Some newspapers are describing Sir Trevor Brooking’s spat with Dr Brian Mawhinney over the future of youth training “yawn inducing”. They shouldn’t. Get this right now and both our clubs and the national team benefit within a decade.
I have personal reasons for regarding Sir Trevor as the right man for this particular job. I owe to him, personally, practically all of my own football skills.
I grew up during what turns out to have been the golden era of British State School sport. My primary school, which was brand new when I first went there, enjoyed the use of a huge grassed playing field, properly marked out with a football pitch in the winter and a running track in the summer. We had hard courts for netball and basketball, and a fully-equipped gym, all in a school catering for ages 5-9. My middle school was even better off, possessing what must have been a good twenty acres. They had specialised sports staff, and set aside a significant amount of time for sports training and competition. Football was the elite game, but we also played rugby and hockey.
Although I played for my primary school’s football team, it was at my middle school that I discovered my talent for high jump and long jump. I was properly trained and encouraged. Thanks to my dedicated teachers, I developed good technique and improved rapidly. There’s a gold medal in a box somewhere…
But there was never any actual training for football. Not at my primary school, nor at my middle school. I was somewhat aware of this at the time. When it came to picking school teams, the teachers were prone to take ten forwards – in other words, the ten most prominent ball-chasers and goal hangers, plus their mate the goalie. I resented this, and complained about it. I had half an idea that I was better as a defender – I had timing, and could tackle – than most of the boys who were picked. It was more than just sour grapes. We were a good sporting school, winning “We Are The Champions” once during my two years there (click on that link for an unnecessarily snide article about the programme and competition, remembering that we were ten years old at the time). Our athletics squad always did well in matches, and we were up there in hockey as well, albeit against relatively little competition. But our football team was awful.
When I say that there was no training in football, I mean precisely that. Not one lesson on how to control the ball, or pass, or shoot, or head – just endless scratch games. (We had the wall pass demonstrated to us once..) In two years at that school, with two or three hours per week devoted to sport, not one lesson in ball skills.
Friends of mine made up for it in their spare time. We spent most of our free time playing football anyway, but there were some who took it a little bit further. They’d pick a particular skill – e.g. when the ball’s in the air, volleying it so that it runs along the ground – and practice it against a wall for hours until they were inch perfect. The enthusiasm was there – we wanted to have better skills – we would have given up our time for it – there were some kids who were good enough to really benefit from it. Nothing.
My next school, effectively my secondary school, was a private charity school that had been Direct Grant until 1974 when my county went comprehensive. It was and always had been a rugby school. It’s almost always the case with rugby schools that as soon as the teachers’ backs are turned, soccer breaks out on the pitch, and so it was here. We were luckier than most – there were more than a few members of staff who were frustrated by the lack of soccer, and, halfway through my time there, an after-school soccer group emerged. I don’t know who was more dedicated, the teacher behind it or the throng of boys who turned up in all weathers in the middle of the evening. But, again, no skills training – instead, we pushed ourselves through an intense fitness regime (I volunteered myself into long late-night runs with friends in addition to what the soccer group and timetabled sport provided, and was probably overtraining for a while). But, no skills.
What skills I do have come from Sir Trevor Brooking.
At some point – around about 1980, I think – the Daily Mail ran a football skills cartoon series allegedly authored by Trevor. I suspect it actually was. The first episode lamented the death of street football, and told the young reader that he’d never get any good just training with a size 5 or a size 3 ball. Practice with a tennis ball, he said – if you can do a skill with a tennis ball, it’ll be so much more easy when you come to the full size thing. It was all about practice on your own, and it was all about achieving total control over the ball, being able to do anything with the ball. I’d come across my step-father’s 1950s Football Book For Boys in which Alfredo di Stefano and Stanley Matthews independently recommended that you be able to do anything with a ball. I began spending long hours outside.
I’m good at learning from books. My rugby had been transformed overnight by a book. That was a 1950s photographic guide to rugby skills, which I got through in one under-the-covers sitting, muttering “so that’s how you do it” to myself over and over again. That’s how you spin the ball in a pass, that’s how you dummy, that’s how you kick. That’s how I was doing it the very next day – and by the end of the term, I was in the second fifteen. I even did the same thing with darts – learning from John Lowe’s informative book – at fourteen, with short sight, I was achieving regular 12-dart finishes and, in one of my first visits to a pub, beat that pub’s team, finishing treble-20, treble-20, double-18. I’m not boasting – I’m trying to point out that when you are taught the right techniques, your own enthusiasm can carry you far.
I don’t believe that you have to learn everything at an early age. If you took eleven men in their thirties who’d never played football before, and gave them seven hours of skills training every day for two years, and got them fit, you could expect them to perform well at reasonably high non-league level against men ten years younger. I was entering my teens when Brooking’s Daily Mail series was published, too late allegedly for any talent to emerge (although Theo Walcott didn’t touch a football until he was 12..) but on only an hour or two per day I improved fast.
With enough practice, things become instinctive. Cushioning the ball so that your first touch doesn’t end up looking like a bad pass. Following through properly. Running with the ball at your feet without having to look at it.
Some players do all of this naturally. The rest of us could do it, or something like it, if someone will only bother to tell us how. It’s a little like reading – some of us pick it up immediately and effortlessly; everyone else needs phonics or a similar method. Paul McKenna remembers a conversation he had with the athlete Daley Thompson. He’d asked Daley whether he’d used sports psychology, and got a short rude answer. When he asked Daley if he prepared mentally for a race, Daley became even crosser: of course he prepared mentally – he would visualise every inch of the track again and again, picturing in exquisite detail every possible situation that might arise, making sure that in each case he saw himself coming out as winner. I find it when talking to people about self-help books: they’ll mock, but the better they are doing in their careers and lives generally, the more self-help techniques they’ll be using, however unconsciously. We can do things – even technical football skills – if someone will take the time to tell us how to do them. At my schools, that just wasn’t happening. If it wasn’t for Trevor, I’d never have had any real skills. I’ve really enjoyed having them. I’m told that a clean drive off the tee is one of the best feelings in amateur sport. How about making it to the goal line, turning in a perfect cross and seeing it headed home? I couldn’t have done it at 12 years of age, but by 16 it was easy.
Whenever you look into the career of a great player, you always find that they never stop practicing their basic skills. I came across another yesterday: Gerd Muller. Muller, no intellectual, famously poor at looking after himself, apparently spent his non-training spare time… training: practicing spinning off defenders, close ball control work, short sprints, snap shots on goal, for hour upon hour, every day. Thus his “mysterious genius” in front of goal. In the land of Rumenigge and Klinsmann, it takes that to be the best striker in your country’s history. He joins George Best, Jimmy Greaves, Ronaldinho, David Beckham and co. in that exclusive club of “naturals” with that strange habit of training twice as much as their contemporaries and training “differently”.
But you can’t practice what you don’t know.
Jose Mourinho has said that he fears the end of street football. With it, he says, goes that natural game, that instinctive knowledge, that sweet inborn skill. I’m not so sure. I played street football when I was a kid, and, as I’ve said, certain boys came away with good skills because they picked them up naturally. Had someone told us what it was they were doing – and I really wanted to know at the time (did I mention my Johann Cruyff skills wallchart, six years before Brooking’s cartoons? I could do an overhead kick before I could trap the ball properly, and that poster was the reason) more of us could have progressed.
I want street football AND proper skills training. People want it – there’s a demand for it. Recently, I taught a few basic skills to a female friend in her thirties who had emigrated here from the United States and fallen in love with football. She’d undergone that embarrassing introduction we all have to the game. You did it yourself – pushing your leg ahead of you at the ball, losing your balance in a humiliating toe-poke, trying to control the ball only for it to accelerate off your foot in a random direction. It took her two hours to learn how to cushion a pass, to use the side of her foot, to balance, and to dribble reasonably well. It’s more easy to do it the right way than to do it the wrong way.. soon afterwards, she found Michael Owen’s Soccer Skills and just fell on it. The discovery that she could do some skills properly made her want to do more. She’s a good player now.
Brooking wants our children – thankfully, the game is becoming more and more open to women now, as it should – to learn real skills, first and early. He wants to get rid of the stress on competitive matches that presently hinders children’s development as it hindered it when I was a boy. The FA are getting in Brooking’s way, for purely political reasons. It’s hard to understand. The FA have been getting coaching right so much more of the time recently. Now they must get this one right. Or find their thunder stolen by Simon Clifford…
Postscript: In 1975, J.L. Carr published How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup , a novel that echoes something of his own amateur football career. In it, a coach arrives at Steeple Sinderby, and teaches the players two things: how to dribble fast without looking at the ball, and the long ball game. You can guess the consequences from the title. One year after the book’s publication, Watford took on a young, intelligent manager, who took the team to the First Division, Europe, and, along the way, an FA Cup Final. I can’t help wanting to scan that man’s bookshelves…