There Must Be a Better Way!

By John Cartwright.

Football is a game, like so many sporting activities, that is learned within a FEAR setting. Winning, not learning, dominates our development levels resulting in the ‘culling’ of skilful and creative play and producing lesser playing standards for the game.

Development has been in the hands of inexperienced, ‘football academics’ for a considerable time and their misunderstanding and  ‘tweaking’ of development methods has eventually led us into a period best described as ‘The Robotic Period’. There has been scant thought given to so many important developmental factors and structures based on winning results has superseded the importance of teaching and learning of….. how to play the game!


I have preached the need for a playing ‘vision’ to which a realistic, practical ‘pathway’ can be attached. This development pathway includes suitably introduced ‘competitive, practical learning’  throughout along with suitably introduced ‘competitive game examinations’.

A more sensible approach in the use of competitive games must be explored. Competition is a vital ingredient in the learning process, but there has been a long-term failure in applying competition correctly throughout the ‘golden years’ of development.  For too long, instead of practises being followed with related game situations to provide a recognisable development ‘pathway’ for players – a crash-bang-wallop ‘fightball’ structure has been designated as the competitive ‘examination’ of understanding and progress for our young players.  Goals, points and league tables have dominated the development scene and rather than producing ‘fertile’ footballers it has produced fearful, simplistic football from our players.


I am not one of those people who have a critical disregard for any form of competition; there is an important place for it in the learning process in my opinion, but it has to be carefully and gradually introduced all along the development ‘pathway’. The experienced coach will know what work his players must complete at each level of development and he/she, will know when to increase opposition gradually, within suitably-sized practice areas in order to develop skills and improve awareness throughout the early development periods (6-14).  Practice must relate with the playing of the game; otherwise what’s the point of practice? What is being taught in practice must be reaffirmed in a realistic but suitably adjusted manner in games that comply with players’ ages and playing ability.



As already mentioned, from the age of 6-14, games should be played with gradually increased numbers and in suitably sized playing areas. The number of players and the size of areas for practice should gradually increase and ‘targets’ gradually changed as players move along the development ‘pathway’. From 14+ there is a place for a gradual involvement with competitive match-play but at a playing number suitable for the 14 age bracket. These competitive games should be in addition to the same type of ‘friendly’ inter club games played throughout the season. Competitive match-play could be fashioned as cup competitions where 3-4 teams from a small area in a region can play each-other home and away to produce an area league winner. This winner can then compete on a knock-out basis against another area winner from the same region. The last two area teams within a region play in a final – winner takes the prize! Here is a limited and controlled  introduction to match-play…… a large part of the season is taken up with games that follow a learning and practising whilst playing mode with combined with a gradual ‘injection’ of games in a more competitive playing atmosphere.

From 15 years of age, 11v11 should be introduced but with  drastic changes to our present match-play model: Success at the EARLY STAGES of this development level should no longer be ‘measured’ by simply registering which team scores most goals in a game with results registered in league positioning.  Some form of marking system must be created to highlight positive and negative aspects of both teams in a game. At the game’s end the marks are added/subtracted and the team with the highest points is the winner…. No league positions….just positive learning habits …… habits begun from 6 and continued through to youth levels at 14+ …. then taken forward gradually to 15+…. then gradually onward in the next two years to 17+ …… when a competitive, league and cup structure could begin to be played.      

Our development methods have to change if we are to produce excellence in the game. Our long-term fascination and the continuation with irrelevant and unrealistic practice methods that are then followed by playing the game in a ‘result provides answers to all questions’ way, must NOT be the only ‘game in town’. By 18+, with players having experienced a more composite development system, I believe they will have a much better chance to succeed at the higher levels of the game…..they would have learned how to play the game, how to compete and to win through quality football ability and not through an aggressive, physically ‘camouflaged’ and fearful…….‘fightball-for-points’ system.


THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY for our game in future to be taught, learned, played, enjoyed and improved in a positive, purposeful, intelligent manner and atmosphere………. I recently watched an u/18 game between two professional clubs; three red cards were issued as well as several yellow cards. The young Referee was then hounded by club staff and public as he left the field. The game had been a disgrace from start to finish with aggression, not competitive playing ability, the overriding factor. I see so many of the games of this type….. and these games destroys talent it doesn’t develop talent. We must discontinue with the negative-structured and fear-laden methods that have disabled exciting, skilful playing qualities in favour of robotic, simplistic and aggressive mediocrity.

Crucial changes in development practice and playing methods must become a priority for our FA. Professional football clubs must take more interest in how our players are being coached and developed – lots of money is being spent on development but the methods used in the past and at present have failed to supply quality to our game and urgent yes urgent – changes need to be made if we are to reach the high standards necessary to compete and succeed at World and Euro levels.

24 thoughts on “There Must Be a Better Way!

  1. In all earnest, the best professional document out there for public perusal is the PFA’s ‘A Kick in the Right Direction’ of which Jon was a driving force.

    As a respected body, the PFA need to establish coaching courses for grassroots, and take on the all-powerful FA.

  2. In all earnest, the best professional document out there for public perusal is the PFA’s ‘A Kick in the Right Direction’ of which John Cartwright was a driving force.

    As a respected body, the PFA need to establish coaching courses for grassroots, and take on the all-powerful FA.

  3. And looking at the PFA site this won’t happen and gaining ground against the FA will NOT OCCUR in my lifetime.

    England you are f*****

  4. As usual ,within this article, are the inspirational coach education gems that coaches can use to enhance and adapt their coaching methodology. ” Games that follow the practising while learning mode ” when put like that its common sense.

  5. Hi all. In England this season we have introduced a new ‘tweaking’ to our development scheme—u/23 leagues. This increase in player age from the previous u/21 league has come about because the u/21 failed to produce a rise in playing quality. From the games at the new u/23 level that i have seen so far this season, this increase in age will have no beneficial effect on player standards. Why? Well, the idea behind the use of using older aged players at 21 and now 23 is in the mistaken belief that the older players will provide more experience to games, thus helping younger team-mates……….as used to be the way when Reserve Team football was once played between clubs. Our football ‘hierarchy’ have once again displayed a total lack of understanding of development in the past. Those older players who played in Reserve Team football had grown up playing the game in the streets……had then followed a ‘pathway’ through various levels before entering the Pro. levels of the game….. their development had been full of realistic practice/playing from day one. Their inclusion in Reserve team football as they either, …. grew older… were recovering from injury …. or were not of First Team standard provided the game knowledge and support for the younger players. The present ‘older’ players have been produced through the same learning ‘mess’ as the youngsters they are playing alongside —-both older and younger players have absorbed the same the playing robotic mediocrity and have little football quality to offer to eachother.
    And so the confused, blind, and utterly distorted development shambles goes on. We will not accept that our development process is an utter failure and irrespective of all the ‘tweakings’ we will not produce quality players ………….because they are not party to a quality development process !!

  6. If clubs were compelled to include a minimum number of English players in both their squads and starting eleven, then they would be forced to take youth development more seriously. In fact, I would go further and state a minimum number of home-grown players from their own area or region. This may be a little unfair for clubs based in rural or coastal areas, with less tradition of finding and producing young talent than those in urban and city areas, but it would nevertheless concentrate minds on prioritising the coaching of young players.
    Somehow the Premier League must take the lead on this because the FA is simply not strong enough to dictate policy to the powerful billionaires who run our clubs. As an inducement, I would suggest a cash reward to the club which is found to have used the most English players during the season. This reward would be equal to the amount paid out to the Premier League Champions. So even if a club finishes in a relegation position, if it has genuinely tried to develop and introduce young English players during the season to the highest level of domestic football, then it will receive its reward. Similarly, UEFA could adopt a similar approach with its club competitions, Champions’ League and Europa League, because throughout Europe we can see the trend of the world’s best talent being in the hands of a few clubs, with the rest being reduced to the role of ‘also-rans’.
    At the moment, in the Premier League each club receives a pay out at the end of the season depending on their position in the final league table. So if a clubs finishes, say, 11th then this is worth substantially more than finishing 12th. I think this is ridiculous and in fact has a counter-productive effect by making end of season fixtures vital for finance even when the teams involved have no chance of honours and are safe from relegation. In those circumstances they should be playing the best of their youngsters, as was the case in the past, but instead they view every fixture as vital with regard to the final league position and the financial reward it brings. Instead, let financial reward be for good coaching and development.

  7. Hi Steve,

    Richard Scudamore won’t help you or us on this because his growth and business model is predicated on expanding overseas stakeholder input (i.e. players; coaches; owners)..

    It is the hollowing out of the football industry – like steel and other ‘commodities’ – that leave many, many people angry but seemingly powerless to effect any change. We keep hearing how automation will take 30-40% of white collar jobs in the coming decades and this gives John’s term of ‘robotic footballers’ more resonance, in my view.

    We need a strategy off the pitch before we can implement a new strategy and coaching pathway on the pitch.

    And yet the FA and David Sheepshanks will keep telling us that SGP and the new Sheffield Graves hub is the way forward.

    I don’t think so 😦

  8. Hi Peter. I agree with what you have said. The point about the Sheffield ‘Hub’ is a clear indication of the lack of foresight about development issues our football ‘hierchy’ has; they are more concerned with supplying a showpiece playground than a purposeful development development program to use on it. …….We seem to have more money than brains.

  9. The FA, like so many ruling bodies in various fields, like to show off gleaming new structures of various kinds which cost a fortune and give the impression that problems are being tackled.
    That’s the situation with both the ‘new’ Wembley and St. George’s Park. In “The Goldmine Effect” we read that the energy, skill, inspiration and enthusiasm of coaches from a variety of sports, has a profound influence in raising standards of performance and achievements, often in the most basic of facilities.
    So I agree with John and Peter that what we really need is “a purposeful development program”. There already is of course – Premier Skills.

  10. Rio Ferdinand recently offered his services to West Ham United to do some coaching with their defence following some poor performances by the Hammers’ rear guard. After giving it some thought, Slaven Bilic turned down Ferdinand’s offer, stating that he was confident that he and his staff could sort out the problems.
    I think that Bilic’s reaction was understandable. He obviously did not want to show any lack of confidence in his coaching team, which could have been the case had he taken up Ferdinand’s offer. But I wonder if Bilic missed an opportunity here because he could have asked the former Hammers’ centre half, now retired, to join in sessions as a player rather than a coach. In that way he could have used his experience and know how to provide demonstrations in positioning, interception, anticipation, game reading etc. In the role of a demonstrator, Ferdinand would have been invaluable.
    I recall that almost forty years ago, when Ron Greenwood became England manager, one of the first things he did was to bring in Geoff Hurst so he could use him to demonstrate the type of runs that he wanted from the front players in his squad, like Bob Latchford and Kevin Keegan. Although he had hung up his boots some years previously, Hurst was still perfectly capable of making well timed runs into space to use himself, or to drag defenders out of position to make space for his team mates to exploit.
    Perhaps this is a role that Ferdinand and other recently retired accomplished players could provide for the players who arrive to succeed them. I recall that Latchford, in particular, who was a journeyman player, improved considerably during his time with the England squad.

  11. Hi Steve.I recognise your point regards ‘older players’ helping in particular areas of the game. This is a version of Reserve Team football of the past. U/21 and now u/23 football are similar attempts to provide ‘older player’ involvement alongside younger players. All very well, however, the ‘senior’ players inroduced into these games have developed differently from the ‘Back-street footballers’ of yesteryear— todays players have come through development system(s) that have produced mediocrity in the main and games at these levels display little in terms of att/def football quality but lots in misplaced effort. Our poor development methods over the years are showing the ghastly mistakes made in player production — For too long we have seen ‘Robots’, not talented ‘Footballers’, fight the good fight,–not play the good football and there seems no change to this in the future.

    • Hi John,

      Great to meet you at the U23 game last night and it was fascinating to talk football with you. I’m always looking to learn, so it was a real honour!

      Like you say above, there are a lot of improvements to be made at this level to aid player development, but the animosity towards the EFL Trophy including academy sides, for example, shows there is a lot of work to be done to get everybody pushing in the right direction, whatever direction that may be.

      Again, a pleasure to speak watch a game with you, and I hope to have more opportunities to talk with you again in future. I’ll be keeping an eye on this blog for sure.



  12. Hi Jonathan. I enjoyed talking with you during the game. I think that you will find the ‘Blogs’ interesting reads that you can agree or disagree with. Football’s a great game and i believe we have gone in the wrong direction with the teaching— (Coaching) of it. Hope to see you ‘on the circuit’ sometime this season. Best regards and enjoy the football —- if at all possible!

  13. Yes, hope to see you too. Will you be at any upcoming games over Xmas? Failing that you have my email address in the comments, would be nice to keep in touch.

  14. Heading the ball in Youth Football

    Recently, I learned from Mike Spinks, ESFA’s FA representative on The FA Youth

    Committee, that discussion is taking place regarding the ‘banning’ of heading in Youth

    Football – up to under 16 level, with the potential for this to rise to under 18. No further

    details are available at the moment.

  15. Heading used to be one of the great strengths of English football but now, from my experience of coaching in grassroots and junior football, it is a weakness. Hardly anyone wants to head the ball and young players back away from a high ball, waiting for it to bounce which, in defensive situations, leads to serious trouble. Like many other aspects of the game, the disappearance of the game played in the street and on waste land has led to this deficiency. Games of “headers and volleys” and “head tennis” used to be enormously popular and were great at developing this skill.
    I think that many coaches make the mistake in the early stages of getting a young player to head a ball thrown to them from another player. This often results in the receiver connecting with either the top of the head or too low down, around the nose. Suffering early pain or discomfort when practising heading often leads to a young player being put off heading for life.
    I think it is best for the young player to hold the ball him/herself with arms outstretched and then releasing it so as to meet it with the forward thrust of his head as it descends. This way it is much easier to meet it with the full flat part of the forehead, which imparts power to the ball and produces no pain at all for the player.
    When a player is regularly connecting with the correct part of the forehead then I cannot see any danger whatsoever from this skill being part of the game from the earliest age. The old footballs collected water and it was like heading cannon balls but the modern ball retains its normal weight, whatever the weather and ground conditions. Also, there are sponge footballs available for very young children and then plastic balls as they get older. But good coaching in the correct procedure will safeguard players of all ages.

  16. Hi Steve.The introduction of heading into the development program should not begin…… (and then in a very basic way– heading from hands to catcher who heads from hands —-interceptions made with hands (not heads)……. until about 12 years of age. The main emphasis in work up to this point should reflect the development of skills from ground to chest height. Anything over chest height should be an immediate ball loss to the opposition—–keep it on the ground as much as possible during the early years.!!!!! We don’t teach algebraic equations to children before we’ve taught them addiing, subtraction etc. so why should we teach football in a totally disjointed way?

  17. Hi all. i’ll tell you why we introduce Heading too early into development —– BECAUSE WE ‘COPY-CAT’ THE SENIOR GAME TOO EARLY! —- algebra before addition —- winning before learning!!!

  18. just read this article some interesting points. I have been fortunate to coach for a living and have coached around the world. For the first time in a while I got asked to take on a under 12 team by old colleague. From what I seen there is three major problems the first one being a environment where the emphasize is on winning rather long term development I wont go into too much detail as this has been mentioned in the article . Secondly the coach education I feel a lot of volunteers such as “Johny’s” dad their heart is in the right place but they don’t understand the principal of long term player development and things such as early and late developer. Also from the younger age groups there is too much emphasize on long ball passing and children are being criticized for dribbling . The fa mentor program is good but needs be more accessible and should be open to all charter standard clubs. Finally is the facilities or lack of them. My club is pretty lucky we have a 3g pitch we have access year round. most clubs I see play on pitches that I wouldn’t even raise cattle on. compare our facilities to Germany, Spain and Holland we are miles behind. If we want create exciting technically gifted players we need give them best possible chance to become the best player they can possibly be.

  19. Hi
    Just reading this article and comments with great interest..
    My Father who managed to “Make it” ..grew up just after the war in East London without a Mum…so spent hours and hours playing in the streets with he’s mates
    He in the words of Eddie Bailey (who was a teammate at Leyton Orient ) was a Dream dribbler …he never had any coaching from a Pro Club …learnt all he’s skills / limitations by playing playing playing
    And then when he got to the Orient …it was the old heads like Eddie Bailey that taught him the otherside of the game ….
    ie. Times to keep the ball etc etc
    Wanted to write this stuff to agree with Mr Cartwright’s comment about how it used to be with young players being “Taught” whilst playing with the older experienced players that shared their own knowledge / experience that they had learnt from their own peers
    We HAVE to try to recreate as best we can the old Street football….
    Not this individual skill strangling Coaching system we have had for much too long here in England

  20. Hi,

    Great reading both Article and comments,

    I feel that the main problem lies in the Grassroots local leagues and organisations , here in my area of Northen Germany (Expat) most Grassroots local leagues teams are governed by the Rule in that, the higher your first team play the more youth teams have to be present in the leagues.

    The problem is , is that a lot of village clubs are merging together in the youth sector because theres not enough children wanting to play, not many pay attention to why.

    The main focus seems to be all about getting lots of kids registered to play then sorting them out in who can play and who cant, at the u8-u9 stages . I recently withdrew the u10´s i coach , due to pressures on the kids to win and myself to sort out,, (which i didnt) my session group has risen from 12 to 20 since leaving the League… Back to the point.. what if at the u8´s stage , theres just 1 organised tornament for all kids who want to play, local clubs can enter pool system in which they can be selected to stage an tornament.

    Each club which has a youth team can participate in 1 friendly and 1 tornament per half year wether indoor or outdoor, more time is then there for local volenteers to get proper education into coaching and working with kids and be shown how to educate younger kids in sport.

    I found that with playing league games week after week with league tables dominates in how you coach , your status as a coach, your reputation as a coach.

    Thats is how its all based.

    There needs to be more emphisis on seperating Professional Soccer and the academy structure and Amature football, Most unqualified volenteers spend more time on downloading academy structured session plans and having initials printed on tracksuits, than the kids in their care .


Leave a Reply to John Cartwright Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s