By John Cartwright

Many years ago I was asked by a coach of a club against whom my team at that time were about to play against in a  South-East Counties league fixture, “ John, do me a favour and take it easy on us today as we might have to seek re-election to the league if we don’t gather some more points”. Well, I didn’t know how to reply to him – I didn’t want to cheat, so I said, “look, my players are working on ‘Positive Keep-Ball’ sessions in training so we will use this game as an extension of those practices.” I told the boys what I wanted them to do and they began the match.

I had not said to the players, “don’t score goals”, but I had not made a big emphasis on scoring and winning the match. I stood on the sideline and counted out aloud the sequence of passes we made each time we gained possession of the ball.  1-2-3-4—22—34—43 they kept the ball and ball possession counts simply increased as the game went on. The highest number they achieved was 63 consecutive passes and this passing sequence was curtailed only when a player found himself in a position from which he – just had to score!

We eventually won the game 2-0, so the result was of no use to our opponents but a great ‘eye-opener’ to our players.

My team at that time was filled with extremely talented individual players. Each position was filled by a player comfortable on the ball and capable of combining their individualism with team-play requirements. Those players, plus others who followed, won the FA Youth Cup two years in a row and were described later by the Press as ‘The team of the Eighties’.

Don’t tell me we can’t produce highly skilled talent for our game. The brilliant performances of the present Barcelona club could and should also be on view from ‘home-grown’ players within our own domestic football. Barcelona, are playing ‘Positive Keep-Ball’; they have highly-skilled individuals in all positions who play within a game-style that provides space and time for players when on or off the ball. The emphasis on positive possession combined with on and off the ball movement to sustain quality possession, also provides numerous openings to score. Their football psyche is based on creative play, whereas we lean towards a power-type game, more aligned to force than fantasy!

 Of course there is the problem of not taking advantage and exploiting attacking opportunities when keeping the ball; it is a major factor in possession-type playing methodology. Constantly playing ‘chess-type’ football can be not only unproductive result wise, but unsatisfactory for the fans to watch. The need for a compromise between ‘boring football’ and our all action ‘fight football’ must be the aim of all our coaches — at all levels.

 Barcelona, are showing that the game can be played with skill and purpose, but even they are subject to the problem of over-passing to an extreme when opposing teams’ simply sit back and defend. The need for attacking variations is vital in the game if success is to be continuous.  Positive passing, swift movement of individuals and teams to exploit attacking advantages, plus fast regaining of the ball when defending, are essential weapons for all top teams. However, one must not forget the importance of heading. Heading is often the football perfectionists ‘blind spot’ when it comes to game variation. This is usually because the art of heading is the single skill that many players have in our game. Usually tall and physically well developed for the fiercer aspects of the game, front players with heading ability too often tend to create a blinkered approach to the game for coaches and the teams they control. Direct play using long forward passes is often the single attacking method that teams with an aerial asset up front are prepared to use. A player’s ability to head the ball well must not deflect him/her from having high football skills to cope with all aspects of the game.

By producing all-round football quality in their players, coaches are able to create a multitude of variations to playing styles and methods. In this way, heading becomes a bonus and not a hindrance when playing positive keep-ball.

 The development of skilful players who are comfortable with the ball and capable of the decision-making necessary for ‘ Positive Keep-Ball’, must take priority on the training grounds of this country if we are to re-establish ourselves in world football’s top elitist group.



  1. Love it John, I like your comments regards the positive aspects of possession football making it exciting and fun for the players and fans.


  2. Brilliant John, valid point about the balance between ‘boring’ and ‘fight’ football. It is important that we don’t move from one extreme to another. Wenger has got himself into a cul de sac with very technical teams that lack bite (this season he may prove more successful). Spain had this issue for many years; now their national team and Barca seem to have got it absolutely spot on. Could you PLEASE take over as the director of football development at the FA…?!

  3. I felt that Fabrigas was out of order with his criticisms of Ipswich in the League Cup semi final 1st leg.The Ipswich caretaker manager had looked at DVDs of Arsenal and decided where he believed their weakenesses to be.So when Arsenal had possession Ipswich offered no challenge in their half of the pitch but dropped back into their own half and defended with two strong banks of four in that area of the pitch.When they gained possession they hit long diagonal balls into the spaces behind the backs of the Arsenal full backs because that’s where he had identified a weakness and he was proved right and Ipswich got their win,although probably insufficient to survive the 2nd leg at The Emirates.But McParland,the Ipswich caretaker manager,got his tactics right and Ipswich deserved their win and Fabrigas should acknowledge this.Of course Arsenal’s approach is the one that all aspiring coaches should want to copy but there are times when an opposing coach gets his tactics spot on and on that occasion the technically inferior team deservedly wins the day.That is the nature of football.

  4. Excellent observation Steve. Your points enhance the need for variations within the playing framework of teams who use a keep-ball playing style in order to combat defensive/attacking methods that they come up against. This ‘cat and mouse’ use of tactical variations requires players who have the ability to switch roles with ease. The better the players’ education in the game, the easier it is to develop playing variations. It always comes back to the importance of good coach/player development methods.

  5. I do not want to stray too far from John’s subject in the above blog but I wonder if anyone else who reads this site saw the FA Youth Cup 4th round tie on January 19th – West Ham United v. Manchester United?
    I found this an extremely interesting match.I only get along to Upton Park occasionally but this was far better than any first team match which I have seen there for several years.Both teams tried really hard to work the ball along the floor in good passing movements.Long balls in behind the opposing defence were played when it was on and both teams had a number of players who showed fine skill in possession and displayed much evidence of having worked from a very young age in John Cartwright’s concept of ‘staying with the ball’.It finished 1-0 to Manchester United but there really was a paper-thin difference between the two sides.
    However,what i really want to bring out into the open and perhaps hear from other coaches,especially those involved in the professional game,was the demeanor and attitude of the Manchester United Youth Team manager and his coaching staff throughout the match.As the game progressed I suddenly realised that not once did any member of the Man Utd staff get up from the bench to move around to any part of the technical area.They all remained seated throughout the match except on the odd occasion that the physio was required to attend to an injured player. As all the spectators were enclosed in the side of the ground behind the dug-out area i can also say that I never heard any instructions or orders shouted out from the Man Utd bench on any occasion.
    Is this the Man Utd policy that during the match the players must make all their own decisions without any contributions from the coaching staff?Are the players,and the players alone,solely responsible for problem solving during the game except for the private minutes with the coach in the dressing room before the match and at half time?
    I know that there are coaches from the professional game who have been on Premier Skills courses and perhaps they have experienced the Man Utd method at first hand.It would be interesting to hear some feed back on this issue.
    Whatever the case,this was an extremely good game and a credit to both teams.

  6. Hi Steve,

    I know a coach who runs talent centres and is a Man U youth coach. He told me a story about Man U v Liverpool, which I think was about U12s. Liverpool were all very organised, coaches were very up for beating Man U, typical coaches with constant instructions, all very vocal he said. Man U coaches on the other hand were all sat down, one actually reading a paper, hardly a word spoken until half time. Man U ran out convincing winners.
    I have been told that is the Man U way, so what you watched recently is the Man U way.

  7. I’m all in favour of less ‘involvment’ from the touchline at all games, not just those played by kids. However, like everything in life it’s the use of the correct amounts and timings that are most effective — be it cooking to coaching! Positive comments to a player can be helpful during a game, but unfortunately, there’s more shouts about – giving 110% and getting stuck in – than in supplying more useful, tactical comments to players.

  8. I read with interest the below article this morning and thought back to my time growing up as a young footballer and thought OMG how things have changed over 60 years.

    It made me think however of an assembly line of players all being created by schemes similar to this all over the world and wonder where the excitment of the unique flair players are going to come from in the future. In saying that I know that there are a number of players including almost the whole of the Barcelona team that fall into the category of exciting players that play with tremendous passion.

    Over the past twenty years a lot of the worlds creative passionate players have come out of third world African countries where coaching and sports science is more in its infancy.

    I look at the English/British game now (the English/Britsh component of it)and say where would our game be without the excitment of the imported player. This maybe a little controversial however iam sure you get my point, realising that we do have a number of good english players playing at the top level at the moment.

    I suppose to cut to the chase I wonder if schemes like this actually contribute to what we would all like to see in our gear game, the resurection of the clinical, exciting passionate player.

    By the way I am not sure whether I have a strong view one way or the other but would be very interested in what John and others think.

    By the way I am a volunteer development coach with a junior club in Australia that still has a great passion for the game after 30 years of coaching.


    The article

    i see

    Lesson in creating different class of Scottish footballer

    * kids

    * Young players taking part in the scheme are learning with and without the ball as, on top of training twice a day, they are educated, about the game as well as studying academic subjects. Pictures: Steve Cox


    4 Feb 2011

    feature Pioneering Dundee United project aims to produce better players by combining their education on and off pitch, writes Alan Campbell

    IT is dark, very cold and frankly inhospitable in Dundee at 7.30am on a winter morning. Around the city and its environs, thousands of children are waking up in the warmth of their beds and bracing themselves for another day at school. For 11 Dundee United youth players, though, the day has already well and truly begun. These S1 pupils have assembled at St John’s RC High School in the city, having travelled from the likes of Stirling, Carnoustie and Newport. The boys spend nearly two hours training in the morning, preceding almost a full day in the classroom, which is then followed by another session with their coach. This, according to Craig Levein, is the future of Scottish football.

    The Scotland manager instigated what is potentially the most exciting, and game-changing, development in youth football in this country by sanctioning the project while director of football at the Tannadice club. It is the brainchild of Ian Cathro, United’s junior academy manager, and is aimed at producing footballers capable of playing not just for United, but of a standard to match Europe’s best.

    That may sound like a bold objective, but it is lack of ambition, foresight and belief which has reduced Scottish football to its current dismal state. These boys already aspire to greater things, and it is no coincidence that they are learning Spanish as part of their academic and footballing educations. It is this sense of something visionary, something that can finally give Scottish football hope, that has persuaded Graham Taylor’s parents that putting their 12-year-old son on the 6.21am train from Stirling to Dundee every weekday is a worthwhile sacrifice. It is early evening before he returns, and after dinner he then has to tackle his homework.

    There’s no question it’s a long day, but who said becoming a great sportsman was easy? Children who aspire to reach the top in swimming, for example, have been undertaking this arduous schedule for decades. In Scottish football, the practice of taking short-cuts, of paying lip service to the development of players, has reaped predictable, stunted results. Nothing satisfactory has replaced the streets and public parks, the former self-learning environments for youngsters.

    There’s no question that the boys have a long day but who ever said that becoming a great sportsman was easy?

    Perhaps worse, many aspiring players, their heads turned by the prospect of well-paid careers as professional footballers, have scorned the notion of needing to acquire academic qualifications. For those who don’t make it – that is the vast majority – this cavalier approach to class work, illustrated graphically by Andy McLaren, the former United player, in his biography, usually means they have nothing to fall back on when football fails them.

    The beauty of Cathro’s vision is that it embraces both cultures. The 11 boys at St John’s devote a minimum of 20 hours a week to football, which is more than three times what they would have received in the normal Dundee United youth system. Training starts at 7.45am and continues until 9.30am. It resumes after school at 3.45pm and ends at 5.30pm. As these hours indicate, the boys miss the school’s first period of the day, but join the second class with their fellow first-year pupils at 9.50am. Any classwork missed has to be caught up on at home at night, but the school has ensured that core subjects are not taught in the first period, thus ensuring the boys’ academic work is not compromised.

    “Their education is extremely important,” says Brian Grant, United’s senior youth academy manager. “It was part of the agreement everybody signed up to that if a boy isn’t toeing the line academically we have the sanction to take this away from him. We see it as essential that if a boy, for whatever reason, doesn’t make it in football he will be equipped to go into further education or be a success in another walk of life.”

    That echoes Cathro’s philosophy that the idea is not only to produce better footballers, but well-rounded people. The fascination will be to see if this four-year United experiment – believed to be the only one of its kind in the UK, although Celtic have a similar scheme for older boys – really can produce the more technically proficient, visionary type of footballer that we only see on our television screens when watching La Liga.

    Including their Sunday matches in the SFA’s youth initiative, these boys will be exposed to 1000 hours of meaningful football practice a year, for each of the four years United have committed to the project. They are also fortunate in having Cathro – who was identified by Levein as producing more technically-skilled players at his private coaching clinic than were in the United youth programme at the time – in charge. He oversees the project, with Steven Leahy, a full-time youth coach, delivering the programme before and after school. It is far from a case of setting up cones and giving each player a ball: sessions include technical tuning, developing movement, performance psychology and match analysis. And above all, the boys are encouraged to think for themselves and find their own solutions to problems encountered in games.

    St John’s is within walking distance of Tannadice and Dens Park, has good sports facilities, including a swimming pool, and an enthusiastic staff. The boys all entered S1 at the start of the autumn term, but have been split into the three different sections to improve integration with the other pupils and allay any perception of a Dundee United “elite” within the school.

    What are the downsides? The boys, who appear to have grasped their opportunity with enthusiasm, see none. It’s unrealistic to expect all of them to make the grade in football, because life doesn’t play out in such a predictable manner.

    From United’s point of view it would only need one to become a big star and be sold on for them to recoup their outlay handsomely. But therein lies the rub: the club has to bear the costs for the next four years, including the coach’s salary and the travelling expenses incurred by the boys, with no guaranteed return at the end of it. They are also in the process of signing up a further four boys to enter S1 in August.

    Due to a combination of limited finances and lack of forward planning very few clubs are willing to make a commitment of that length, and a currently cash-strapped United will be required to hold their nerve if they are to honour the promise they made to the boys and their parents. The stakes are high, but if even three are playing in the first team in five years this project will have been of immense benefit – and a prototype for others to follow.

    The last word goes to Levein: “It might be costly, and appear in the short-term not to have any benefits, but we all know that’s not the case. The whole idea is to produce a significantly better standard of player.”

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