The Future of Youth Coaching in English Soccer

Jamie Jackson’s review of English youth coaching and Sir Trevor Brooking’s attempts to save us from ourselves makes essential, if overwhelmingly depressing, reading:

Brazil continues to produce a ceaseless line of top-class players and one of them who lit up the Premiership, Juninho, said this after watching an FA youth coaching session in England: ‘This is a load of rubbish. It’s like learning to swim on dry land.’

Juninho is not alone in expressing such a view. English coaching is seen by many outsiders as backward and the clubs appear to be increasingly unwilling to invest in local talent at their youth set-ups.

‘While there might be an issue now with English players managing to make the starting XI in Premiership matches, says Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA’s director of football development, ‘in five years’ time we are going to have a far more serious problem: can our English youngsters even get into the academies at Premiership clubs? ‘It’s a challenge that everyone has to face up to.’

So far, Brooking believes, they are not facing up to it.

He has backing from Sam Allardyce. ‘We don’t grow top sportsmen from a young age,’ says Newcastle’s new manager, who believes the government should help with funding. ‘Football cannot be expected to develop players from six years old, as it is, without proper quality identification programmes and ways of schooling young people of promise through the early ages to develop their talent. Until we get those basics in place our chances of breeding a World Cup-winning side are as remote as our chances of breeding an English Wimbledon champion.’

Brooking’s on-field challenge is to oversee a new philosophy, to ditch the endemic English style of play that lacks subtlety and technique and has taken a stranglehold on football from grassroots to international level, where England have won nothing for more than 40 years. ‘Clubs have scouting networks all over Europe and the world,’ he says. ‘And the funding to bring young players here. To be honest, I don’t blame them. At the moment children join their academies at nine. We should target them before that and ensure that they have already encountered a far better quality of coaches.

‘We also need to change what is being coached. Let’s have more small-sided games so that they have more ball time. Let’s allow them to have fun, take away the importance of winning and stop the young players being afraid of making mistakes. Concentrate on first touch and technique, allow that a short pass can often be more of a killer ball than the big hoof up to the centre-forward. And any parents who are too enthusiastic should, as a last resort, be removed.

‘If we don’t do all these things then even the kids identified as elite, when they join academies at nine, will still be starting behind [players in other countries].

Winning seems to be more important than fun in England. One of the grassroots coaches Observer Sport talked to, who also works at two centres of excellence at clubs in southern England, explains the problem.

‘Before they reach the centres, they can already have bad habits,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen players who individually are good, but in their Sunday league teams it’s all about winning, and they’re scared to make mistakes. When a match situation demands of them skills they’re comfortable with in training, I’ve seen technically gifted kids of nine through to 11 who’d rather kick the ball away because they have a bloke on the touchline screaming at them.’

I’ve actually left the most depressing parts in the article, partly because it’s an excellent piece of work by Jamie – the best sports journalism I’ve seen all year – and it deserves to be read in full.

What makes it worse for me is that I know from the history of the game that this conversation has been going on in just this fashion since Hungary won 6-3 at Wembley. At no point has it really had any influence of any meaningful kind of how we do things.

The reason it has no influence is cultural: people don’t want to think about football in this country, but want instead for it to represent in almost fetishistic form certain virtues that they fancy (against the evidence) to be national traits. There’s a kind of cargo-cult-esque faith that these virtues are sufficient for victory, but it’s not just that. Winning is important solely as a means of displaying those virtues. Passion, commitment.. for all that you’re more likely these days to come across them in a Didier Drogba than any English players.

Like most cultural, aesthetic-style considerations, all that operates at instinctive, semi-conscious levels. Most of the time, the aesthetic attraction of an idea wins out over the validity of its content, not least because operating at that mental level is automatic, to say nothing of easy.

Anyway, read the rest, and prepare yourselves to be reading a sequel to Jamie’s article in ten years’ time (accompanied by the same knuckle-draggers in the comments one imagines).

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12 responses to “The Future of Youth Coaching in English Soccer

  1. He has backing from Sam Allardyce. ‘We don’t grow top sportsmen from a young age,’ says Newcastle’s new manager, who believes the government should help with funding.

    So because Englishmen are crapper at football than those of other nationalities, the taxpayer should be pressed to make them better? There is ample money in the game of football, the problem is that the main beneficiaries are sportscar dealerships in the vicinity of three or four major cities.

  2. Actually, sorry to ramble on in your comments, but there is a good anecdote I heard maybe 6-8 years ago as to why British teams underperform despite, contrary to what many suppose, levels of funding consistent with elsewhere in the world.

    The government decided, after watching the English cricket team get thumped by the Aussies for the umpteenth time, to plough a load of money into development of young cricket players in order to rectify the problem (although I don’t think this ever went ahead). No sooner was this decision made, when plans were rolled out for a state-of-the-art training facility which would be built at horrendous cost.

    Almost immediately afterwards they interviewed one of the Aussie greats, who said that this was the exact problem with British cricket: an expensive state-of-the-art facility is not going to achieve anything. What is needed is money to buy bats, balls, wickets, and pads. Without that, you’ll get nowhere.

    I’d be willing to bet my last pound that any government money earmarked to improve English youth football would be spent on a horrendously expensive centralised training facility and not very much on balls, goalposts, and nets.

  3. Did you see the statistics in yesterdays observer about the number of players from each country who have played in Champions league finals since 92? Despite Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal all getting there, there have been fewer English players than there have French, Dutch or Brazilian, never mind Spanish or Italian, and only one more British player than there have been Argentinian.

    The number of english players playing in the top 4 clubs in england was also significantly lower than the equivalent figure for the french, italian, dutch, spanish and other leagues

  4. I did. “Luckily” owing to the scandalously inaccurate and misleading MMR reporting, it wasn’t the most depressing thing in the paper.

  5. I suppose the logical conclusion from the statistics mentioned is that the English are better at running football clubs than they are at playing the sport.

  6. Yes, I think I’d agree with that, Tim. Better still at running football leagues – our structure’s been stable far longer than anyone else’s, and is still the biggest in terms of numbers of professional clubs anywhere.

  7. Maybe we should be glad we’re rubbish. This was a comment left on my blog the other day:

    I’m quite glad that Britain isn’t particularly good at sports. Australian success at sport is usually achieved by taking young children and obsessively pushing them into doing mindless and repetitive sports practice every day.

  8. Hmm, my guess is that we are neither as good as we hope nor as bad as we say. The myth about the last world cup having been a ‘disaster’ and a ‘debacle’ is the truly idiotic stuff. We lost to Portugal on penalties that is after playing most of the game with one player off the field. No team there produced great football consistently but there were one or two outstanding matches. Much as ever in fact. The influx of foreign players might do some good as well, and seeing whom Ferguson has bought and is intending to buy it seems likely that style is an important factor in his thinking. It never has been all about winning. Think of Chelsea – who are not as dull as people say – simply not as flamboyant despite Robben and Cole. Then Real Madrid fire their first champion manager in four years because his team is not exciting enough.

    English football sells very well abroad not because of petty rivalries (or you’d get countless Ajax v Feyenoord matches on TV, or, God help you, MTK v Ferencváros). English football sells because it is exciting, fast, passionate and skilful – and more skilful because of some, though not all, of the foreign imports.

    Less despair would be nice. To have had three players in recent years among the top two of FIFA’s best in the world ranks is not a sign of disaster.

  9. Not a disaster, but the concern is more about what happens in ten or fifteen years’ time. When Messrs. Owen and Beckham were coming through, the proportion of English players in the Premiership was radically different from today, as was the proportion of Englishmen in junior and youth squads at top clubs.

    Personally, I am shocked at our lack of ambition. Why not set out to produce the best players in the world – outstrip the Brazilians, the Argentinians, the Dutch? Introducing e.g. Simon Clifford’s scheme into every nursery and primary school in the country would not require any substantial investment over what is already there, and would keep the children amused whilst ensuring our football future. Or there’s still Craig Johnston’s system, as described on 101 Great Goals.

    I know why not, of course: it’s that weird thing with the English, where they want to win, but only in a particular way. Stuart Pearce, not Joe Cole, in other words. If we get too good, those old English values (cough!) won’t be needed anymore: and that, I’m sure you’ll all agree, would be a dreadful shame. (I suspect that many in the game regard “excessive” skill as a homosexual trait, and do so in a homophobic manner, but I really don’t want to go there this morning).

  10. John Sinnott

    This provides food for thought….
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/skills/6270994.stm

    Last year I interviewed Damien Comolli of Spurs – http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/world_cup_2006/teams/england/5148730.stm – who pointed out:

    “For me, the difference is the quantity of training in England and France.

    “Over four years between the ages of 12 and 16 a French boy would receive 2,304 hours of training. That is twice as much as England – where you would be given 1,152 hours.

    “Those four years are crucial – they are the most important years in youth football – both physically and technically. It is difficult to catch up when you are 17 or 18.

    “It is like a musician, it doesn’t matter whether he is English or French, the one who works more becomes better.”

  11. This is not just a question of football. There is a glaring problem at the very centre of British culture, which affects not just our chances of success in European competition, but also our tourist industry and our general quality of life. Those of you who have seen Fawlty Towers, and particularly the ‘Waldorf Salad’ episode, will be well aware of what this problem is.
    Shoddy customer service is taken for granted, even when stretched to unbearable levels. We are slow to complain when we have a right to, and justified complaints are almost invariably met with an overly defensive response (‘There’s nothing wrong with our service – you’re just being too picky and demanding’ or even ‘well no-one else has complained’). Those who have visited North America will also be aware that there is indeed an alternative to this way of thinking, as presumably the writers of Fawlty Towers were.

    Where am I going with this, I hear you ask. Well, the same problem, in slightly altered form, also exists within football. As James said, we have a shocking lack of ambition. Not just within English football, but even in Scotland where revolutionary tactics and skills were once part and parcel of the game. Children from a young age are thrown into a macho culture of football at school and in youth clubs. Those who have recently watched a football match at any level below 14 years old will have seen a match in which about 15 players may be gathered near the ball. Every child wants to be a striker and none a defender. Goalkeeping positions are often forced on the unpopular and the obese. At school I tended to stay in right back position, as my pace made up for a shocking lack of ball control, and the front line was just too crowded. In most games I had just ONE fellow defender, and the midfield was non-existent. The emphasis was always on winning, and the PE teacher never made a single effort to teach us anything about skills, never mind any kind of tactical awareness. We’d have been better off playing keepy-up for an hour.

    Most of the more talented (or more parentally-pressured) children also played in local youth teams. Undoubtedly they had more training there. But the games were scarcely any better, and the training consisted of a lot of methods straight out of some 1950s manual. There was a definite implication, both at school and in clubs, that football talent was innate and that talk of teaching skills and tactics or even just focusing on something other than winning, was somehow effeminate or homosexual. The emphasis on victory is one of the most damaging things, as the article pointed out. I heard many stories from friends of how they would be threatened or even attacked by the opposing team when they travelled to away matches and won, or even just had the temerity to make a strong tackle on the opposition’s star player.

    All of these things must surely have stifled creativity among the young players and placed enormous pressure on them to succeed. Consider that this was the generation of Darren Fletcher and Craig Gordon, and one wonders if our national game has even further to fall in the next generations? The one or two players from my school who were considered talented footballers soon dropped out of the game. Some made it to league football, but burned out before their mid twenties. One classmate of mine went on to play with Manchester United’s youth programme, then an SPL club (one or two appearances), then first division, then third division, then non-league. I don’t know where he plays now.

    This waste of talent is found all across the country. The star players of school teams usually don’t make it as they expect to. The discouraging atmosphere of youth football deters many others from entering the game, especially middle-class children. We should be focusing on skills and having fun in training and youth matches. We should also focus on all the children, talented and untalented, boys and girls. Some who appear clumsy at age 8 may blossom into talented players later on. At any rate, football is not just about producing fodder for the Premier League production lines or for England’s World Cup hopes – it is also about fun, and healthy living, and even the amateur ethic so beloved of yesteryear.

    To return to my original point, there seems to be an innate defensiveness in the British character. Suggestions for improvements are not met with a response of ‘oh, well we’ll consider that and see if we can improve’, but with ‘we’ve always done it this way – you just need to stop complaining and everything will be fine’. But everything is not fine. Whether in response to our latest football failure, or poor service in a restaurant, we should not accept the defensive answer any more. Instead we should demand the best. We certainly pay enough for it, at £30-40 for a Premier ticket, compared to sometimes less than £10 for a Serie A ticket, and dvds costing up to £25 compared to less than £10 in the US. I could go on. At any rate we have some of the worst value for money around, and we need to start complaining about it.

  12. Who am I to argue with Sir Trevor. But as a coach for over 30 years who trained in Europe and adopted a lot of their techniques 20 years ago I have to say “does Sir Trevor really know what is happening”. 1st Centres of Excellence and Academys introduce youngsters at age 7 not age 9. I have been in Australia for the past 12 years so I could stand to be corrected but that is the age Lancashire Clubs were bringing in players 11 years ago. 2nd. Playing small sided games is nothing new. Academys have been playing 4 v 4 + 4 in training for years now. At least the last 12years. Academys do not have a league table so there is no pressure to win. You are wrong to tar British Coaching with the long ball up the middle type football. Take a look at Academy Football aged 7 to 14 and you will see some fantastic skills and passages of play. Now what happens to these players from 15 to 18 years is a mystery to me. Maybe that is where Sir Trevor should be investigating. My suggestion, send them to Glen Hoddles Academy in Spain.
    As for Big Sams comments. There is plenty of money in the game to pay for coach education and no need for the Government to fund football. However it should be noted that here in Australia in a place where football takes third place to AFL and Rugby in my area alone there are probally 6 local club facilities that would put to shame the training grounds of many a Championship League Training ground. Maybe that is what Sam means. More facilities. As for parents screaming at youngsters, I must say I was shocked when I was in England last year to witness exactly that. But this was at local league football and I would doubt it that sort of behaviour would be seen or indeed tolerated at a Pro Club Academy. One final point. My sole focus for years has been on Developing young Players. Kids like to win, they love competition, they are competitive. Someone should ask the kids what they want. We are all making decisions for them. Heres a point there were no academys, hardly any youth coaches when England won the world cup. Kids played with a tennis ball if they were rich and a stone if they weren’t. Kids played to win those games, lets not go down the road like the Education System has and take away the fun of winning and the lessons to had from losing a game. Thats what the game is about. You will always get win at all cost coaches but do not let them spoil what we have.
    Sunshine Coast Australia