Monthly Archives: November 2013

Not dropped

development centreWhen I was approached by a scout about no.2 son joining his club’s development centre last year, it felt like I was being chatted up. And when his affiliation with that centre was brought to an end last week, it had elements of a relationship break-up.

There was the, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ line. Actually, the coaches blamed, at different times, their club and the FA, while emphasising what fine footballers all the boys were. There was also an equivalent to the cheesy, ‘there’ll always be a place for you in my heart’ line. The boys, you see, weren’t dropped, but were still part of the club and at some time in the future might be asked to play again.

I’m making it sound worse than it was. At the end of the session, the two coaches brought all the under eights and their parents together and explained that the club had decided very recently that the centre should be for 5-7 year olds. Their academy squad was one of the strongest in the region and so the focus would be on the younger age groups. The coaches made a genuine attempt to explain and soften the news, which was appreciated.

No.2 son has built into his identity attendance at the development centre over the last 12 months. Him being cut from it was the eventuality we had been bracing ourselves for almost since it started. The experience (described here) of a teammate of his brother, who lost his love for the game when dropped by a professional club, was the warning.

Perhaps because it wasn’t personal, because the club or the FA were alleged to be ‘to blame’, no.2 son has so far taken the news equably. He went to training with his club team the next morning and played with his usual enjoyment and vigour with me in the garden today. He did try to peel the professional club’s sticker off his bedroom door tonight, which seems a proportionate response.

Looking back on the last 12 months, what to make of no.2 son’s experience at the development centre? In the early weeks, in fact months, I thought it was indifferent. Some of the coaching drills seemed poorly designed for the age-group and no.2 son just didn’t seem to be ‘getting it’. The experience, I had felt, had come a year or so too soon for him.

But over the summer, perhaps because I was missing weeks pursuing cricket duties, I saw real changes to his game. The centre’s focus on passing and movement became an effective counterweight to his natural marauding game. He didn’t shy from using his weaker left-foot and when his club season began he set out to use skills in matches. He won several ‘man of training’ awards and was comfortable and confident with the other boys. That ability to establish himself amongst a group of peers could be the most enduring skill he has developed.

As with every part of being a touchline dad, my feelings are mixed. When preoccupied with wanting the very best for my boy, I regret this experience ending. He progressed when working with expert coaches, alongside the stronger players of other clubs in the region. Back at his club, the playing standard is mixed and his age-group coaches are all in their first or second seasons as volunteers and are struggling to run slick training sessions. Will his development stall and his potential be unrealised in this less rarefied atmosphere?

But I don’t feel like ranting that he has been left on the scrapheap at seven. I just need to look at the example of his older brother, whose potential as a junior footballer was unlocked by dropping to a less competitive standard, where he flourished (see ‘Finding his own feet in football‘).

I am also very aware of his good fortune of having had the opportunity of the last twelve months. A year ago, no.2 son was a strong player compared to his teammates but not outstanding. The very cream had already been tapped up by the local premiership club scouting operations. He was one of a group of boys who might have attracted interest, but most did not. Each of them may feel more aggrieved than he should.

Amongst my varied thoughts is the selfish (or family orientated) relief that his time at the development centre is over. It opens up Friday evening once more. It also resolves a great uncertainty about how long no.2 son would keep going there. My only real criticism of the development centre was the failure ever to explain to us what to expect.

I had a quiet word with no.2 son at bedtime a day after his last session at the development centre. “I didn’t think I could really be a footballer,” he said.

“You are a footballer now,” I tried to reassure him.

“No, a real one – a professional.”

He is probably right. But if he does defy the odds and make it all the way, I fully expect he will have to overcome many greater setbacks than being (not) dropped by his first development centre.



Filed under coach says.., individual development, scouted

Football without a ball


Football without a ball so no one keeps score. One way to do it I guess. Your thoughts?

This appeared on my twitter timeline not long ago. The piece it linked to explained that many Canadian soccer associations had eliminated the concept of keeping score due to the growing concern over the effects of competition on junior sport. One association had gone a step further and removed the ball:

We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it’s about using your imagination. If you imagine you’re good at soccer, then, you are.

And it does make you think. What sort of inventive tricks, formations and interchanges kids could come up with if they didn’t have to worry about a ball. Wouldn’t it be liberating to run around a field with a group of friends, conjuring a game from thin air. Wouldn’t it?

It was, of course, a hoax. Or, more accurately, satire – created by Canadian comedians behind the radio show and website ‘This is That’. It had enough of a ring of truth to it to convince one English coach on twitter, however.

A joke is a joke and perhaps it would be best left there. But the idea of junior football being a subject for satire has intrigued me. I don’t think it is unprecedented for the culture of junior sport to be played for humour. The Fast Show had a series of sketches about Competitive Dad and his put upon kids playing family games of monopoly, arm-wrestling, cricket, etc. There have been portrayals of coaches who take themselves and the sport too seriously, none more enduring that Brian Glover’s bullying, delusional PE teacher in Kes who is coach, referee and wannabe-Bobby Charlton rolled into one.

This target of the Canadian satire is different, though. It’s not inappropriately macho behaviour; it’s the opposite. It’s the efforts of well meaning coaches and organisers to make junior sport a better experience by removing the sting of competition. Playing without a ball is a fiction, but not keeping score is real in Canada, the UK and probably many other places; and it’s that which gives the satirical piece its hook back into the real world.

I am interested in what it means for modern junior coaching practices to be satirised. Does it mean those practices are wrong and those that pursue them are laughable? Definitely not: anything that is new or counter-intuitive is easy-pickings for satire. Well-intentioned people, trying something different and harmless for the betterment of children deserve respect not mockery.

I think it means that the proponents of junior football for fun have yet to win the argument. There remains a dominant view that junior football is adult football played by smaller people. Opinions polarise around this issue. The football establishment seems to be on the reformist side of the argument wanting to make the junior game about participation and the development of skills and social awareness. They have not yet won over their constituency of parents and football fans. Until this balance shifts, any innovation, any deviation from the established pattern of matches, results, leagues, cups and champions will be viewed with suspicion and subject to satire.

What will it take for the popular view to come into line with that of the experts?  Gary Lineker wrote recently about the corrupting influence of pushy parents. Perhaps the public support of high profile football personalities for junior football being played for its own sake, not for results and league positions will play a part. It might take the evidence of better adult players graduating from a system that values play more than victory. But perhaps that evidence is already available from societies such as Holland, without influencing attitudes elsewhere. It might just be when demand from children to play for fun outstrips the demand for competition at a young age.

I suspect, however, it will happen when the parents of a future generation hark back to their youth as footballers and talk about the fun they had, not that they played in a league with points, winners and losers and that it did them no harm. If you’re a coach or junior organiser who just wants to ‘let them play’, you need to accept you’re in a long game and there’s a fair chance that there are people who will want to satirise what you do for a few years yet.


Filed under sport gives us.., winning and losing