The Blog

England's Footballing Future - Observations From the Factory Floor

It's very topical to discuss England's failings as a footballing nation, and to be honest I'm a little sick of some of the damning indictments on the national game made by self proclaimed experts. That said, there is a lot of evidence to suggest the problem is getting worse.

Coaching young footballers is not something I'm much good at.

I'm talking about children, footballers younger than 15. I'm neither qualified to do it nor do I have the right attributes as a person.

I have taken on a new role for the forthcoming season managing the Under 19 team at Pocklington Town FC. The side play in the Northern Football Alliance Under 19 League, and our division has some well known non-league clubs in it, including Scarborough Athletic and Goole AFC. With a young family and a busy job, it's ideal for me as the league only consists of eight teams so 14 games played on weekday evening isn't too difficult a schedule for me to fit in, and our boys have plenty of other football opportunities including college/academy schedules and senior football for some of them. At that age, players are making the transition from junior to senior football, and much of the technical coaching they need individually should have been delivered and good habits formed as a result.

By the age of 18, the basic skills required to be a fairly serious footballer - passing and controlling/receiving the ball, shooting, heading, tackling and defending etc - and more importantly, the way they execute those skills, should be pretty much engrained. A basic understanding of roles and responsibilities for the relevant positions they are likely to take up on the pitch is also important, though this can be developed in the late teenage years, certainly for those who aren't playing the game professionally.

So our job as a coaching team is probably to give two key objectives equal weighting - we should continue to develop and refine individuals' techniques and game understanding, whilst in equal proportion develop a team with the specific goal of winning football matches. If only one of those two objectives is achieved, I don't think I would view the season as a success, particularly if the team were successful results wise but we as a coaching team felt the players hadn't developed over the course of the season. Once players get to senior football, the onus is usually 80% or more on simply winning. Personal development comes naturally as a player becomes more experienced, but the focus for a coach is important to acknowledge - young footballers need coaching to develop their understanding and technique, not just a pat on the back or a kick up the backside every now and then.

It's important to note I gained a basic coaching qualification when I was still playing a number of years ago but my knowledge of current FA coaching methods and philosophy has not been formally updated (though by November that will have changed). So my views are largely developed on my own, and influenced by what I consume by working with some highly qualified coaches and engaging on football topics across all forms of the media. There are thousands of coaches more qualified to do the job than I am based on formal qualifications.

It's very topical to discuss England's failings as a footballing nation, and to be honest I'm a little sick of some of the damning indictments on the national game made by self proclaimed experts. That said, there is a lot of evidence to suggest the problem is getting worse.

I'm not talking about the failure to progress in international tournaments or the poor performances of English clubs in Europe (though one could argue that's irrelevant due to the number of foreign players in the top English sides' line ups anyway).

I'm talking about what I experience first hand. On the training pitch, watching other coaches, talking to parents - observing the "factory floor" that should be producing the next generation of English players.

Many of the coaches tasked with guiding young footballers in this country are either people who have been involved in youth coaching for a long time and have deeply engrained values and expectations or they are players' parents who get involved in coaching to share in the footballing journey their son or daughter is about to embark upon. Both categories give up their free time for the good of others and for that I think they deserve credit and thanks. As is often the case with volunteers in any walk of life, the game at grass roots level simply wouldn't exist without these volunteers. I do think though that people find it a difficult task to provide direction and dare I say constructive criticism on their performance as a coach because of the fact that they are volunteers, so the culture they create is rarely challenged.

Both the experienced coaches and the parents new to the game are becoming better educated, with the number of coaches attaining FA coaching awards rising as more and more clubs achieve chartered standard status and expect their coaches to get qualified. This ensures that qualified coaches have a basic technical understanding of the principles of the game and how to coach developing footballers, and as such, is an important and worthwhile exercise to undertake. This alone isn't enough.

The culture of British football has developed in such a way that from a very young age, kids are usually taught that the most important part of the game is winning. Whether that's because their coach is a proud man with a record of producing winning teams or perhaps their coach is a player's father who wants his son to achieve more than he, himself did during his own playing career, the majority of examples I hear about or experience seem to have a common theme - winning football matches is the common goal.

Now winning football matches with a junior team, let's say an under 10 age group team, is reliant on having better players than the opposition. Game understanding, tactics and team formations don't really work at that age - you just need players who are capable of scoring goals, of running past the opposition's players and perhaps of kicking the ball further than the opposition. Maybe control and technique play some part but the physical capability is probably of a differentiator at that age. Until the age of 21, players' physical development occurs in different ways, and even at 21, some will be bigger, stronger and faster than others.

So if you have 3 players in a nine a side team that are bigger and faster than everyone else, they are likely to be involved in 85% of the play, whilst the little guy who plays as a defender in that team will generally be happy to sit back and observe, happy that he is part of a successful side.

Ok - this is a conveniently weighted example but I can assure you it's one you'll see all over the country's parks and playing fields. Instead of spending time rotating players so that they get used to playing in different positions and dealing with different technical challenges, our coaches often let young players play to their strengths exclusively, because that is what will ensure the team wins.

Of course winning is an important part of football and aids participants' enjoyment of the game but too much focus on winning at a young age is detrimental to the players' technical development. The years before a player reaches the age of maybe 13 should be focussed 95% on technical development and no more than 5% on winning in my opinion. That mix should change as players get older, and coaching the technical side of the game should be supplemented with work on tactical awareness, mental conditioning and other facets of the game that players need to understand as they move towards the results orientated world of senior football.

I'm not one who advocates the specific adoption of one particular model like the player development models in place at Barcelona or Ajax - our country is a different place, with a different sporting culture and climate. However, it's clear that the success we crave has been achieved by both Spain and Germany in recent years because their football culture and specifically the importance they place on technical development over simply winning in junior football differs so greatly from the one I see week in week out.

It's not something we can achieve overnight, particularly as the fall out from challenging the way an army of well meaning volunteers conduct their roles might well see many leave the game, but we have to ask the question - are we prepared to do what it takes to create our own, successful footballing culture, or would we rather maintain the status quo and bemoan our nation's lack of progress and steady fall from grace on the international stage?

Please don't all shout at once.