I love football. As a youngster I used to hop over the fence at the bottom of my garden and with a few friends, go and ‘train’ with my local football league team. I guess at the time, it was the last thing the coaches wanted, but hey we enjoyed it, and it gave us the opportunity to believe we were professional footballers (which is about as close as I ever came to being one!).
That was back in the 1970s and the opportunity to play for a top professional team in those days was not out of the bounds of possibility for anyone talented enough to make it. But what of the chances for today’s talented young English players? Do we have the tools in place to help our future top players make it, or is it simply easier to forget about developing home grown talent and buy-in success from abroad?
There’s no doubting that things have changed since my time running about in that park, but have things changed for the better?
For sure kids aren’t expected to kick cans or tennis balls round the streets. Instead and in far too many instances, thanks to new FA designated ‘best practice’ required by clubs to ensure they have the Charter Standard accreditation, kids today should expect nothing less than grass pitches that are properly marked out.
Fair enough in theory, but far too many have grass that could be up to 6” long, on pitches that resemble the Lake District more than Wembley with line markings that have been ‘burnt in’ so many times, they resemble crevices more than lines. The fact that many are open council pitches can also mean today’s young players having to dodge piles of dog mess that dog owners appear to believe is O.K to leave on playing fields.
Granted, not all pitches are as described above and organisations such as the Football Foundation amongst others are making a difference where possible, but still the majority are not up to the standard that the FA must surely have envisaged when putting together the new way forward.
But surely we’re not the only ones to have well thought out plans that haven’t quite been realised in the way originally envisaged are we?
Well, let’s take Spain as an example. After all, they are reigning World Champions right? In the South-East of the country there is a small village called El Paretón. It has less than 2,000 inhabitants and yet this dusty little village has one of the finest footballing complexes I have seen. It has the finest 4G artificial pitch with just enough seating for spectators and parents to sit and enjoy watching their children have fun learning how to enjoy playing football from one of the many qualified coaches that use the facility day-in, day-out.
Is it any wonder that Spanish players are extremely comfortable on the ball and can play pass-and-move football all day long from an early age?
But of course it’s not just facilities that are stagnating English football. A severe lack of higher qualified coaches and how they are used is I believe far more of an issue.
You see as a country, we actually don’t do too bad compared to Spain at UEFA Level B (the basic level to be classed as a real coach). However Germany has more than twice as many B Licence holders and a staggering 5 times more A Licence holders than us. Worse still, Italy has over 37,000 B licence holders , that’s four times more than we do!
In England, we have according to UEFA’s latest statistics, 9,500 B Licence holders, most of whom have to accept barely enough payment to cover their expenses when coaching. Rarely will you see a B Class coach in charge of a grassroots youth team – the clubs simply don’t have the finances to pay for them. So instead we have to rely on parents to get involved and hope that they can develop the kids in the best way possible.
Right now the FA requires every designated youth team coach to have passed the FA Level 1 course. Unfortunately, and speaking from experience, having a certificate that says you can lay out a set of cones in 20 different patterns is not sufficient. It is not until you get to the first part of the Level 2 (UEFA B) course that the FA train you to actually coach, but that costs £250 and is simply too much for many cash-strapped clubs.
For those that can get past the cost barrier, other obstacles are continually placed in front of parent/volunteer coaches that take time and ability away from the most important things such as concentrating on developing training sessions to help players develop and enjoy the game. Instead of spending time that could be spent developing the players, coaches may be required to clean clubhouses, mark out pitches, arrange for teams to come to the annual gala, and of course placate agitated parents who are concerned that (i) their child is not getting played enough, and (ii) wanting to know why the team are not top of the league!
Occasionally, the odd player will stand out and may well get asked to join their local professional football club. That must be a good thing right? After all, that is what we want to see happen. But how many of these kids, some of whom may only be six years old, actually stay the distance and get signed up as a professional player? More to the point, how many simply get tossed aside after six weeks to see their dreams and ambitions demolished – some never to play football again?
How on earth can you determine if a child at six years old is going to be of the calibre required to play professionally at 18? You simply can’t, yet up and down the country, that’s what can happen.
It might be me, but does it not seem that for too many professional clubs, as highlighted at the start of this article, that developing young home based talent really isn’t worthwhile and it is indeed much easier to buy-in foreign players that are already good on the ball, and can play pass-and-move football etc, etc…
Easier yes, but does it make sense, especially in this era of Financial Fair Play? What if, instead of paying upwards of £3million for an untried Spanish or German player, the top English clubs ‘invested’ that money back into their community with one or two strategically chosen junior clubs. Facilities such as that available to the inhabitants of El Paretón would be easily available to our players.
Our existing community clubs could then be tasked with developing young players, with the support both technically and financially from local professional clubs. New coaches could come into the game in this country with the knowledge that they would be plenty of opportunities to help develop players of all ages and abilities and the clubs would be in a position to embrace them thanks to the financial support that could be offered by pro clubs.
Such a strategy could be taken a stage further with the professional clubs contributing further to the development of local talent by making a series of staged payments for any player that goes on to sign full terms, such as signing-on fee, and appearance fees.
Perhaps the end cost may come to somewhere in the region of about £1million per player signed up. Less than the clubs may be paying now for untried foreign players.
Unfortunately such a plan would take a lot of organising and football is very much all about the now, so I fear such a scheme might never make it off this page. One thing is for sure though… If we don’t do something soon, the number of top English players active in our top league will continue to diminish and the game we love become less and less relevant.
Mike Hemmins @mikhem