The UK has a large population and huge participation rates when it comes to football; so why don’t we produce more world class players? As readers of previous blogs will know I am perplexed at the lack of genuine game changers and world class footballers we produce. I strongly believe we do not pay enough attention to the very entry level of the game and for that reason we fail to develop players. Most players do not reach their full potential, many more never get close and too many drop out altogether. There are no doubt issues at the other end of the spectrum with talented English lads failing to break into first teams but it is at the very root of the game where big improvements are needed to increase our pool of top players.
The common perception is that a large population and huge participation rate are a big advantage for the national side in producing top players. In theory this is correct, after all Brazil, Germany & Italy have won more world cups than anyone else and they all have huge populations and participation rates.
I would strongly argue that the foundations of football within other top nations are far stronger than ours have been for many years. The general culture within English football has been poor for many years, athletes favoured over technicians and the strong sliding tackle often getting greater acclaim than the mazy dribble at all levels of the game. Despite improvements a negative culture still rules with most within the grassroots game, after all you can’t beat the British bulldog spirt!
I am as outspoken as anyone that this negative environment needs to change and the FA have to do more to change our culture not just within the elite but also within the grassroots. There is no doubt that it is more difficult for a football association to push forward a nationwide philosophy with such large numbers and when a complete change of culture is required. It takes time, finance and most of all top people driving forward change. The FA have no doubt got it very wrong for generations previously, the Charles Hughes era springs to mind. We have developed a negative culture throughout the game. There are positive signs that this is changing at national level, the age group teams are strong and the influence of Gareth Southgate on the U21 is sensational. I am not particularly referring to results (although they’re fantastic) but more the manner in which they have consistently performed. Changing a culture throughout the national set up is proving tough enough but it is at grassroots level where the biggest challenge is. The recently produced DNA does appear to focus more on later age groups and into professional football. It’s the very root of the game at the entry levels where the culture needs to change and if this was to universally happen then I have no doubt that the pool of English talent would increase numerous times over.
I have discussed in previous blogs the behaviour of coaches and parents and the structure of the grassroots game. In general we need huge improvements in these areas. The majority of U7-8 coaches are parents volunteering and their football experience sits within the years of poor culture; the same applies to most parents no matter what level they have played at. They were generally brought up playing and watching football in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s where long ball and physicality were king for the vast majority. I read a very interesting tweet from Matt Whitehouse (@The_W_Address) – “caller on talksport on ADM. If I was playing against him, the first thing I would do, I was always told a player can’t play with a limp”. Although slightly extreme I witness similar amongst most coaches and parents at U7/8 most weeks. The lad that is best technically often suffers ‘the treatment’ because parents and coaches go to method is to encourage/promote extreme physicality. Such poor practice is not challenged at the younger ages but as those kids move up the ages they will be punished for such an approach and they’ve lost years of practice in defending properly and learning how to deal with skilful/technical players correctly.
The skill and technical ability on show in the Premier League is high but there can be little doubt that in comparison to other top leagues in Europe the Premier League is much more physical and the blood and thunder is really appreciated by most spectators. Our culture was illustrated perfectly recently in the Liverpool vs Man Utd game. Liverpool were being completely out played and dominated by Man Utd so at the beginning of the 2nd half enter arguably one of England’s greatest ever players Steven Gerrard, talked about by many as a world class player, in the same league as players from his generation Pirlo, Xavi and Xavi Alonso. What did he do to try and address the balance? Fly in off his feet with a rash tackle and second’s later stamp on Herrera! What would the other 3 have done? Tried to control the game with skill, intelligence and technical ability? If one of England’s best players ever believes the blood & thunder approach is the best way then that just illustrates the tough job trying to drive a culture change to millions at grassroots that idolise players such as Gerrard.
The poisonous culture is so wide spread that having such a large population & participation rate is a disadvantage when looking at a complete culture change. It’s widely accepted most kids now begin and learn the game in an organised setting not on the street. How do we educated and culturally change so many volunteers? The volunteer’s part is key here, these are not full time paid coaches that can be changed culturally by their employers or governing body.
The tables below are overview of population and participation within a number of established and emerging nations.
||10 mill (estimate)
I have had to estimate some of the participation levels and I have been generous based on around 8-9% of the population participating.
The tables illustrate the huge pool of participants in the UK. It also illustrates that despite not even 20% of our participation levels countries such as Belgium, Uruguay, Croatia, Portugal and Holland have consistently produced better players in recent times and been more successful in tournaments. Even countries such as France, Spain and Argentina are way behind on participation levels but they’re producing far more world class players.
I have written before about the death of street football in the UK and the vast majority of kids now join a grassroots side or participate in organised coaching environments when they’re starting out. As a result it is absolutely essential that the environment is positive, it’s fun and promotes development, not the win at all costs mentality that currently rules.
It’s fair to say the kids of South American countries are generally developed on the street. The streets of Montevideo and Buena Aires are full of kids of all ages having fun with no pressure or over bearing coach. Street football is also huge within many parts of Holland and the kids in Spain grow up playing with their mates on outdoor futsal type courts.
When I describe world class players I am not just thinking Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo types and talk about defensive players as well. I am a strong believer that informal play and street football develops all types of players often organically and it’s a misconception that it will only produce attacking players. It will aid technical development but the best defenders throughout the years have always been good technical players. During the 90’s and early 00’s England had glut of high quality defenders granted not all as technically sound as some of their foreign counter parts but way ahead of our current crop, Adams, Campbell, Keown, Southgate, King, Ferdinand & Terry to name a few. All those would have grown up playing on the street most days and would not have seen an organised environment until they were at least 8-9. Compare our current crop of defenders and we’re woefully short on quality.
We have to accept that completely informal football in its original form has died out, that’s not to say we cannot invest in recreating organised but informal safe environments that replicate the street. However I see no sign of any emphasis being placed by the FA on introducing informal street courts within local neighbourhoods (like in Spain or Holland). These could be safely managed and would help address so many social issues as well as aid football development.
There is no doubt that Belgium is an emerging force in world football, producing exceptional players all over the pitch. Apart from the brilliant Enzo Schifo and a good performance at Mexico 86 Belgium have never really produced a team of top level players. During France 98 they disappointed and were described by Bob Browaeys (Belgium youth coach) as a functional side, playing rigid 442 or 352 looking at man to man marking and stifling the opposition. As a result the Belgium FA set out to completely change the nation’s culture and approach. They are now clearly reaping the rewards. The changes were quite drastic and one of the biggest challenges was to change the win at all costs attitude to youth football; is this sounding familiar? It was easier for Belgium; they had to change the attitude of less than 15% of the footballing family than we do. Fewer participants mean fewer coaches, less financial investment and more importantly it is easier for the governing body to mould the culture and environment. Would it be much easier for the FA if we had a much smaller population and participation rate?
Iceland are a great example of a country with a tiny participation rate that are now consistently producing very good players and a highly competitive national side with a total population of just 300k! It’s a relatively easy task to nurture players and coaches into a defined culture with such small numbers.
Even countries such as Germany, France and Spain have embarked on change in recent times. I would strongly argue that those counties cultures were generally far more positive and forward than what we are at this time. I keep hearing talk of how Italy are failing; unbelievable really when they won the World Cup in 2006 & made final of Euro 2012. What we wouldn’t give for that?
Belgium, Iceland and many others have eliminated the pot luck element that still very much exists in England. I can only speak of the U7-9 environments I have witnessed throughout the Midlands and less so in other parts of the country but I would estimate that just 1 in 4 grassroots environments at this age are positive and I believe that is a generous estimate. When we actually consider that 75% of our kids are not getting the best possible start on their football journey and do not develop to their full potential and often end up dropping out then no wonder we are behind as a nation after all the pool of players then reduces drastically.
Until the FA realise that we must make the culture change from the root of the game then we will never reach our full potential, the huge participation rate is worthless because so many kids are failed by the environment in which they begin their football journey. Some 6 & 7 year olds get snapped up by academies and within a positive environment flourish (not that all academies are positive). Some talented 6 year olds are not so lucky; I’ve witnessed firsthand a number of lads that were excellent technically 12 months ago that are now scared to have more than 2 touches, forced to pass and not allowed to take risks ‘guided’ by clueless coaches & parents often in the pursuit of winning. Those lads will probably never reach their full potential and that makes me extremely sad.
With the introduction of the DNA I thought this would be a bigger step forward than it will ultimately prove. They seem to be targeting U15 through to national team as their main focus and again putting little emphasis on the entry level. I’m constantly told that the mentor scheme is a massive step forward which in theory it would be if there were enough mentors to realistically service even half of the 37,000 grassroots clubs. I’m constantly told that the youth modules are wonderful and I completely agree but what is the FA doing to ensure the volunteer parent of the new U7 team is completing the YM? The answer unfortunately is absolutely nothing; the parent brought up in a win at all costs, Charles Hughes inspired era is allowed to continue in this manner unopposed. They are so detached from reality, volunteers don’t have time or money to complete L1 and then take in a couple of youth modules and continue their education. They work 40+ hours a week and have families to love and support. It’s ultimately the FA job to get in touch with this reality and drive forward a complete change at the root of the game. I don’t know if they don’t have the finances to invest in the change that is ultimately required? But it is imperative that they realise that a culture change starts at the very bottom with the masses, this is the only way we can change our negative culture.
I will use an analogy with business. If a large supermarket employing huge numbers throughout the country embarked on a culture change would they neglect the shop floor? Of course they would not; it’s fair to say that those employed in more senior positions are generally far more receptive to change and they drive the change onto the shop floor. Take the Germans; they made huge investments in producing quality coaches. They along with numerous other countries have far more qualified coaches and as a result they have far greater number to service less participants.
UEFA A, B & Pro License holders (as of 2010)
England – 2.7k
Spain – 23.9k
Italy – 29.4k
Germany – 34.9k
France – 17.5k
Those figures speak volumes and illustrate investment in changing the culture of the masses on the shop floor. This is the model the FA needs to follow. I know a number of excellent L1&2 coaches that simply can’t afford to progress and become full time due to the cost of courses and dire wages for coaches. Most of these are guys in 20-25k a year jobs that would be desperate to coach full time for a similar starting wage. We won’t get overnight success it will take 10-15 years to bear fruit but surely this is the only option?
Driving a complete culture change with such large numbers is tough and in many ways it is a disadvantage and much more difficult to manage; it’s much easier to manage smaller numbers like they did in Belgium but ultimately if we want to take advantage of our huge numbers then the FA must invest. People will be upset along the way, some will drop out but the undoubted collateral damage will reap the rewards in years to come.
Many thanks for reading. As always feedback/comments appreciated
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