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Even Mr Sugden Has Values- The FA Commission and Grassroots Football


Football coaching or participation is, like society and other forms of education, driven by results and the will to succeed. As such, when applying this simple logic to the game itself, mirrored in day to day life, relentless competition undoubtedly deters many from participating.

As with school life, not being successful is an easy way to get a child to stop engaging with something. It doesn’t matter whether it is maths or football. If a child doesn’t feel good at something, then they won’t enjoy it.

This presents a problem, in that theoretically there have been some minor adjustments to mini soccer which haven’t gone far enough. Removing some of the more adult themes of football are a small step in the right direction, however much like society itself, the game still nurtures those who must win at all costs.

Children learn their behavior from adults. The will to win is a learned concept and for at least 50% of participants, this has a negative outcome. Some argue that this teaches children a valuable lesson, however those are more than likely at the top of The FA and were taught PE by Mr Sugden, in the film Kes. More contemporary research shows that informal learning, much closer to play than competition is actually a much more productive learning environment.

Learning is what we or at least I am talking about. Actually, I disagree that losing (or winning) at the age of 5-11 years old (at least) teaches you anything, other than perhaps you must win at all costs. This has a significant impact on the game at all levels, from parents screaming at their children, or worse someone else’s, to the likes of Manchester United’s latest protégé taking a tumble over a loosely hung leg, in the dying minutes of one of the hundreds of matches accessible to children each season.

I hear the rumblings of the toothless County FA’s as I write this, “but we’ve spent ‘loads’ of money on St George’s Park and developing a coaching pathway and reformed youth football”. How things have changed. “It’s a long term plan; results won’t change over night”. Nor will they when the game is owned by the Premier League.

If children are learning, learning the skills that make them into technically astute footballers who will improve the quality of the game, this cannot be clouded by the will to win. Most 9 year old boys or girls do not think of attempting the Cruyff turn on the edge of the 6 yard area, as Johann did himself so eloquently against Sweden in 1974. They are thinking about winning, scoring the winner, to bellows of “shooooot” from the sidelines.

Yes it still happens. The irony is lost on some parents, that their competitive edge is exactly the reason why their son or daughter is never going to play for Arsenal or even England. It isn’t lost on the likes of Arsene Wenger though. Whilst football is first and foremost a business, which is why some parents have ££ in their eyes, why create your own talent when you can steal someone else’s?

Case in point, Manchester City. Before Sheikh Mansour arrived there were graduates a plenty from Platt Lane. The likes of Micah Richards, Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Michael Johnson all graduated from the club’s youth system. Since the oil wealth arrived, nothing. We’ve seen Nastasic, Guidetti and Boyata all brought in as superb young footballers, from abroad.

This tells us that football is a case of survival of the fittest, yet our own governing body and football clubs can’t be patient enough to let children learn the game long enough to be considered ‘fit’ for their club, or England. Children learn their mistakes elsewhere (in their native country) and are then purchased by English clubs to fill the first team, creating a dam like effect on the English talent stuck in Elite Development Squads and Under 18 teams, never to see the light of a Premier League stadium. Off to Mansfield Town on loan, for experience, then it’s downhill from there.

So, what are we teaching young children? To say this varies greatly would be an understatement but for the most part, it can be assumed that children are being taught football related skills….. and are then being thrown into a competitive environment where anxiety and nerves crush anything they have learned. Take your average junior club. Training midweek, the coach says “right, today we’re going to teach you how to head a ball”. 30 minutes later they are guess what, playing a match because that is the expectation of the coach or the parents (then subsequently the children). During the game on Sunday the ball is plummeting from the heavens after the 6ft tall, 10 year old, centre half has cleared the it from the edge of the box. 4ft Tim, at full back, has a nippy striker rushing toward him, whilst peers, coach and parents beckon “head it!” He misses. The striker latches onto the bouncing bomb and tucks it into the net. It’s not a competitive game; no league tables. How does Tim feel? What has that taught him? Is this character building?

This as far as I can see, is like sending children down a mine, without any tools and expecting them to move as much coal as an adult. We don’t get children to learn maths at the age of 8 by sending them to a bank once a week, to invest some money in shares. That is essentially what our traditions, which are misplaced, are teaching children. It has taken 150 years for numerous countries to overtake England as a footballing nation and many have nowhere near the wealth of The FA & Premier League.

Brazil have long been one of the most feared international teams in modern football, whether Pele, fat Ronaldo or even young pretender Neymar, they are often thought of as one of the most flamboyant teams on the planet. Attractive football springs to mind immediately, even if they players themselves are not. If you had to liken English football over the last 40 years, to a Brazilian player, you’d come up with Dunga. Scruffy, predictable and underwhelming. None of the above had access to St George’s Park, a coaching pathway, Youth Module Awards but they turned out alright. Someone very wise once coined the phrase “Mo’ money, mo’ problems”, which is clearly what is happening at The FA and Premier League, despite very little of their wealth filtering to grassroots level.

Children need to be able to learn at the grassroots level with no pressure. No fear of making mistakes. Without being one of the 50% that lose. Those that cling onto tradition will say “Wayne Rooney turned out alright” or “football is the biggest participation sport in the UK”. That does not reflect the impact that competing has on young people. Let’s not forget, the reason children (should) play is enjoyment- not because their parents want to go shopping on Saturday morning or because their Dad didn’t quite make it. Fat Ronaldo didn’t have St George’s Park or some redecorated Council changing rooms but he almost certainly had the desire to go out and play, win or lose. Is that passion lost on such a large scale or is that a product of commercialising a sport and those feelings that go with it? I don’t know but what I am sure of is that fat Ronaldo didn’t have most of the things children have in the UK today, whether intrinsic or extrinsic.

I’m not suggesting children don’t enjoy football in Britain. What I am saying is that (some) parents, (some) coaches and (all) The FA that need coaching. Changing the way things are done will not mean parents or children suddenly leave football and start playing rugby. If it were possible to remove the desire to make children winners and losers at such an early age, it might be that more children play and more develop the technical skills required to progress. Ultimately The FA exist to get more people playing football, so surely it’s better to promote happiness rather than there being some financial reward from playing, coaching or parenting.

I worked with Nottingham Forest’s Forest in the Community department a couple of years ago and their model- a completely non-competitive environment for children to enjoy learning football skills was incredibly popular. The progress made by those children was obviously in part due to the standard of coaching received but also because they were not playing “against” someone, there was no one left out from a team and it didn’t matter if they made a mistake. Zero consequences. In Germany, I believe Bundesliga clubs are accountable for localised coaching in a similar way. There is no focus on competition and coaches are accredited to the professional clubs (not a career choice for many in the UK). Larger groups are then grouped into ability so little Franz isn’t Cruyff turning his way through a team of Waynes.

Some steps have been taken at the very grassroots level in the last few years, granted. The latest commission is a bit of a strange thing to do. Reason being, I am 99% sure that the changes won’t be strong enough, whatever the findings. I will go as far to say that Greg Dyke’s commission will not redress the balance in world football and Danny Mills or no Danny Mills, football will not come home because of it. I couldn’t care less about how academies function or whether the Elite Player Performance Plan is working- I don’t see that as the problem.

Children have a whole life of competing ahead of them, whether it is for jobs, housing, a husband/wife etc. In a way, what needs to happen is forget about producing talented players and focus more on producing happy players. If The FA want more elite English players, then let English children learn how to play football & not learn how to win.



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