it wasn’t quite the disappointment we thought it was at the time but it was still a poor performance and we didn’t play well. ‘Other than that we have played well and I certainly think this is the best squad we’ve had for a few years. The two front lads have come in and done well and it hugely helps when they are scoring goals like they are.
‘Stewart Downing has been playing exceptionally well and I like Cheikhou Kouyaté a lot. ‘Obviously Alex Song is a top quality player but we already knew that. My only concern when we bought him was whether the fact he hadn’t been playing a lot over the last couple of years would have taken an edge off him, but that’s clearly not the case. As he gets more games under his belt and more match fit I think he is only going to get better.’
Much has been made of West Ham’s more attacking philosophy this season but Brooking says the biggest change has been the arrival of Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson and their ability going forward. ‘The two full-backs are a bonus as they get forward more than what we’ve had and they can both cross a ball,’ he said. ‘The two goals we scored against Burnley really show you the benefit and I think it is something we have missed as we haven’t really had full-backs who are comfortable in attacking areas for quite a while
‘It’s been very impressive and I like the way the side is shaping up.’ It is a side Brooking himself would surely have slotted into nicely. He just might need to get that knee fixed first.