Sky Sports estimated that more than 3,000 11-a-side teams have folded since 2007. This plays in stark contrast to Trevor Brooking’s desire, voiced back in 2005, for a better grassroots system. His logic was simple: ‘if you want quality at the top, you have to have a broad base at the pyramid.’ Whilst this is true, a key difference needs to be made between changes that can benefit elite football (i.e. at youth level) and changes that see adult amateurs continue to enjoy the game.
For any readers who play in weekend leagues the following is a standard: unplayable surfaces, a shortage of referees, thugs disguised as footballers and subpar match day facilities. Couple this with the emergence of synthetic pitches – Goals and Powerleague – and we see an appealing and accessible substitute for the 11-a-side game. Playing for about an hour, needing only five or so friends, with quality facilities guaranteed poses an infinitely more desirable circumstance than early weekend starts where pitch, referee and facilities are all questionable.
So it’s not difficult to understand the decline in 11-a-side popularity, really; shortage of funding means terrible facilities whilst the smaller 5 and 7-a-side synthetic pitches are suited to the compartmentalised needs of the working man (or woman). Sky Sports suggested this decline would affect the hopes of future England teams because less and less people played the full pitch game. But the weekend leagues’ biggest pull are adult players and, to a much lesser extent, school leavers. Brooking’s words of improving the base at youth level, we’re talking between five and eleven year olds, should be the top priority, and a natural repercussion of such action would mean more people playing 11-a-side at an amateur level when they are adults. I don’t think the answer is to simply get youngsters out on full size pitches, though. If we take the Dutch youth model into consideration the answer is, ironically, smaller sided games.
There is a lot we can learn from a system that focuses much less on winning and far more on enjoyment in the earliest stages of youth development. Juninho was pushed to say, after watching an FA youth coaching session, that ‘this is a load of rubbish. It’s like learning to swim on dry land.’ Rinus Michels, Ajax coach in the famed Johan Cruyff era, penned his thoughts on youth development and alludes to the reasons why Juninho was so disillusioned with the FA coaches. He insisted that a key belief was for kids’ football not to replicate the adult game. The emphasis is on every child being involved in an open game with many scoring opportunities: enjoyment is the top priority.
At the age of 5, games are 4-a-side, at 9 they are 7-a-side on half size pitches, and at 13 they move onto 11-a-side on full size pitches. Louis van Gaal expanded the Michels model, and this is where our suffering 11-a-side game would benefit, by positing that professional and amateur games should work together. The Dutch FA, known as the KNVB, ensures that mid-to-late teens are not simply thrown away by their professional clubs. Instead the professional club is contractually bound to find the player an amateur one. This would remedy one of our country’s biggest problems; “We have the biggest dropout rate in mid-teens in Europe,” says Paul Cooper of the dutchUK football school in England, “[and] that’s because the kids’ game here is for adults.”
How would these changes ensure better 11-a-side participation for us? Most obviously, young players who don’t make it will not be discarded without an outlet for their remaining talent. An affiliation between professional and amateur clubs would increase exposure and necessitate better funding at the lowest levels (an example of the sheer level of well funded, precisely thought out and community-oriented clubs in Holland is when an amateur club can have over 70 teams in operation, fully coached from the ages of 5 upwards). The distance between amateur and professional games would also inevitably be reduced, but this has been achieved in Holland by an overarching, ubiquitous KNVB. In England we have decentralised the power but instead of idiosyncratic micro management and overall cohesion being achieved we’ve successfully fragmented as the Premiership, the FA, the Football League, the county FAs and kids’ leagues all run themselves in general disarray. Addressing these issues isn’t simple but surely there is a lot to learn, though probably not ideal to blindly imitate, from the Dutch blueprint that has seen sustained enjoyment in the game from grassroots right through to the elite level.
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