From Practice to Playing

By John Cartwright

When the game of Association Football was learned and played in the streets of this country the transfer of practice into competitive playing was immediate. ‘Practice Whilst Playing’, was how the game’s skills and general understanding was developed. There was no such thing as organised coaching until the roads and open ‘playing spaces were gradually overrun by vehicles and housing or commercial development.


The introduction of ‘organised learning of the game’ – Coaching, was introduced in the early 1950’s here in the UK. It became a subject to be learned and because of this it took on a formalised approach to the teaching of it. ‘Classroom methods’ were established by our national association and realistic, ‘chaos learning of the streets’ was replaced by ‘structured, classroom control’.

It was schoolmaster’s who controlled development of our game. In the vast number of cases; those schoolmaster’s, although with the best of intentions, had little knowledge about the game or how to teach it. Coaching sessions were arranged by our FA at various centres around the country and professional players were encouraged to attend and gain certification at 2 levels – Preliminary level followed by Full Badge status.

I attended both of these courses and ‘graduated’ to senior level status when I was 20 years old. Unlike so many footballers of today who earn sufficient salaries that provide a comfortable income for their futures, Pro. Players, prior to the ‘financial explosion’ that has occurred in the game, needed to find employment once their playing days had ended – coaching the game fitted that role. It was a schoolmaster’s approach to football teaching and learning that Pro Players, who had grown up as ex street ‘graduates’ were asked to follow — realistic ‘chaos’ was replaced with unrealistic,  ‘structured’ learning – Drills practises!

Over the decades since the loss of the ‘street game’, football teaching and learning has become more a subject designed for group development rather than one that inspires individualism and enterprise. I became disillusioned with ‘over-organised and unrealistic coaching methods very early in my career. The development of mediocre performance instead of variable playing qualities that utilises individualism and team combination has become a normality in our game. There have been numerous ‘tweakings’ of development methods by our FA as each have failed to produce improved development standards over the years.


There has been some changes to playing numbers through the development periods — these changes have been based on the number of players for games at certain age levels. However, they fail to incorporate the important factor of ‘practical transfer’ – playing what’s been learned.

Game’s, are more about winning than learning throughout the development years and there is limited ‘linkage’ between practice and playing. Our players at all levels display high physical qualities but are limited in individual skills and game understanding. These playing mal-factors derive from a coaching system that has failed to recognise how important it is to ‘practice how you play and play what you’ve practiced’.

The  street ‘practice whilst playing’  phenomenon catered for so much of football’s developmental needs – hours spent practice/playing – realistic playing situations – tight playing areas – varying playing positions – opportunities to use new skills – playing being more important than just winning – hard surfaces meant ‘stand-up’ tackling – variable ball sizes produced touch and control – targets of different types to finish against or through (a pile of bricks or coats for goal posts) – the use of kerbs or wall to play off of or against – to try and fail and try again with mistakes not vilified – refereeing the game yourselves etc. etc.

Our football ‘hierarchy’ will never satisfy the real demands of the game because they do not understand what the game requires in terms of  correct combining of practice with playing. Unless the lost hours spent in the street is recovered the ‘robotics’ we see so much of today will increase in the future. The importance of delivering a credible practice/playing formula that overcomes lost practice time whilst improving playing qualities must become an essential requirement for coaching  if we are to develop players capable of playing the game at the highest levels.

14 thoughts on “From Practice to Playing

  1. Lionel Messi is quite possibly the greatest individualist footballer of all time. However, even he I think should not be exempt from criticism when it is appropriate. I have noticed recently that when he comes inside with the ball from the right, that flank becomes cleared of opponents as they look to stem the greater danger now appearing in the middle. Barcelona then have runners from midfield and defence coming forward into that vacant space created by Messi’s run But very often Messi goes on with the ball at his feet, into the congestion. Sometimes his brilliance gets him through even the heaviest congestion but sometimes it does not and the runner down the right has made his run for nothing. If the opponents counter attack quickly then a hole, left by a forward runner, can be exploited in Barcelona’s defence.
    As he gets older, Messi’s legs will not carry him as well as they have done up until now. I think he may have to adapt his game and release the ball earlier than he has done before, bringing others into play. A number of critics have already observed that Ronaldo has now changed his game, by concentrating on being a finisher of chances. He spends more time at the head of Real Madrid’s attack, constantly on the move in the penalty area so that his goal scoring is as prolific as ever.
    It will be interesting to see if Messi can also change or amend his game style so that he can remain at the top of the game for many years to come.

  2. Hi John, I enjoyed your book and luckily I was fortunate to be coached by you also so was able to experience it first hand. I’m now trying to pass on what I learnt to my sons u9 team. They love just playing the game and not drills so I practice/coach in play as much as possible. Any further recommendations to help them understand at this young age?

  3. Hi John hope your keeping well it’s been a few years, I was at Crystal Palace when you were there the second time how do you think we can get back to the days of self taught ?

  4. Hi Colin. Nice to hear from you. Hope life has been good. I’m getting a bit ‘old’ these days, but still ‘lively’ when it comes to the game of football — showing not playing! In answer to your question about retrieving the days of ‘self-taught’ playing ability; A football vision (how WE should play the game needs to be prescribed and then a realistic ‘development pathway’ must be produced to reach that vision). There needs to be much more emphasis placed on realistic practices that are followed by competitive games that are adjusted to suit the practical work being done. Area sizes – playing numbers – field markings ( to sustain practice ) – targets of various types that are used in practices from junior up to senior levels ……….(from gaps to enter, to areas to reach, to targets to hit (cones), to small goals, to full-size goals. All of these ‘targets’ must comply with the practices being taught to engender a smooth learning ‘pathway’ through the whole development period. The lost PRACTICE WHILST PLAYING time since streets became ‘car parks’ can only be recovered by copying the realistic, playing phenomena the ‘street game’ provided. The practice and playing methodology i produced in 2002 under the title PREMIER SKILLS COACHING, provides a pathway of realistic practice/playing throughout development into senior levels.
    Good luck, keep well and love the game…… although those who have control over it tend to drive one mad at times !

  5. Ironically, considering there is a shortage of talent at the top level, I find it surprising when I see a player with ability plying his trade in the semi-professional game when he clearly has the talent to be playing in the League, albeit most likely in the lower divisions.
    I have just seen Dartford – Chelmsford City in the play-off semi final of National League South. Of their two goals in a 2 – 1 victory, Chelmsford striker, Chris Dickson, laid on the first with a pin point cross and then scored the second himself with an excellent finish following a well timed run. Ten years ago Dickson was playing for Charlton Athletic as well as serving other league clubs. He also had a spell playing abroad and won two international caps for Ghana. Now 32 he still looks well capable of at least playing in League 1 or 2.
    Players of real ability always stand out among the honest toilers and journeymen of non-league football. It seems surprising that they slip under the radar when I would have thought that clubs in the League would have been searching desperately for players of real ability.

  6. Conversely, since the day dot, going back to the Magnificent Magyars in 1953, English football has been shown up time and time again…even during the street era…when admittedly far more ‘individuals’ existed. The foreigners seemed to have MORE players with better balance and clever subtle skills, and in Europe it took a long while for the Brits to master the European Cup. The Scots were first of course, and subsequently English teams had their periods of dominance, with Liverpool being the most outstanding. West Ham United bestrode the Cup Winners Cup playing beautiful against TSV Munich in ’65… harking back of course to Moore, Peters and Hurst, but others shinned also. Unfortunately the Hammers were unable to build on that!

    I just wonder if the Premier league did not have a glut of ‘gifted’ foreigners what its current state it would be?…Logic says ‘down the gurgler’. The FA Coaching Scheme is only getting away with it (failing to produce great individuals) because all seems rosey…yet below the surface ‘all that glisters is not gold’.

    Show me, an English midfield talent like David Silva, or Ozil (when he can be bothered!!). Is their one?

    Clearly, esoecially in their younger years, players need to ‘Practice while Playing’ and v.v…

    The blame MUST BE LAID AT THE FEET OF THE ENGLISH FA: and in any country whereby their FAs slavishly follow the English FA Coaching Scheme …Bloody fools…


  7. Hi all. It’s interesting to watch this present Chelsea team. They are able to switch from possession to penetrative football when necessary. They are always prepared to deliver passes behind opposing defences to players who are also prepared to get onto these deliveries.
    Teaching the game from junior through to senior levels must include a gradual increase in penetrative deliveries and off the ball runs as young players gather football qualities and game understanding. The ability to vary a game’s tactics from possession to penetration requires talented players to play it. QUESTION?…….do we have the coaching and development ,methodology to produce players with the necessary playing intelligence to perform at standards required at top levels ?

  8. Hi John…Regarding your comments on Chelsea, I think that there must be a lot of good coaching going on at this club and not only in the first team. Since 2010, Chelsea have won six out of eight FA Youth Cup competitions. Recently they beat Man City 6-2 in the Final on aggregate. In an interview after the match their coach, Jody Morris, an old player, said that most of the players had been at the club since the age of seven and eight and were eligible for England. Most of the coaching staff in the junior age groups at Chelsea appear to be English and although Antonio Conte brought in assistant coaches from Italy to help him with the first team when he arrived at Stamford Bridge, his number 2 is Englishman Steve Holland. I understand that Steve Holland will leave Chelsea at the end of the season to assist Gareth Southgate full time with the England team. Hopefully this will enable the FA to fully tap into Chelsea’s methodology and approach.

    • Hi Steve. I watched some of the game you mentioned. I am of the opinion that Chelsea youth are a good, solid team but the City squad were very ordinary. During the period of the game I saw there was nobody who looked an outstanding talent. Big, strong and athletic — yes, but creative and individualistic — not really.

  9. Well done John…a simple but brilliant comment…’Switch from possession to penetrative football when necessary.’


    “The present obsession with ball possession that we see so frequently in our game is due I believe to the mis-applied effect of unrealistic statistics. The real reasons for the use of ‘keep-ball’ tactics in the game of football should not be about the number of passes achieved – but the number of penetrations achieved!

    Ball retention in a phase of play must supply two vital playing ingredients: (a) it must deny the opposition the ball and (b) it must create spaces in an opposing defensive system that must be penetrated. During prolonged, passing sequences a team in possession must be fully aware of the tactical reasons already mentioned. Whilst in possession, spaces must be created and recognized in any area of the field in which the ball is retained and all players must be aware of spaces when they become available and importantly, be able to exploit such spaces when they occur.

    Because teams’ tend to retain extra defenders at the back as an overload precaution against opposing attackers, it is in back areas that ball possession is easier to use. As the ball is moved towards the opposition’s end tactical numeracy tends to even before turning more advantageously to opposing defences; accordingly, the ability to retain the ball becomes more difficult as space becomes more congested in mid-field and front thirds.

    Unfortunately, the game in this country has failed to recognize the opportunities that can be forthcoming in attacking play by developing more skilful players for back positions. The overuse of negative passing or long up-field punts by so many of our back players is directly due to their discomfort on the ball. The biggest spaces that provide the best opportunities for positive possession play is occupied by players incapable of exploiting them! The lack of playing ability of those in back positions creates a negative influence on the playing style of those positioned ahead of them – forcing those in mid-field and up front to become ‘fighters and chasers’ when they should be stylish football artists.

    As a result of the poor playing standards of those in back positions, tactical ‘fluidity’ has been suppressed in our game. Rotational movement that would allow forward penetration and improve ball possession is rejected in favour of ‘solid’ systems of play. The over-emphasis on ‘safety first football’ in our game is directly due to skill deficiencies combined with a lack of playing intellect. Passing the ball in a keep-ball sequence looks a ‘painful’ intrusion on the ‘hit and hope’ style of play our players are more used to. There is a reluctance to ‘steady the ship’ and display a creative but ready to strike approach and impatience to get the ball forward too often takes control.

    We must teach our players how to breach opposing defensive ‘shields’ in each of the playing thirds. Throughout the length of the field players must be able to switch from preparation play to penetrative surge when situations occur. Possession play must be seen as the ‘casual draw’ that provides the opportunity to ‘strike’. The ability to keep the ball by ‘bringing extra players to the party’ (overloading) must be an important part of player development in the future; but without also underlining the importance of incisive penetrations as the culmination of keep-ball sequences we will continue to allow statistics and not football logic to determine our football future.”

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