Development`s lost ‘diamond’

By John Cartwright

Recently I have heard several radio sports’ programs discuss the problem of poor player development here in the UK.  Numerous reasons have been suggested as why insufficient ‘home-bred’ youngsters are not coming through the Academy system to reach regular first team positions – the increase in foreign  players into our game – poor coaching standards – low individual ability in skills and game understanding etc. All of these comments have an element of truth but I have not heard anybody mention what I consider to be the real reason for our developmental demise —– the lost ‘Diamond’ of learning and high performance —-‘PRACTICE TIME’!


Kids, going back five decades or more have been involved in the game of football without the tens of thousands of hours PRACTISING WHILST PLAYING as was the case in the streets, debris and playgrounds close to their homes all over the country. Those hours cemented skills and tactical decisions of the game in the realistic, competitive, small-sided games that went on for hours. These deprived, playing areas were in constant use whereas today’s ‘pristine’ centres are often unused. At football clubs, facilities are mostly of high standards; footwear-kit-equipment-medical care-fitness methods-food-playing surfaces etc. have all been improved as vast sums of money have entered the game, but individual playing standards have not improved in my opinion. As regular readers of the blog articles I have provided will know, I have been a long-term critic of the numerous coaching schemes and the corresponding competitive infrastructure introduced by our FA over the years but my comments and suggestions have generally been ignored by our ‘out-of-touch’ football hierarchy.

The FA has been in control of coaching and development since the early 1950’s but there has been scant thought about what our attitude and approach to the game should be. Coaching programs over the years have been introduced without first visualising how we should play the game. This has been a major fault in football development here with coaching programs introduced without a target to achieve, creating ..……a route to nowhere!


It was because of my deep concern about development methods in use here that I decided to write the PREMIER SKILLS COACHING METHOD. I spent a long time contemplating about a national playing style – a style that suited the game’s Teachers, the game’s Players and the game’s ‘Watchers’. Once my vision for our game was established it was then possible to set a ‘pathway’ towards reaching it. The content of the programs on the ‘pathway’ from junior to senior level were expressly concerned with overcoming the lost practice-time factor of the past and incorporating suitable realism to practices along the way.

Without resolving the major issue of lost practice time all the new innovations entering the game will be of little value and playing qualities will continue to fall. Millions of touches of the ball, combined with the millions of realistic playing decisions were once part of ‘street development’ and they created the ‘foundations’ for the playing of game both here and in many overseas countries……and must be re-introduced into today’s coaching format.

I believe that the PREMIER SKILLS COACHING METHOD provides the solution for coaches searching for the lost ‘Diamond’ …… ‘PRACTICE TIME’ in development…….and restore the qualities that are so necessary in the playing of the game to the highest standards.

28 thoughts on “Development`s lost ‘diamond’

  1. As always John very interesting piece, could not agree more,as a kid living in Bethnal Green as soon as school was over it was just a case of getting a footbal and playing,anywhere we could. ..playing on the cobbled streets between the cars,playing one twos off the kerb,we would do this anytime we could,each day would be different maybe the ball would be a bit flat ages of the players would change big lads small kids all learning from each other in all weathers, hard to compare this with the playing fields available these days and so under used..
    You did coach a class of us at junior school in the play ground which we then put into practice on the streets after school,
    always look forward to your articals
    Gary Lines

  2. Hi Gary. We both come from Bethnal Green. I was there just after the end of the second World War in 1945 and lived in Canrobert Street. Our ‘football pitch’ was either the debris between Canrobert street and Wolverley street(not there any more i don’t think) and in Wolverley Steet itself which had a blitzed School. I remember that this street was unlike all the others around, mainly because cars could not enter it due to bomb damage and also the street itself had been tarmaced at an earlier time before or during the war — all other streets in the area were cobbled. We spent every opportunity to play football in the street or on the ‘flattened’ debris . Great days that our football hierarchy have no undersatnding of and their lack of basic development understanding has meant limited and unrealistic practice time for youngsters for half a century —– and one can see the results—-poor skills and inadequate game understanding.

  3. The game at Wembley last Saturday, England-Malta, to my mind provided another example of where our football has gone so badly wrong. Predictably, the Maltese pulled ten men back behind the ball at the merest hint of danger. England, just as predictably, responded by having practically all the possession but doing precious little with it. The ball was passed from one white shirted player to the other for minutes on end, but little end product was ever produced. It was not until Rashford came on as a substitute in the closing stages that we saw an England player with either the desire or ability to take on an opponent and go past him.
    Individualism is the cornerstone of the Premier Skills coaching methodology right from the start of Level 1, but it has disappeared from the English game. Young players are coached and encouraged to pass, pass, pass from the start of their football playing days, because they no longer play in untutored street or park games but always under the structured ‘guidance’ of the coach.
    In childrens’ football why not have a channel down each side of the pitch comprising two players only, one from each side, and when the ball goes into the channel it must be a 1 v. 1 between those two players until one goes past the other and then the ball can be played into the main area of the pitch? Everybody has a turn in the wing areas for about 10 minutes and then those players are swapped for four others in the teams. So right from day one the concept of taking on and dribbling past an opponent is introduced into match play.
    This is similar, I know, to the concept of the safety zones down the sides of the pitch in Premier skills Levels 1 and 2, but I’m suggesting this for continual 1 v. 1 play and in all matches in the formative years.
    But we must do something to encourage and bring back individualism.

  4. Hi all. England’s ‘basic’ performances are a direct result of poor development methods. Not only are we short of the skills for the game, but we are also tactically weak.
    There are numerous situations in which we fail to produce space and lack understanding of how to exploit overload opportunities.
    Our game is ‘mess of mediocracy’ that is the direct responsibility of mistaken coaching methods. We are playing against very ordinary opponents and we haven’t the qualities to overcome them.
    We are applauding low playing ability and unless someone starts to tell the truth about our game we will never reach the highest level.

  5. English football suffers from tribalism. The majority of fans want success for their team above all other considerations. Poor quality football is overlooked as long as our team wins. There are fewer people going to football these days who are looking to be entertained by skilful and imaginative play. In days gone by, the chance to see Matthews, Finney or Best playing would put thousands on the gate.
    It seems incredible that nearly 82,000 people were at Wembley last Saturday for the visit of Malta, after England’s wretched showing in the Euros. I can’t believe that anyone was attracted to the match to see the part-time visitors and so the only reason could be to see our boys record a resounding win. Well, 2-0 is not resounding but it was a win.
    There are some old-style football fans who went to matches in years gone by to savour the arts and craft of the game, as well as to support their team. They stopped as the price of football watching far outstripped the quality on view and the playing style does not match the hype that surrounds it.
    We seem as though we love to kid ourselves about the progress we are allegedly making. The England U21s record handsome victories in tournament qualifying matches against often physically weak opposition, as they did this week against Bosnia, but hardly anyone in the team plays regular Premier League football in the first team of their clubs. So what will become of them? Probably out on loan, if they aren’t already, with the majority of them finally playing out their careers in the lower leagues or even in the semi pro game.
    The newspapers are full of opinions as to whether Gareth Southgate is up to the England Manager’s job but little mention is made of the fact that we are simply not producing the players.

  6. I watched the Euro’s in France and the games against Malta and Slovenia —we’re trying to play a game-style without the skills nor understanding with which to play it. The possession style we are attempting to copy requires both of the aforementioned qualities in abundance. With understanding, the importance of tactical movement on and off the ball is paramount — we fall well short in this aspect of the game.
    I recorded the game against Slovenia and played the game back and forth looking at the movement of England players on and off the ball — there was an incredible lack of game understanding in all parts of the team. Space is blocked rather than opened and on the few times space is created it is either too deep to cause a defensive problem for the opposition or is not used.
    It was interesting hearing a commentary alluding to the quality of players when in fact they were bereft of game understanding. Our game has reduced in quality for many decades, to such an extent that there is now a lack of interest in our international team. What a point to reach. —- and yet with simple adjustments applied to our game we could make substatntial improvements to individual and team performances.

  7. Hi all. i have been a coach that has believed in specific aspects of the game, in particular — individual skill and space creation and exploitation. I don’t see anywhere enough of these qualities in all levels of our game from junior football development up to senior international football. Without these important parts the football ‘machine’ fails to function properly. Yesterday i saw an oldish player, one of the few left; he scored and indivdual goal with a brilliant execution of skillful ability, he then laid on two terrific passes for team-mates to score with their head. We have failed to produce an abundance of such talent for our game and we are left toiling with a game-style with players unable to play it.
    It must become a priority that our young players are brought up to be skill-minded and to perceive the game as an art form and not just a ‘fightball’ competition. The winning and losing of a game of football throughout the development years must not be considered as success or failure but as a learning opportunity that too quickly passes by if not endorsed.
    I have said for many years that development here, both our practical and playing infrastructure aspects cannot produce the qualities for high success in the game —only mediocrity and that’s what we’ve got —- in abundance!

  8. Hi John….When England have so much difficulty creating openings against opponents such as Malta and Slovenia then it is little surprise that they come unstuck against superior teams in the Finals of the Euro and World Cup, who not only frustrate England’s attacks with their defensive know how, but also punish us with the speed and incisiveness of their counter attacks. But for Joe Hart in goal and large slices of luck, England would have lost in Slovenia with qualification for Russia in 2018 looking far from certain.
    When faced with a ten man defence, England play lots of easy passes in front of the opposition and rarely open up gaps in their armoury to exploit. Many commentators compliment England on their possession but most of the time it leads nowhere. If space is created then so many times the move breaks down because a runner off the ball arrives too early and either runs offside or is picked up by a defender, or the player in possession does not spot the run.
    In the Euros, Aaron Ramsey for Wales broke forward into space behind the defence with well timed runs a number of times and was found by a colleague with the ball. The second goal which Ramsey laid on against Belgium was a good example, with Ramsey making a good, well timed run into space behind the Belgian defence to receive a pass and cut the ball back for Robson-Kanu to score.
    Well timed movement off the ball into space seems to have become a lost art amongst English players and until it is improved then we have no hope of making progress in international tournaments.

  9. Hi all. Well, i’ve finally seen it — from a free-kick by a goalkeeper from a position 8 yards from the centre of his goal (approx.half- way between the 6 yard box and penalty spot) all the players from BOTH teams positioned themselves in or almost in the centre circle. This type of positioning is a regular feature in games here when a delivery from the back is made from slightly wider areas, but i have been waiting for this latest nonsensical, tactical negativity to occur — in the centre circle!
    I always thought that when in possession of the ball it was essential to create space (a) to provide more room for one to play in and (b) to open and exploit more spaces between opposing players. It seems that irrespective of whether one’s team is in or out of possession, the tactical requirement is to close the game down in all situations.
    The game’s gone mad! Sorry, not the game’s gone mad, —- but those who teach and play it to these standards.

  10. “It must become a priority that our young players are brought up to be skill-minded and to perceive the game as an art form and not just a ‘fightball’ competition.” This phrase says it all. The problem is that the most important ages are 5yrs to 15yrs and the coach education for this phase is well meant, but random, there is no skills spine as has been developed in the Practice Play methodology.

  11. Football should be a battle of wits, with each team trying to outwit the other by tactical switches and decision making by two inventive teams. So if the opponents drop deep towards their own goal to reduce the space behind them being threatened by our quick forwards, then the space now exists in front of their defence and passes can be made into the feet of forwards dropping short into those areas and the emphasis is on linking up the play.
    The trend of loading large numbers of players into areas where the keeper’s goal kick or clearance from his hands is to be aimed, just causes a fighting, over-physical melee of both friend and foe.

  12. Hi all. The picture of the street game at the top of this ‘blog’ provides a number of important developmental situations. Notice the same type of clothing all are wearing —- this game is competitive with TWO teams so awareness was essential. Notice there is only one goal (two coats on the ground) so BOTH teams are attacking/defending one goal. Notice the width of the playing area — kerb to kerb, so space was limited with the 12 boys involved. Notice the footwear — ordinary shoes, so touch on the ball had to be made with care. Notice the ball –a real football !! where did that come from? ‘Bald’ tennis ball were the best i can remember playing with. Notice the playing surface — tarmac. One did not tackle ‘on your bum’ as we see so often today, but stand-up tackles were learned and used. Most importantly, the time spent playing in this manner provided the touches of the ball — realistic playing decisions — the fitness hours, for the street was the ‘culling zone’ —- a survival of the fittest test from junior to senior into professional levels.

  13. Hi John….The surface the players are playing on is so important. Going to ground in such conditions was a highly painful experience so you learned to stay on your feet and consequently there were so many players with great balance.
    It brings to mind the legend of George Best when he went to Man Utd as a 15 year old, having honed his skills on the streets of Belfast. Talented youngsters at Old Trafford were brought back for extra training in the afternoons by senior pros of the time, but what actually happened was that a game was set up on a pitch made of cinders, which were commonplace years ago. The senior players did not hold back and took any chance to send any cocky young player crashing down on the unforgiving surface. It does not take much imagination to visualise the nasty gashes and cuts to the legs which could result in a few tumbles. But Best hardly had a scratch because nobody could get near him and United soon realised that a very special player had joined them.
    The photograph at the top of the blog show a familiar scene from anywhere in the country around the middle of the 20th century and earlier. If the coaching methodology we are providing does not cover the coaching aspects highlighted in the photo then our coaching must be inadequate.

  14. I have watched the disappointing quality of the failed and now redundant u/21 leagues.The newly formed u/23 leagues that have replaced them seem to be no better learning options. One must ask why. Is this attempt by our football association to replicate the old Reserve leagues of the past unlikely to succeed? For me the answer is simple —– present day players have not experienced anywhere near the amount of practice/playing time as the players of the past. The foundation work that was completed prior to attaining a. Professional contract in the past is no longer available to young players today. Speed and strength and high endurance levels have become a ‘camouflage’ for lost skills and game understanding. Irrespective of improvements in many subsidiary aspects of the the game it is impossible to play a skillfull game well without having the skills and understanding with which to play it —- and that is where we are at present !

  15. Hi all. Two things were shown on TV this week; the first was the ‘coaching’ of heading with young children, the second was the opening of the first ‘Hub’. Both of these in my opinion display the lack of understanding about development by our national association. How can they justify the use of heading at such young ages. Secondly, the Hub shown in Sheffield looks a prestige site — probably expensive to use and not easy for many to travel to. The game needs small playing areas built locally in which youngsters can spend hours with the ball and playing the game — a modern ‘mirror’ of street football of the past.
    The construction of these Hubs around the country will, in my opinion not answer the questions of poor playing standards we see today and displays an alarming lack of understanding of the real ways and needs for producing higher talent into our game.

  16. Hi John….I’m not familiar with the Hub in Sheffield and I did not see the TV programmes which you refer to, but I totally agree that small playing areas should be provided around the country, in order for youngsters to develop the football skills in their game-play as happened in street games of the past. I have noticed a few of these facilities in certain areas but there need to be many more.
    I am concerned that football, in fact all ball games, are banned from many school playgrounds, presumably for safety reasons with the danger of collisions occurring in crowded areas. Whilst not ignoring the pain of bumps and bruises , it is the disappearance of game-play of all kinds in tight areas, which has reduced the ability to find and recognise space quickly and has resulted in the drop in standard of our football. As you have said many times, football is a game of chaos but that becomes controlled chaos when children learn to play under constant spatial pressure.
    Given the opportunity and these conditions in which to play, children would re-engage with football through the types of games that were played by past generations. Street football will never return on our crowded roads but when a child goes through the school gate each morning, he/she is there for the day. So create the conditions that existed on the street and they would set up their own games. There seems to be a trend for adults, teachers and outside staff, to organise and set up activities for children, even in their ‘break’ times. Let them organise their own games and supervise it themselves, because they don’t want any outside interference, just as earlier generations didn’t. They will come up with their own interpretations, very similar to those of the past and with the same benefits.

  17. Visiting Italy, a few years ago. while walking up along road overlooking the Bay of Naples, i came across a small playing area with goals set in place for anybody to use. Early in the morning, pre-teens, I would suggest, had their ‘own’ uncontrolled game; where staying with the ball was the order of the day. And they loved it.

    Take away expensive ceremony, dot these around the country and free-of-charge let the kids play ‘street football.’

    John and Steve I concur.

  18. Hi Brazil94…Yes I agree that such facilities would have an enormous effect on reintroducing individualism back into our game and it would be very cheap to provide. What you saw in Naples is mirrored in other parts of the world where individualism in football is cherished. I have read that small pitches are built on the top of high buildings in Buenos Aires to solve the space shortage at ground level.
    The difference Is that in Italy and Argentina individual skill is still strived for by all the coaches working with youngsters. In England we have been emphasising to our young players for years that football is a team game. There are so many kids who, from the first junior team they join, go right through their football-playing lives with no instruction or encouragement in improving their technical skills. Is it any wonder that we lack the game-changing player who, with a momentary flash of inspiration, can change the course of a game?
    But when Matthews, Finney, Mannion and Best lit up the game on these shores, it is unlikely that they received hours of detailed instruction from coaches in honing their skills. It was from hours of game play with friends as they grew up, in conditions which no longer exist, and so the tight play areas you saw in Naples must be provided for the free play of today’s youngsters in order to create a new ‘golden age’.

  19. The FA Coaching Department have one very simple question to answer: Why do the Argentinians, Brazilians, Uruguayans, Chileans, Venezuelans, Bolivians, Peruvians, French, Germans, Dutch, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Russians, Croatians, et al ALL produce better individuals and ball manipulators than us and why have they been doing so for years and years??

  20. Hi Brazil94. Good question, but one that our National Association seem to have had difficulty in answering satifactorily over the years. The latest ‘tinkering’ with development is the introduction of ‘Hubs’. They have not yet realised that it is not facilities that need vast amounts of money being spent on that our game needs, but the provision of a suitable English game-style ajoined with a creative, thought-out development ‘pathway’ to follow that lays the foundations of development down and and continues through to senior levels. High quality teaching of the game from junior to senior levels must have high quality teachers of the game at all levels; — especially at junior levels where improved standards is of paramount importance.This ‘winning formula’ requires experienced, knowledgable and dedicated ex players/coaches to be selected for the job and not inexperienced academics if we are to make up the lost ground against so many of our foreign opponents. The FA Coaching and Development scheme(s) over the years have failed to produce standards of coaching and playing that were/are required for success and the sooner we ‘answer the questions’ positively and do something about it the better.

  21. Hi all. The u/21 ‘tinkering’ was a failure — now replaced with ‘tinkering’ u/23 matches. This change in age group is an attempt to replicate the old Reserve team football of the past. The problem that will occur with the introduction of older age players will be the same as with the u/21 set up —- the players intended to assist the younger players were not capable of lifting the standards — they’ve come through the same development mess as their younger team-mates and so the same problem will arise at the u/23 level in my opinion. When are we going to understand that it’s not age but ability that matters. —- If your good enough, you’re old enough — in the past, one saw young players enter first team football all over the country and go on to establish themselves as household football names. Why did this happen? Because players had mastered the basics of the game during their junior years prior to entering the Pro. game. These hours, days, months, years of playing whilst practising forged the skills and game understanding that is missing today. —- ask Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Charlton and note Bobby Moore’s and George Best’s route to fame plus a whole host of others to see that it was ability not age that was the secret of their success and they developed it in the street.!!
    I talk about the importance of early development methods from personal experience.
    i became a Pro. player and reached First team status by 17 years of age along with Moore, Hurst and Peters — the street had given me the football background for success My problem was that i had contracted tuberculosis when i was 7 years old and without the medical cover players receive today i progressed up the football ladder with lungs that had a reduced capacity and at the senior level i suffered on the heavy, muddy playing surfaces of those days and eventually left the playing of the game to enter into the teaching of the game —— a subject that i had pro.experience of, i understood and i cared about !

  22. Mastery of the basic skills is clearly vital and if the youngsters no long acquire these due to the disappearance of street football, then should not the academies by issuing ‘homework’ to their young players in the form that Premier Skills has outlined in the online video on the website? By explaining the techniques to be practised each week, the academy coach would test each player at one of the sessions at the club to gauge the improvement and progress being made. Obviously, the younger the players are introduced to this procedure the better, but these days the academies are taking in boys/girls as young as seven and eight. The skills are easily practised in the most basic of areas, preferably with the assistance of an older friend or relative, if possible, as a server.

  23. I really appreciate and look forward to reading the comments on John’s articles because his answers always include valuable coaching insights that thinking coaches can add to the detail they are using in their coaching programmes.
    1.When developing players we should help them understand space and time.
    2. Teach them to open space for team mates NOT block it.
    3.Teach them how to find space in advanced positions that will cause problems.
    4. Teach them tactical movement on and off the ball.
    Those little coaching “pearls” are in every article and answer he produces.

  24. And Roger, I assume whatever is being done, it’s the INDIVIDUALITY which counts, in the end; the microcosm in a situation for the ‘individual’ to dictate when he gets possession whether to stay on ball or play one touch.

    For me it’s the two sides of the coin: heads: a great ability to manipulate the ball/dribble and tails: that faculty to ‘lend’ it quickly.

    • Yes individuality that combines Brazil. Lending as well as linkage with other skilful players.”Football is not a team game its a game of great individuals who link and combine” John Cartwright . Cleverness on the ball and in support play too.

  25. Personally I would say that football is a team game, but not at the expense of individualism. In England for too long, individualism has been frowned on in too many quarters for too long and for many years we have suffered the effects of this attitude.
    One touch play requires playing cleverness because it can only be effective with players who play with their eyes up, constantly checking their shoulders and ‘having pictures’.

  26. Hi Steve. Coaching here has failed to realise that one-touch football is a highly skilled ability and needs high individual skills to perform it well on a regular basis.——-To pre-position, to recognise the necessity (play or retain the ball), to pass the ball with the correct speed. to react positively to follow-up situations. —– See SERGIO BUSQUETS (Barcelona FC) —– see one touch football used with professional, individual excellence.

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