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).