The future of English football is not in the hands of Roy Hodgson, Wayne Rooney or even the national side's new hero, Andros Townsend.
Far beyond Wembley Stadium it is a vast army of unheralded youth coaches, volunteers and parents who are helping to nurture the next generation of English footballers.
I help to manage my son’s Under-9 team, the Glebe Pumas, and it is strange to think as they scurry across the pitch that boys of this age will be 18 when the 2022 World Cup is staged. At least one 9-year-old playing somewhere in the country today will be in England’s World Cup squad should they qualify for the Qatar tournament.
These boys have years of development ahead of them, but it is at this early age that they learn the basics, and those crucial good habits.
“We need to look at the generations of players, how they are trained at eight, nine and ten," former England manager Glenn Hoddle told The Standard. "Being quick and big and strong is the icing on the cake, but can they handle the ball?”
If English football can teach boys of this age the right way, they might just have a blueprint for success in the future.
There has already been a great deal of progress.
In the early 1980s when I was my son’s age, I played for my club side each weekend in South London. (We were actually sponsored by Manchester United, who sent a cheque for £25.)
At 8, I played 11-per-side football on a full-sized pitch against boys as old as 13. It now seems like utter madness to mix such a wide range of ages.
At that age I would be brushed aside by the older boys, and because the pitch was so big we were taught not to look after the ball and find a pass, but rather to hoof it forward as quickly as possible.
Being small on a full-sized pitch, there were long periods when you wouldn’t see the ball.
Inevitably, strength and size always prevailed over any attempt at skill.
This simply would not be allowed now, and from this year, players from the Under-12 level and below are prevented from playing on full-sized pitches and instead now play on smaller seven- or nine-a-side pitches.
This allows players to gain greater confidence on the ball as they have more time on it, and also encourages them to look after the ball instead of simply getting rid of it.
Coaches are increasingly emphasising the importance of "touches." To develop their technique at this young age, players need to be touching the ball in games and training 1,000 times a month.
"The game is beginning to head in the right direction," says Lee Pemberton, the head coach of Glebe FC, one of the leading youth clubs in southeast England, which has 27 junior teams encompassing up to 360 players from Under-7s to Under-18s.
"Youth players today are learning their football in a better environment," says Pemberton. "By playing on smaller pitches with less teammates around them, players are becoming more technical as they are getting more touches of the ball."
Just this season in Under-9 football a retreat line has been introduced to emphasise passing and getting more touches of the ball.
Now from a goal kick the team without the ball must retreat to the half-way line before the restart to allow the team with the ball to bring it out of defence with a series of passes.
Of course, you need to learn to pass under pressure, which here is artificially absent, but the concept is a good one because it gets players passing the ball rather than watching it sail over their heads from the goalkeeper's kick.
Any blueprint for English football needs to include finding ways to encourage more passing, feeling comfortable on the ball and being able to manipulate it in tight situations. This could go further by requiring goalkeepers at this age to always roll out the ball and be prevented from ever kicking it.
Another innovation for youth football, as suggested by Glebe FC's Pemberton, is to replace throw-ins with either rolling the ball in, or even passing or dribbling it in from the sidelines.
Former England international Danny Mills has been handed a position on the Football Association’s recently formed commission to improve English football, and, as reported in The Times, he has said:
If we want the best for English football, we need improvement with the right coaching in every school and club in the country. We like to think there will be organic change, but sometimes you have to enforce it. We have to rip up the rulebook to improve kids’ football.
Mills advocates reducing the competitiveness of youth football.
One of my pet hates is to hear parents asking their kids after a match “did you win?” It shouldn’t just be about competition but skills, fun, taking risks. I would stop competitive leagues until kids are over 14.
This is slowly happening. Last season, Under-9 teams played in a competitive league, but now they have to wait until Under-10.
At the moment Under-9s play games, and the result is registered with the league, but it isn’t published and they aren’t awarded points in a league table.
As incomparable Barcelona midfielder Xavi said about the culture at his club in The Guardian, “Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education.”
Being able to able to learn their game without the pressure of also winning points and comparing yourself to other teams in a league table helps young players develop, but it should also be balanced with their innate desire to test themselves competitively.
Mills’ suggestion of waiting until Under-14 might be too old, with the current Under-10 level being too early, and so making games noncompetitive until Under-12 could be a worthy compromise.
These might seem like minor issues, far removed from the debate about who should start for England on Tuesday night against Poland, but if they are properly implemented they will help England finally produce technically gifted players who are comfortable on the ball.
This won’t guarantee success in 2022, but if English football is brave enough to deal with the root of the problem, it will help them begin to be competitive on the world stage again.
All quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.
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