Helenio Herrera, the former Inter, Roma and Barcelona manager, said in 1960: “You in England…are playing in the style we continentals used so many years ago with much physical strength, but no method, no technique.” The situation in England may have progressed slightly from the days of ‘kick-and-rush’ that were inspired waterlogged pitches and an inherent macho culture but the sentiment remains largely the same.
Yes, we now possess a number of technically gifted, cultured footballers yet few would deny that there is essentially a large technical gap between ourselves and our continental rivals. So how do we address such a problem?
In 2007 the FA created a course, funded by Tesco, that intended to address this predicament at its source – grassroots youth football. The FA Tesco Skills programme, the brainchild of FA Director of Football Development Sir Trevor Brooking, intends to redesign the way that football is coached at the earliest level. The programme, which now provides coaching for over 3.3 million children nationwide and provides training for both boys and girls between the ages of five and eleven, aims to increase the talent pool available for English football in a number of ways.
“It [the programme] was designed to tap in to that enthusiasm of players under the age of eleven. That was the time in my life when I wanted the opportunity to practice and play football as much as possible and to really try and improve myself,” said Brooking, who had taken time out to talk to FootballFanCast.
“We’re trying to improve young footballers whilst making it enjoyable at the same time. The idea is that the better they get at an earlier age the longer they’ll stay in the game.”
So how exactly does the programme work? The primary focus is on technical development within youth but Brooking also stated that he felt it was imperative that eleven-a-side games were postponed until the age of thirteen.
“We looked at it and thought that once it becomes 11 vs. 11 if you haven’t got the technical skills of first touch and getting the ball under control then it’s really difficult to play the game and the style of football that most people will be watching which is similar to that of Germany, Spain, Barcelona where they pass it neatly, quickly and focus on keeping possession.”
“So, we have to try and make sure that our youngsters develop the skill base to play the sort of football that they’ll be watching otherwise they’ll lose interest if they can’t play anything like the style that is so popular.”
“The other part of it is the rest of the ‘four corner model’ which is physical – the basic movements that perhaps might not be coached in schools, psychological – preparing youngsters for the pressures that football brings and, lastly, social – so skills like team work, selflessness and temperament.”
It’s clear to see the influences of foreign coaching systems on the FA Tesco Skills programme but in Wallsend Boys Club and Senrab FC (who produced the likes of Alan Shearer and John Terry respectively) England already have a model for the successful coaching of young footballers. So, did the FA look at these models when devising a way to augment youth coaching?
“Yes, we did look at them. We started with 5-a-side, then 7-a-side and now we’re trying to focus on 9-a-side. We have a meeting next week, which will hopefully establish that under 12 and 13 year olds play 9-a-side and children progress to 11 vs. 11 when they pass thirteen.”
“Also one of the big challenges with people living all over the country is that there’s no point in playing matches with smaller teams if the pitches aren’t the right size, the goals too. There’s no point us trying to teach youngsters passing football if the pitch sizes are all wrong, what we’ll end up with then is physicality being a major factor because if you play on bigger pitches then bigger children will be better so then everything we’ve been working for will go out the window.”
“The same applies with goalkeepers – the best goalkeepers would just end up being the biggest if the goals were too big and that too is nonsense. So, yes, Senrab in particular is a club we looked closely at when designing the technical side of the programme.”
Despite the clear advantages of this FA initiative (all of the coaches in the programme have, at the very least, their level two coaching badges, the programme is almost entirely subsidised by Tesco, advancement in technical ability of young players) the course is not without its drawbacks.
Firstly, we have to consider whether it is overly simplistic to say that the technical gap between us and the other successful European nations is solely a product of our coaching setup. There is no point in changing the style of our players if we cannot change the mindset of coaches and managers in England. To have technically astute players means little if a manager instructs his team to play in the same direct manner that English teams have employed throughout history. So, that too is something that needs to be addressed.
Another problem is that, whilst the programme aims to reach 4.7 million children by 2014, ideally the system needs to be adopted by schools nationwide and whilst this is a possibility there are doubts as to where the money would come from to provide the necessary equipment such as smaller goals.
Nonetheless, the FA Tesco Skills programme is, undeniably, a step in the right direction. A change in our coaching systems is needed and the only logical way to implement that is from the bottom upwards. The national side may not see the direct benefits for the best part of a decade yet unless we wish to continue to be a team that perpetually falls at the final hurdle schemes like this are the future of English football.
Sir Trevor Brooking also went on to comment on the current English national side. Despite Roy Hodgson winning his first game in charge many fans are still disappointed that Harry Redknapp was not appointed. So, what was it about Hodgson that Brooking, who played a key role in hiring the former West Brom manager, found particularly appealing?
“We thought Roy was really experienced at international level but he also knew the game well over here. Everyone in football will tell you that he’s a really good coach. He spends a lot of time on details, certainly in the first ten days that I’ve seen him. He also has a lot of contact with the players. We’ve had a few overseas coaches recently and I think it will be a different way of working from some of the coaches we’ve had over the last decade. I’m sure he’s going to be a good appointment.”
With so little time to prepare for the European Championships few know just what this, arguably poor, English side are capable of and Brooking insists that progression to the latter stages of the tournament is not the only way to judge a successful campaign.
“Well, firstly, we all want to see the squad play better and leave the fans feeling better about our actual performances. I think Roy said at the opening press conference that it’s a tough group but he would like to think that we can get out of the group. After that, who knows? We will play the likes of Italy Spain, Croatia or Ireland in the quarters and that will be tough, whoever we end up facing. But, if we come out of that group then we could get a bit of momentum going. I think the good thing is that the expectations are lower. Spain, Germany and Holland are higher up than us so let’s go into this tournament hoping that we can play well and spring a surprise.”
The FA Tesco Skills programme, a revolutionary approach to youth coaching that has provided high quality football skills courses for children aged 5-11, since 2007. www.tescoskills
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