I don’t have heroes. Certainly, I don’t have footballing ones: any heroism that footballers have committed has been tangental to the actual game. Harry Gregg, yes. Bryan Robson, no. But for all that, there are people in football whose success I’ve an emotional commitment to. I haven’t often found myself around these people: it’s not something I’ve ever sought. When I am, it’s uncomfortably disembodying and disassociating. There’s a mix on these occasions, of plain old nerves and the urge to say, don’t waste your time with me, get on with it, it matters…
I last felt that way in late December, lunching with Simon Clifford in a restaurant’s private room beneath his offices in Leeds’ magnificent Victorian centre. It wasn’t an interview or anything like that – he’d offered me the chance to meet up and have a look around, and I was hardly going to turn down a chance to to see UK football’s best hope from the inside. And my nerves went, anyway, when it turned out that we’d both taken the same message from the same Rocky 6 clip.
Every time you meet someone “in football”, you come away with a stack of highly actionable stories that you could never possibly print. Clifford is a bibilophile, owner of one of the country’s most important collections of one of my favourite Victorian authors, and the stories were better than usual. I won’t pass them on. But I will pass on what else I learned.
I’ll also pass on what I learned from Clifford’s colleague Steve Nichol, now at Brazilian Soccer Schools and rated as one of the very best thinking coaches working in the UK today. One of the highlights of my day in Leeds was hearing Nichol analyse a recent Premiership match with the kind of succinctness and originality that only goes to confirm how little knowledge most of us who love the game actually have in Britain – and how much we need it. I tried to hide it from him, but I wasn’t keeping up, and felt ashamed.
In no order, then – here’s what I learned at BSS:
The future might be about to arrive
Aiden White, at Brazilian Soccer Schools from age 7 until age 18, has broken through into the Leeds United first team. Aberdeen have five BSS graduates under the age of 21 in their squad, and there are another 650 young people training up under BSS auspices in Aberdeen alone. This is happening across the country. A lot of us have wondered what would happen to the British game if real training was available to young people from the start. We might be about to find out. But:
BSS, Socatots and the Clifford philosophy are still developing
Clifford told me more than once that the existing setup of BSS and Socatots does not reflect the entirety of his thinking and that there are many more ideas awaiting execution than he and his team will have time for right now. There are further levels of attainment to be added at the top of the BSS scheme. Socatots, which is the great hope, starting young people off at the very beginning, hasn’t had time yet – it just hasn’t been around long enough – to generate its own cadre of graduates.
Local Socatots franchisees have signalled their belief – which I share – that appropriate training at that age level gives benefits far beyond football alone. Where football is concerned, the “new” ideology that we here more and more often now – that young people ought to be technically competent with the ball before moving on to game situations – has been baked into BSS and Socatots since the late nineties.
Some of what is still to come concerns fitness and focus. Steve Nichol posed the question – how do you prevent players stalling in their development after the age of 16? That is, how do you help them continue to grow once they are in the comparatively dead hands of Football League and Premiership clubs?
That’s not necessarily to criticize club academies, although the academies vary wildly in their quality, and are subject to the same coaching traditions that have held back British football in the past. But young players who make it into full contracts will do so on the back of a lot of hard work and sacrifice at an early age. The temptation to enjoy the immediate rewards is substantial and resisting it takes a level of maturity few people have at that stage in their lives.
Mental and physical discipline
Clifford and his team feel that the answers may come from boxing – a sport that calls on mental and physical discipline far beyond normal football training.
Football did originally associate itself with mental discipline. London social reformers like Quentin Hogg and Arnold Hills, saw football as a means of helping reintroduce the order to lives thrown into chaos by industrial change – mass demolition of working homes in the 1860s for Hogg, industrial depression, unrest and accidents for Hills.
But the problems posed by the modern game to young people are on another scale altogether: the human need for order and direction is obvious when survival is at stake. Less so when your choice is between extra skills training in cold weather or the chance to be the centre of female attention.
Boxing and the other martial arts put discipline and conditioning onto a different plane – presenting them as the key to adulthood and the only source of peer esteem. Importing these values into football won’t be easy, but it’s surely not impossible.
Because anyone who has spent time around good young players and decent coaches will know what I refer to as the atmosphere of “high seriousness” that they bring to their endeavours. It’s a cultural survival, a hangover from the pre-1960s Apollonian British culture that has vanished from academia, government and policing.
In football, that high seriousness has to share space with what George Best inadvertantly imported: fashion. Deep detachment: the universal application of satire and irony. The individual over the group – and groups, where they exist, are competitive, not cooperative. The priority given to sex – in direct contrast, here, to an older football tradition that evolved to deal with a world that had syphilis but no cure.
That high seriousness – friendly, but determined and implacable – was around me all day at the BSS offices. It made me realize – and think to myself out loud – they really are going to pull this off: they really are going to do this..
The place for thinkers in football
Mentors matter. Guidance matters. People, real or fictional, who guide and inspire.. and it was in that context that the Rocky 6 clip comes into play. Rocky’s message to his adult son – that to become what you must become, to have impact, you have to be ready for unlimited opposition, mental pain and physical discomfort – is a big Clifford/Nichol theme. How to find a way to exist for extended periods without outside approval or approbation.. It’s there in Raymond Blanc’s new autobiography, too, and in Ricky Gervais’ recollections: the worthwhile things lie on the wrong side of years of friendless, pitiless labour.
We’ve had League football in the UK now for 115 seasons, give or take a year or two. In that time, every single intelligent thinker who proposed that we transform the game’s skill and fitness levels has been spat out or destroyed. From Jimmy Hogan on and ever since, these people have had to make a way outside the League and FA systems. And these systems, so robust in maintaining stable competitions over an extraordinarily long time, are still digesting the lessons of 1950 and 1953. No white smoke from Lancaster Gate yet. Not even bullet points.
Which means that any attempt to improve standards that seeks to do so via Leagues or Associations is doomed to failure. It has to be an outside job.
Clifford and Sir Clive Woodward’s experiences at Southampton show that, even at a club with a chairman who understands the issues at the right level and is open to progress, fear and ignorance win.
Nothing can move until professional footballers in Britain are equipped with skills, fitness and game sense beyond the levels achieved abroad. Anything else is beside the point. It won’t come from the clubs. It won’t come from the Associations.
It’s an outside job. And here’s the news from Leeds: the outsiders are working on it.