Mathew Annis on Youth Football, Football Culture and the Future

In today’s Telegraph, Jim White talks about the boredom of primary school children denied the joys of competition by their overly politicized headmistress. But too much emphasis on competition at too young an age, on promoting “winning” above all, can be just as bad. Mathew Annis of The Sixth Day Is For Football takes up the story:

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. 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 game 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. 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. 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.