By John Cartwright (December 2008)
Has England ever been very good exponents of the game of Association Football? I say no!
Even during the years when ‘naturally acquired’ skills were plentiful to the game, we seemed to show more regard towards the physical aspects of the game than the skilful qualities so necessary to play it with style.
Both the ‘street football’ period followed since by almost six decades of ‘organized coaching’ have failed to provide the ‘total footballers’ in large numbers that the game requires. The players from the street were, in the main, skilful but lacked game understanding. Players developed since organized coaching methods were introduced have some game understanding but, in general, lack the skills.
Of the two periods, the skills developed in street-type situations provided the player with a far better base on which to play the game well. Unfortunately, little or no information on game understanding was available to the prospective young player in those days and other than advice from fathers, some schoolteachers and perhaps on occasions from a Pro player, if you reached that level, most young players ‘sank or swam’ on their own naturally acquired street-playing ability.
This wonderful game and the kids who have been an essential part of it, have both been severely neglected for decades by so-called administrators of the game. From schoolboy to senior level the game has never been correctly taught. Throughout its long history, quality teaching of the game during the important development years has either not been available, or poorly presented to young players who have had to ‘survive’ in a fear, ‘win-at-all-cost’ atmosphere. It was astonishing to see so-called ‘educationalists’ use the products of street football as ‘fodder’ to support the network of schools’ football throughout this country. Competitive play without quality practice to support it was how the game was expected to be learned! The street game, in all its sizes, shapes and durations was in fact the sole teacher – a ‘ghost teacher – who provided the necessary essentials the game demanded. Those in charge of the game here; in the schools and in the pro game, were perfectly happy to let it continue; why should they worry, ‘there’s plenty out there’ was their belief, and there was!
However, like all so-called good things the products of the street started to reduce in numbers as ‘clothe cap’ changed to computers. Instead of the fear-free irregular ‘chaos’ of street playing and learning, suddenly it was necessary to try to teach the game. Who stepped forward? – the academics. They saw the game as just another opportunity to use the established, formal teaching methods of the classroom and they produced a structured coaching syllabus. Although there have been some changes in coaching methods over the past 50+ years, these changes have been made without a clearly defined vision on playing content being agreed on. It is only after a clear target on playing content is set that a planned strategy to achieve it can be produced. Hence the numerous mistakes, false starts and mis-direction in all areas of our game that has brought failure and embarrassment to this country’s football for over half a century.
Because we have no playing vision, the necessary guidance to produce a suitable teaching and learning process isn’t possible. Therefore, coaching of the game in this country is a hap-hazard, ‘shot-in-the-dark’ muddle. Without an achievable visionary playing target, and with coaching controlled, devised and taught to the standards set by schoolteachers, is it any surprise that we play the game in a ‘fog’ of confused mis-direction and to the standard of schoolteachers! Without questioning the FA, the pro game, who depend on the country’s young talent, continue to allow its ‘raw material’ to be fed into a coaching and development system that has a long history of failure. In a multi-billion pound industry, how much longer can this continue?
Even the present Head of Football Development at the FA, Sir Trevor Brooking, said, ‘our players are not skilful enough’. He was immediately confronted over this comment by another Knight of the Realm, Sir Brian MaWhinney, who, quite correctly pointed out that ‘ these players had all been taught by coaches who had qualified through the FA coaching scheme!’ But, perhaps, the most devastating remark on the standard of coaching here came from Rafa Benitez, the Manager of Liverpool FC who said, ‘the players being developed at the club were not good enough.’ What made his remarks more surprising was that these players had won our national youth trophy for the past two seasons; so where does that place the rest of our clubs and the coaching structure on which they rely?
It is obvious to all who look closely at our game that bad coach education is at the very heart of our continuing football demise. Coaching programs produced by ‘amateurs’ will produce amateurs coaches who will go forward to produce players only capable of playing to amateur standards! The whole of the coaching process needs to be totally re-written if we are to begin the long climb to the top of world football. This is unlikely however, when, with less time spent on practice since the demise of the game in the streets, it beggers belief that coaches working with our young talent are now being advised to limit the amount of information they give in sessions during the, ‘ golden years of skill learning’ when young players absorb information like a sponge! It’s not the amount of information that should be in question, it’s the quality and presentation of the information given that requires attention!!
Without a clearly defined vision forward, the continuance of ‘half-baked’ ideas leads to a disorganized approach to coaching and playing methods. The ‘top’ of the game, not young player development, is a magnet for those administering the game. Huge sums of money are regularly wasted on personnel and projects to put a ‘roof’ on a building that has extremely poor foundations. Was the billion pounds spent on Wembley Stadium the correct use of so much money? Is the millions to be lavished on the Burton project also a wise move? Surely, these amounts of money would have been far better used by improving the coaching and development structure within Regional Centres. Once these centres were producing higher qualities in coaching and playing standards, projects like Burton and Wembley could then be considered. But, once again, without a clear vision to attain the ‘next idea’ usually leads up the wrong path. Our fuddled football history is proof of a lack of direction, mistakes, frustration and expensive failure.
As with the appointment of Sven Erickson, and the large salary given to his successor, Fabio Capello is, yet again, a hopeful attempt to ‘short-circuit’ success from the top. He may affect the situation with the senior England team in the short-term, but unless a properly conceived coaching and playing strategy is put in place at the same time, little benefit will occur for the game in this country. The necessity to ‘import’ foreign skill to fill coaching and playing roles will continue unabated, thereby increasing the problems for our own young coaches and players to be developed properly and for them to gain experience at the highest levels.
It is time to wield the knife. The old and failed ‘hit-and-miss’ methods operating to this day within our game along with those who perpetuate them, must be replaced by business-like planning. Our young talent needs more exposure to practice time and playing ideas more consistent with the search for greatness not mediocrity.
The coaching catastrophe so alive in our game has been fermenting over many decades. To overcome it will take more than ‘hype’, more than Knights of the Realm, more than money thrown at it; it will need clear and honest discussion to seek a visionary playing target for our game, followed by a carefully constructed coaching and development plan to then achieve it.