When 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.