Duffers’ Diaries: What can non-league learn from England’s failures?

Jamie Vardy was playing in the NPL just six years ago.
Jamie Vardy was playing in the NPL just six years ago.

It’s pretty hard not to launch into any kind of football-related piece without in some way talking about England’s catastrophic exit from the Euros this week.

I blogged extensively on this on Tuesday and you can read it in full on the Advertiser website should you so desire, but it’s not hard to guess the kind of avenues I’ve gone down when it comes to the rhyme and reasoning for England’s failures.

The Premier League and international football seem so far detached from life as we know it down in the delightful echelons of non-league football, a part of the game I love and with which the bond only grows stronger when you see how much of a failure the national team so often are.

Don’t get me wrong, I still watch football at a high level and my lifelong love for Tottenham Hotspur (otherwise known as half the England team at the moment) will never disappear, but as far as England are concerned I stopped getting so wound up and involved during their games a good while ago, even if Monday night did leave me shouting at the television a litte bit more!

Indeed, it’s a pretty solid argument that the nature of the Premier League and how it is run now, as well as the clubs within it, is a major reason why England are failing so badly.

I saw a great tweet from Stourbridge FC on Monday night which read: “We’d like to thank England for their efforts tonight to promote non-league football. It’s very much appreciated.”

That tweet gained plenty of love from all over and probably not just from avid non-league football fans!

But it’s true to say that any fans disenchanted with the game at a higher level could do worse than dip their toes into the world of non-league to experience the very different, but often far more appealing, atmosphere and satisfaction it can offer.

Time will tell on that front I guess, and I’m not suggesting for a second that people should give up their clubs entirely to drop down and watch non-league more regularly, but it might be a more profitable ‘Non-League Day’ on September 3 this year if nobody can be bothered to watch England that weekend instead.

Anyway, drawing some kind of relevance between what happened in glamourous Nice on Monday and what might happen in not-so-glamourous Ilkeston this season is tricky, but there are lessons everyone in football can learn.

One thing that quite often gets my goat is when players are played outside of their natural position and where they’re far less likely to be effective.

Monday saw Daniel Sturridge deployed wide right where he was pretty much wasted, while Wayne Rooney was almost exclusively used in a midfield role throughout the tournament where he really didn’t have much effect.

Granted, the alternatives to playing these players in those positions is probably not to use them at all given there were arguably better options in their natural positions, but given England have just been knocked out of a major tournament by Iceland, perhaps with retrospect that was a gamble worth taking.

We’re admittedly not blessed with a high number of quality wingers so the ‘Sturridge problem’ was probably only really solvable by using Adam Lallana again as was the case against Russia, but I felt Lallana actually had a decent game that night, if a little wasteful with his shots, and would have been an obvious change should Hodgson have opted to pull Sturridge out of the game at any point.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, but I’d like to have seen what Ross Barkley could have offered in the midfield, especially as a sub in the second-half against Iceland rather than Jack Wilshere who really should have been sat at home watching the game on his sofa like the rest of us. Actually, his performances suggest he probably was doing that, come to think of it.

We can all manage from the stands or from our living rooms but it does surprise me when the blatantly obvious things don’t seem to even get a glimmer of recognition from the man on the touchline.

How does all of that relate to non-league football? Well, I’ve seen those kinds of positional conundrums come up a lot and some solutions have been far from satisfying! I won’t name names but there have been players in Ilkeston shirts in recent seasons who would seemingly rather have been sat in a bath of steaming horse manure than be playing in the position they were put in.

It often becomes counter-productive. A change in shape or using a more natural (even if less talented overall) player is surely the better option.

At this level, smaller squads dictate those kinds of measures are sometimes necessary but there’s certainly a lesson to be learned when it comes to recruitment and having a good back-up in every position, something Roy Hodgson didn’t either have, or wish to use.

Another obvious link to non-league football in this tournament, and indeed in the Premier League this season, has been the success of Jamie Vardy.

Both he, and in a lesser sense Chris Smalling, came from a non-league background and the examples set by them can surely only give hope to so many at the lower levels of the game.

I saw Vardy play a couple of times for Stocksbridge and won’t claim to be able to remember him looking like a future England international by any means, but he did score once or twice and as he rose up the leagues I always remembered seeing him play in the NPL.

His rise to the top with Leicester is a remarkable story everyone is now aware of, but for me, the fact that he came on to play for England and indeed scored a crucial goal in a major tournament was more the icing on the cake than the league title was.

We’ve seen some talent pass through the doors at Ilkeston and it’s really not being over-optimistic to say that one or two could yet become international stars of the future.

I just hope Vardy’s example will be one that will inspire players at this level to never give up on their dreams, because although in this case Vardy suffered disappointment and considerable embarrassment as part of a losing side, there are many non-league players who would kill for the chance to go one better.