Monday, 30 January 2012

Development Football - Proposals for Making The Young Grass Greener

Many a late-night Twitter debate has raged about the state of English football, from the political to the unsightly and lack-lustre displays delivered on the hallowed Wembley turf.
It is quite clear that a complete overhaul of the footballing system for young English players is required. If they are to even come close to playing the sort of game danced out by on-fire Spain, changes have to be made from the moment they take part in footballing activities and the people who run them are the ones responsible. In theory, 20 years could pass and young English players end-up being part of a cohesive unit displaying the type of play that fans and experts alike so long to see. But where would you even begin? This could become a thesis but here is a quick-look focus on school football.
Pre-School Football: 0-4 years
This lies purely in the hands of the discerning parent, relative or responsible adult; there is no provision for football in early years state education. Some parents take toddlers to footballing activities as part of their weekly timetable whilst others seek out the best groups possible to get their offspring on the path to earning them a tidy retirement sum. Either way, at this age it should be about an enjoyable and natural introduction to football. In the South East, Soca Tots is a brilliant scheme for 3-4 year olds, each session running for 45 minutes with each activity simple to understand, access and execute, even for 3 year olds. The mini-games played between adult and child involve using every part of the foot, dribbling, passing, stopping, close control and so on. It is amazing to see such small people performing these simple tasks on a platform where competition doesn't even exist, it really is all about enjoyment and interaction.
Primary School: 4-11 years
As more people are thrown into the equation things become more complicated. How football is accessed in primary schools is very much in the hands of the headteacher and any staff with sporting inclinations. A 100% verifiable source mentioned in passing that the headteacher of a South East London primary school absolutely 'hates' football, believing it breeds aggression and unhealthy competition. As a result, this school does not have a team, football shirts are not allowed to be worn on own clothes day, balls don't feature in the playground and allocation on the curriculum is minimal. The only access children at this school have is through all-ages after school sessions bought in from local clubs, they don't get to play competitive matches. Children should not miss out if football doesn't float the proverbial adult boat; from international stardom to armchair pundit or Sunday league battler, there are Mount Everest-sized portions of enjoyment to be devoured from the beautiful game.
One trend that quickly emerges in Primary and under 12's club football is how crucial the star player is to the success of any team, a strong build and good height rank high on the box ticking list too. Complete Spanish-style team play is not always top of the agenda. This way of selection is ingrained into the collective psyche of PE teachers and coaches from years of 'teaching the teachers' the wrong way and attitudes developed from watching and playing the game themselves. Another verifiable sources cited experience of being a student on a Physical Education and Sport degree at Greenwich University in 2002. Most of the 60 or so students expressed an interest in becoming teachers or full-time coaches. During the course of year one, football was offered as a token option for women and only took a minimal place on the agenda. What was taught barely scratched the surface of basic drills (all of which should be assumed as learned before reaching further education) with implementation of 4-4-2 and the sweeper system into team play. More time was spent on chalkboards than in practice, despite the more than adequate facilities on offer. That may well have changed and greatly varies from university to university but the products of said teachers in training are now playing at U19/20 level (if at all).
Secondary School 11-16
This is where the pressure really kicks in and school/club football starts to mould the player's destiny on the field. One trap some parents fall into is becoming involved with the running of the club instead of focusing on how to grow their child's potential. How a player develops at this age depends very much on what connections a school/club has with professional organisations. Going back to 2001/02, the same student on the  sports degree course worked at a South East London school where football was served as dish of the day for the PE staff without blade of grass in sight and the department ran on a shoestring budget. However, their connections with a Premier League club were so strong that any player worth a light went on trial and a few signed by age 14. That old saying of 'it's who you know' rings true in all walks of life. This same school only entertained girls football with a token after-school kickabout in the gym.
Choices on which club to play for are important in the early years, how 'connected' the adults in charge are can make a big difference to how the player moves up the ladder, some parents are well aware of this and act upon it but some young people are in the sad position of not having any credible adults to fight their corner. This makes their journey ten times tougher, despite determination through adversity, everyone needs support and nurture, not to mention new boots, subscriptions, lifts to training and so on.
If a young person clearly has talent and shows willing, nurture it, push it but be careful not to asphyxiate it. If they obviously have less ability but possess enthusiasm levels to match that of a Labrador puppy destroying a pair of slippers, celebrate it and find the best possible way for them to access the game at the appropriate level.
There is a huge disparity in the level of how coaches and teachers are trained from area to area and how a young footballer develops depends on a well-balanced system between families-schools-clubs-social circles. There will always be exceptional individuals who go the extra mile in their quest for knowledge and brilliance but for the masses, the system needs to provide the goods when teaching. In the UK and Ireland the weather is variable, for most working and stay-at-home parents life is based on mortgages and getting by, streets are often too busy to kick about (i.e. ball not always at feet as in the coveted South American way) and children might not be able to take part in regular footballing activities until they are old enough to spend time in the park without adult supervision. That's not to say there isn't anything wrong with making them stay outside the backdoor doing kick-ups in the rain until dinner is ready!
Suggestions for Solutions and Progress
To centralise and stabilise the development of youth football, government and FA financing could be allocated to professional clubs in each borough/district. They will then be responsible for developing an administration and coaching system that picks players up at 5 and carries them right through to school-leaving age, selecting and guiding them through school-club-county-national level. The clubs acting as representatives of the FA distribute players of all abilities, shapes and sizes through the right channels; a 'holistic' approach. By localising (clubs to boroughs/districts and schools) and centralising (clubs to FA) this will give nationwide connectivity in developing players and help regulate, ground and raise the level in coaching and development. In the short-term it may be costly in terms of training and implementation but the long-term benefits would be immense. Professional clubs are already setup with professionally qualified coaches; schools depend on the interest and ability levels of staff. Having club coaches taking a proactive role in the footballing curriculum in schools would help the game grow faster and in the right direction. For those who don't have the adult backing to take them through the club football, schools are where the talent discovery buck stops.
There are organisations that deal with funding applications for youth football; the Football Foundation and Sport England are a couple where independent applications can be made for clubs and new ventures, we all know funding is the key to success. Look at the state of play in the USA; sport is big business, college sports are played at such a high level there are televised and draw huge crowds. If talent is there, the stateside school system knows how to nurture it.
If Spain/France/Germany are the benchmark countries for footballing style and success then make those systems a foundation for training the adults in charge of youth football. In the democratic FA voting system there has to be a 75% swing for any changes to be passed. Draw up a manifesto based on the philosophies of successful and admirable countries then fight tooth and nail to make it so. Making changes means kicking out the old ways that don't work, keeping the ones that do and working hard to make-way for new systems that will change the game for better.
Other issues raised are that City-dwelling children are more likely to achieve success at football than those in rural areas. By localising and centralising the development model through the leagues and the FA a club would be obliged to attend schools to scout and develop talent. In the case where a school is so rural with a small intake that a club may not expend resources to monitor it, a member of staff could be appointed as the first port of call in talent scouting and make a referral.

Every school in this country should have a member of staff who can identify talent to refer into the bigger system. Basic training should be provided; this doesn't necessarily need to involve expensive training courses but can include reading and being educated by video footage, the internet is an incredible source for footballing education these days. It would cost very little to prepare a digital training pack for football representatives. This age-old notion of being discovered needs to be dispelled; there is so much talent in the schools, staff should be able to contact a local-central system and push the talent on them, clubs should have a policy of assessing the player if requested, again this can be done by video if budget and time is an issue.

The diagram below places schools at the start of the excellence food chain, this is where all the talent is, day in, day out. There would be nothing wrong with integrating football clubs into the curriculum and developing talent within PE lessons, for those who display great ability at a young age they should be treated differently and accelerated through the sports system, what good is it for them playing football with a class where (for example) half are unfit/unhealthy and not interested or very good at football. Elitism is fine in small doses. At any stage in the road to excellence a player may not make the grade, he could then remain at club level but would be playing to the best of his abilities as a result of a thorough early years training experience.

Leave no stone unturned in our quest for footballing brilliance.


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