Where footballers are made

street football

Football every corner. Photo by Zlatko Vickovic, http://www.flickr.com

Identifying talent at a young age is a very difficult thing to do. Even when it is spotted successfully, it is often dulled rather than nurtured, resulting in many talented youngsters leaving their sports, burn-out and disillusioned. This argument is eloquently elaborated by Ed Smith in his latest piece in the NewStatesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/sport/2017/03/praise-late-developer

A former England cricketer, Smith is a consistently thoughtful and thought-provoking columnist, connecting an insider’s sporting perspective to broader themes beyond the field of play. ‘In praise of the late developer’ he calls into question a culture in the UK that fast-tracks those who display the most obvious strengths from an early age.

Often, ‘strength’ is the key word. The biggest, strongest and quickest kids commandeer attention (presumably explaining the career of Carlton Palmer); if you’re small, then it helps to be as good as Messi or Xavi.

Smith notes that ‘children don’t develop in a linear way,’ including physically, and early judgements may thus turn out to be erroneous ones. He also points to the ‘value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age. ’ A great illustration of this point is provided by the Murray brothers.

Both were encouraged to participate in many different sports as kids – Andy is an excellent footballer and was invited to train with Rangers; Jamie apparently has a single figure handicap in golf. Eventually they focused almost exclusively on tennis but the range of skills they developed from other sports undoubtedly provided a transferable benefit onto the court.

Judy Murray has an excellent initiative Set4Sport, which draws upon her experiences of making up games for her children to play in the garden, designed to develop their motor skills and coordination.

I presume that Andy and Jamie had regular and intensive tennis lessons but they also appear to have spent a lot of time ‘playing’ (in the broadest sense of that term) in a relatively unstructured and unsupervised way.

British, and especially Scottish, footballers are less skilled today than they once were. This seems strange given the fact that they spend more time under the supervision of better qualified coaches than previous generations did. So why have skill levels deteriorated rather than improved?

I think Johan Cryuff had the answer worked out a long time ago: “when I was young, I trained a few hours a week at Ajax, but I played a few hours everyday on the street, so where do you think I learned to play?”

The streets taught the legendary Cryuff more than Ajax did; just as they have long proved to be a better academy than that of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Celtic or Rangers. Even, class of ’92 included, than Manchester United.

However much money clubs spend on facilities, coaches, sports scientists and data analysis, they have so far been unable to replicate the conditions of the street. Academies, in general, do not produce what we might call street footballers.

It is not only a question of time spent in contact with a ball, although that’s surely a huge factor. It’s also playing 15-a-side in cramped spaces, on uneven surfaces, with a ball that’s long ceased to perform anything resembling a bounce.

There has been huge investment in sports facilities in recent years, and it’s a worthy use of money, but there’s little evidence to suggest that a lack of such facilities hampers the skills development of British footballers or other athletes.

Of course the biggest change, and perhaps the biggest problem, since even my youth is that kids have been forced to surrender the streets. I live in the centre of a large city and my kids have never played anything on a street or road, nor are they likely to.

Street football didn’t come with coaches. There were certainly no refs. It was learning by tinkering, trial and error, and attempts to emulate the abilities of older children. Street football tended to have a wide age-range participating in any particular game. Age-levels don’t matter so much when you’re simply trying to find enough players for a viable game. 3 v 3 is a tough shift.

Late bloomers, Smith suggests, tend to retain ‘the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.’ The same is true of those who honed their craft in the unforgiving environment of the streets. The only data analysis that was conducted then was a most cursory effort at keeping score; that effort generally proved too great once it got into double figures and all games were eventually settled by the “next goal wins” criterion anyway.

Again, Cryuff foresaw the dangers: “I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer stats. Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities of technique and vision are not detectable by a computer.”

I’m not arguing that there’s no value in data analysis, it can surely complement the judgements and observations that scouts make with the naked eye. But as with any system of measurement, much gets left out. The important thing is not to make height and weight measurements crucial to determining the prospects of youngsters. Above all, retain, as Smith does, a judicious distrust of ‘the system.’

‘Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.’

As I’ve written before, don’t be that Dad. Let the kids play. Keeping them out of the system may ultimately keep them in the game.

Eventually, if they are to make it, they will need to be coached, analysed, and monitored. But before then, let them find their own way, while making their own mistakes, with enough guidance to keep them from going too far astray.

The artificial grass of the academies produces a true bounce all year round, but it can also produce an artificial development; the difference between players who have been taught how to play football and those who learned how to be footballers.

Football, skeleton and the sports personality of the year

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan www.flickr.com

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan

The shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year has just been announced (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/sports-personality/30158881) and I hardly recognise anyone on it. I must admit that listening to the radio provides a similar experience for me these days. It seems I’m not quite as up on my gymnastics, swimming and skeleton as I might be (skeleton is one of the many strange events in the Winter Olympics – it’s the one where they hurtle down the slope of ice head-first on what looks like an elevated tea tray).

There’s only one footballer on the list: Gareth Bale. I was very surprised to learn that Bale is the first footballer to be shortlisted since 2009 when Ryan Giggs was not only nominated but won. I’m not sure if other countries have a similar event but I can’t imagine many places in which the national sport would be so significantly under represented. Indeed, Giggs is the only footballer to claim the award in the past decade.

I do not expect Bale to add to football’s tally. I think Rory McIlroy may be the early favourite while Lewis Hamilton’s world title triumph at the weekend may make him a contender. I’m not sure how big a following skeleton has in the UK so I probably wouldn’t put too much money on Lizzy Yarnold.

Last year’s winner of the Sports Personality award was Andy Murray (and a very worthy winner he was after his Wimbledon triumph) but he is not shortlisted this year so the trophy will pass to another sport.

Bale has certainly had a magnificent year. He’s settled incredibly well in Spain and looks every inch a star at Real Madrid, a club where Galacticos are expected to shine very brightly. For a sense of how good a player Bale is, just look at what’s happened to Spurs since he left.

He’s produced excellent performances for Wales too of late and I hope he gets the opportunity to display his talent at a World Cup or European Championship.

There’s been some speculation that Bale may return to England in the summer, possibly to Manchester United. He would be a great signing for Van Gaal but I can’t see him wanting to leave Madrid so soon and it would seem strange to me if Real were tempted to part with him at this stage.

The sale of Bale would surprise me but even more surprising was the discovery that tickets for the Sports Personality event, being hosted in Scotland this year, are priced at £45, £55 and £60 plus a 10% service charge. Who on earth is paying that much to go and watch Gary Lineker play some video highlights and hand over a few awards?

It would cost less to watch Bale play at the Bernabeu.

Is football too insular?



Clive Woodward. Photo by Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, http://www.flickr.com

Last month, Europe retained the Ryder Cup. Captain Paul McGinley has been lauded for his leadership, attention to detail, and decision making. One of the things he decided to do was have Alex Ferguson address the team on the eve of the tournament. McGinely didn’t choose Ferguson just because of his legendary powers of inspiration and motivation; he wanted him to talk about something specific: how to deal with being heavy favourites.

By consulting Ferguson, McGinley showed a willingness and ability to look beyond golf to learn lessons and find ways to help his team. He also apparently referenced Team Sky in the Tour de France when talking to his players about how the team would function. My question today is whether, unlike McGinley, football is rather too insular when it comes to learning from other sports? I think it is.

Possibly the most famous example of a football club looking to another sport was the appointment of Clive Woodward as performance director at Southampton in the summer of 2005. Two summer’s earlier Woodward had coached England’s rugby union side to victory in the Rugby World Cup. Like McGinley, Woodward was revered for his attention to detail and desire to learn.

The reaction to Woodward’s appointment was hardly surprising. Henry Winter wrote in The Telegraph: ‘Woodward should go away, avoid interviews, acquire all his coaching badges, learn the ropes and then apply to work as a youth-team coach somewhere.’ Winter seemed miffed that Woodward hadn’t ‘paid his dues’ in football.

What a silly and ignorant attitude. Woodward didn’t pay his dues in football but he certainly paid his coaching dues and acquired outstanding credentials along with a world cup winner’s medal. Winter hailed Sam Allardyce as someone who’s made it to top level management in football by paying the appropriate dues, even driving the ‘Fiesta van’ when youth team coach at Preston North End. Such experiences, Winter writes, ‘cannot be found in the manuals Woodward pores over.’

True – assuming of course that Woodward wasn’t reading a manual on Fiesta vans – but also entirely incidental to being a top class coach. I have a lot of respect for Big Sam and I actually doubt he would share Winter’s attitude. Allardyce has always been a keen student of the game and of sport science. West Ham fans however may be forgiven for occasionally wondering if he wouldn’t be better off coaching a rugby team.

In the same article Winter refers to Mourinho’s apprenticeship under Robson and van Gaal and the information he ‘absorbed’ from them. As apprenticeships go, the special one got a special one but has there ever been a football manager that did more poring over manuals than Mourinho? He seems to have been quite successful.

A superb insight into Woodward’s methods was provided in an interview he gave to the Guardian just before this summer’s World Cup. The subject was penalties; England travelled to Brazil having lost on penalties in six of the past 10 major finals that they had played in.

Woodward recalled an exercise he did with Southampton’s academy players. He asked them to take 10 penalties each. There was no goalkeeper, just two ropes hanging down from the crossbar around three feet inside each post and the aim was to hit as many penalties as possible between the rope and the post. All of the penalties were filmed by four different cameras.

The results were not good. A couple of days later the players were called to a video analysis session. They were shown their ten penalties and for most, each time their run-up, foot position or body shape was different. “Everything was different,” Woodward remembered, “but to kick a stationary ball, you need to have the same routine, to do the same things over and over again.”

The master of that as Woodward pointed out is Jonny Wilkinson, who would spend hours practising, working on his foot position and honing his technique to withstand the most intense pressure. Footballers should do the same and it’s clear that some do but by no means all. The responsibility also rests with the coach though.

According to Woodward: “There’s a big body of football people who are terrified of it, who are saying: ‘You can’t coach this.’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! I think the FA should employ a specialist penalty-kicking coach. And listen: it wouldn’t just make them better penalty-takers but better footballers. The whole team should be doing it. This is about striking a dead ball, but if you strike a dead ball well, you will be able to strike a moving ball better too.”

Woodward lasted just over a year at Southampton and it seems he and his methods were never exactly embraced by the various managers and coaching staff that worked alongside him. Of course the concept of specialist coaches is not entirely absent in football, it’s increasingly common these days to find coaches employed to work specifically with the strikers or defenders and the position of goalkeeping coach has been around for a long time.

I would argue though that the level of such specialisation in football is not as far advanced as it is in other sports such as rugby or American football. One interesting exception is the case of Gianni Vio in Italy. Until a few years ago, Vio worked in a bank but in his spare time he wrote a website devoted to strategies for set-pieces. Eventually he wrote a book as well.

Former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga discovered Vio as a result of the book and got in touch. At the time Zenga was coaching Red Star Belgrade. He invited Vio onto his coaching staff in a part-time role. Zenga took Vio with him when he returned to Italy to coach Catania. From there, Vio went to Fiorentina and this summer moved to Milan.

Zenga says of Vio: “He isn’t just a free-kick wizard. He is like having a 15- or 20-goal striker in the team. A 20-goal a season player can get injured. He can get suspended. But there are set-pieces in every game. Always. And he knows how to exploit them best.” Woodward would surely approve.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this innovation happened abroad rather than in British football. Arsene Wenger practically professionalised English football when he joined Arsenal in the mid-1990s and even today it seems as though many British footballers fail to appreciate the level of sacrifice required to make the most of their careers as professional athletes.

There’s a lot that British players can learn (and indeed have learned) from their foreign peers but equally there’s a lot that could be learned from other athletes. Anyone who has watched Andy Murray train can only be impressed at his utter devotion to being the best he can possibly be and his willingness to consult various specialists to improve all aspects of his physical and mental performance. I’m sure footballers would also have benefited from watching Woodward put Jonny Wilkinson and co through their paces in preparation for the Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that could come of football shedding its insularity would be in the development of kids and young players. There’s so much that kids can learn by playing a wide variety of sports from an early age. The best advocate of this is Judy Murray.

She has a wonderful initiative – Set 4 Sport – which is all about helping parents teach kids agility, balance and coordination, as well as passing and catching, through fun games. Visit the site at www.set4sport.com where you can find out more and download a free book.

The programme was born in Judy’s back garden as she tried to entertain and encourage her sons. As she says: “They went on to become pretty decent tennis players as you know, but Jamie has a 3 handicap at golf and Andy once trialled with Glasgow Rangers.”

So if you have high hopes for your child excelling at football then of course give them a ball and let them play freely and naturally. But don’t just stop there. Wouldn’t it be an exceptional footballer that had the strength of a gymnast, the balance of a boxer, the bravery of a rugby player, the mental strength of a golfer or a tennis player, and the analytical mind of a chess player?

Oh, and one more thing. Make sure they practise penalties.