Interview: Kenny Swain

Sport

Having played as a striker, midfielder and full back in over 600 appearances for six different clubs including Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Chelsea, few people are better placed than Kenny Swain to comment on issues affecting young footballers in England. Swain, who won the European Cup in 1982 while at Villa, is currently manager of the FA’s talent identification network and head coach of the England U16 team.

On talent-spotting…

I try to identify players for the future more so than players for today. The real art is to spot a little bit of potential that may need to be nurtured through challenges and opportunities that are suitable to that player, until such time as they are fully-fledged, they’ve strengthened up, they’re playing to their potential and they can play comfortably at a higher age.

It is quite conceivable that players start to perform later in their career and get their opportunities when they’re aged 20 or 21. So if people ask, “Why didn’t you find this player sooner?”, it may well be that that player wasn’t performing anywhere near as well as he’s doing now and didn’t previously show any sign of the potential he’s currently showing now. It’s a fallacy to think that we can identify every England player at the age of 16. Potential comes through at different stages. It will be interesting for me over the next two or three years to see how many more will come through because it’s taken the likes of Danny Welbeck, who played for me at 16, six or seven years to make it into the England team.

On the importance of size…

I think the mantra that a young player’s size is all-important has slowly diminished. Many coaches in England subscribe to my belief that you can only succeed primarily with ‘good football players’: players who are technically good, although perhaps physically and even psychologically not as ready as some of their peers. The important questions to ask are ‘Can they play football?’, ‘Can they handle the ball?’, and ‘What are they going to be like in the future?’. If they can compete now, we ask whether they are going to be able to continue competing,

On his relationship with England’s senior set-up…

It took Welbeck a long time to make his senior debut, but Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were England internationals three years after working with me. It’s only realistic for three or four players from one year group to play regualarly; even then only one or two will be in the squad at once. If you think you can pick all those individuals at 16 and see them go all the way through, you’re living in dream world.

On foreign players in England…

Some of the world’s best players have chosen to play their football in England largely because, financially, it’s the place to be.

Although it is good that we have a wealth of foreign players in the country, to aid and increase our best internationals’ experience, it has got to the point now where some of our England players, such as Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, cannot get regular Premier League appearances, because of foreign players. Quotas would improve our opportunities for a broader spread of players, but in terms of quality, you could argue that our very best English players in the Premier League would no longer be playing alongside the very best international players every week.

It is a problem; however, you cannot deny football teams the right to go and buy who they want. Putting quotas on it I think would face an amazing challenge, not just from English clubs, but from European clubs as well. Football as a game is driven by egotism, not money.  And that egotism runs throughout the whole game and I think the players –  entertainers, performers, call them what you like – are entitled to be egotistic.

On what football is all about…

If you stand in one corner and say it’s all about winning games and winning tournaments I think you’re off your rocker if you say that. And if you stand in the opposite corner and say not to worry about winning games, I think you’re off your rocker if you say that as well, because it’s a combination of both.

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