Category Archives: scouted

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.

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Development Centre

6.30 on a Friday evening. Usually the time I am coaxing the kids, tired and grumpy from the week’s exertions or dizzy at their weekend liberation, towards the bath. This winter, it’s been the time that no.2 son and I strike out to the pro-club development centre, for which he was scouted.

“Off to [pro-club town name]”, we say with a carefree disregard for geography. Our actual destination is a municipal leisure complex 30 minutes drive across town from us and 40 miles distant from the pro-club’s home.

No.2 son is proud to have been selected for this centre. It has, I fear, become part of his identity. At school and at his junior club he keeps company with lads playing at five other local pro-club set-ups and this gives him an equality of arms in the race to footballing respect.

He has enjoyed attending the sessions. At first he was nervous about which kit to wear, but quickly reassured himself that he looked the part. He has tried hard every week, tiring himself so as to almost fall asleep on the car journey home. He recognises the training is different to that at his junior club, explaining that, there, all the players are good.

My impression of the development centre is mixed. I was surprised at its informality – no registration, declaration of medical condition or emergency contact number records (until the new head coach took over last month). Between being chatted up by the scout and a car park lecture from the new head coach, there’s been no communication with parents about what to expect or what the aims of the sessions are.

The coaching drills have not always been well-adapted for the age group. One pass and move drill was never successfully fulfilled as the boys couldn’t follow the movement instructions and their passes were too wayward and control too sketchy for a complete cycle of passes to be completed. One week, in the small sided game, the coach kept exhorting the boys to ‘relax’. I could understand what he meant, but couldn’t think of anything six and seven year olds playing football were less likely to do.

I have been a little more anxious on the touchline than normal. I want no.2 son to do himself justice and have always been aware that sooner or later selection decisions will be made. I’ve found myself turning from the play to the coach to check whether any good contribution from no.2 son has been noted. Time and again, it seems to me, the coach has turned away at the moment my lad performs.

Generally, though, the training has not been much of a spectacle. The weather has been close to freezing every night, so if I’m accompanied by no.1 son we retreat to a distant corner of the AstroTurf pitch and have our own kick about.

I have not seen any evidence yet that the training has benefited no.2 son’s game. There has been a focus on passing, which is at odds with the philosophy of his junior club where parents are warned against the sin of shouting ‘pass’ at boys who are being coached to be confident on the ball. It’s also at odds with no.2 son’s own particular marauding style of play. The passing drills could have been and may still be a perfect complement to his natural approach, but I feel the experience has come a little too early for no.2 son to make the most of.

In the small sided games, more structure is expected of the players than no.2 son is used to. In one match, he was told seven times by the coach to play on the right, not to gravitate to his preferred central position.

Despite my ambivalence, it’s been a positive experience for no.2 son as he has  held his own in more challenging company. It won’t be long until we know if he will be invited to carry on. I am worried that no.2 son will take badly a decision to stand him down. If it happens that way we will do our best to salve his injured pride and I’ll be back on Friday bath time duty.

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The pick-up line

In the five school years separating my two sons, the scouting efforts of our local professional clubs have intensified. As an under six and under seven, no.2 son’s ‘friendly’ competitions have been frequented by sharp-eyed scouts. His club has fulfilled invitations to several professional clubs’ academies for ‘extra training’. While this training takes place, a word in the ear of the junior club coach would lead to a parent being ushered into a room to discuss their lad joining the academy structure.

Five years before, only a handful of no.1 son’s teammates were scouted. Most notoriously, one of his friends was scouted and booted with a long-lasting detrimental affect on his confidence and interest in the game. Adjacency to that experience had set me against the scouting enterprise for boys of six, seven and eight.

Last year I found myself regularly made awkward by other Dads on the touchline (including Obsessed Dad) asking if no.2 son had ‘been picked up yet’. As more boys in his junior club’s squad were invited to join pro clubs’ ranks and outreach centres, what had seemed unlikely began to be a possibility. I discussed this potential quandary with Mrs TL. We agreed that if it were to happen and we were happy with the arrangements, we would ask no.2 son; if he wanted to try it out, we would not deny him the opportunity.

The approach, when it came, was so similar to the fixing of a teen’s first date. The enquiry about whether we wanted to go out on Friday night came not from our suitor, but via somebody else – a Dad whose son was already involved. I asked that the scout call me direct. Unfortunately, this encounter was in front of no.2 son, meaning all my ‘mates’ wanted to know every hour whether the date was on.

After four days and no phone call, the coach came up to me at a club training session. He chatted me up: called me by my first name; said no.2 son must be attracting a lot of interest; reassured me about the development centre he was being invited to join. I mentioned the bad experience of my older son’s teammate. The coach was straight: the development centre’s role was to find the most talented kids. At some point, when they had had the opportunity to impress, some would be dropped. That was the purpose of the enterprise.

I presented it to no.2 son as an invitation to train with a different club, that different boys would be invited at different times and it didn’t matter if he only went for a few weeks. He had his own take on it. When we talked about New Year’s resolutions, he said his was not to be dropped by the pro club.

So, Friday nights during the winter, I have been driving across town to a floodlit astroturf pitch. I admit I am proud that no.2 son has been selected. Like so much else in following my kids’ sports, it creates conflicting feelings. I continue to wonder what pro clubs want with six and seven year olds.

There’s a new head coach in charge of the development centre. Last Friday, most of the parents of the eight year olds were told, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ The word is that the six and seven year olds are next. I’ll blog again about this – perhaps the teen dating analogy will persist and it will be like being dumped by a first girlfriend – and also about the development centre itself, from my perspective on the touchline and what I understand it means to my son.

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Scouted and booted

Young H was the pick of the crop in no.1 son’s cohort of starter footballers (aged 5). He ran with the fluency of an older boy when most of his peers still had some infant malcoordination. And he was skilful on the ball and brave in the tackle. H was the player all the boys wanted on their team. On occasions, he was traded up a year to stiffen one of our club’s older teams.

When H was aged 6, a scout from a local premiership club approached the coach, who chatted to H’s Dad. Burying his animosity towards the premiership club – rivals to the team he and H supported – his Dad excitedly accepted the opportunity to train with the pro club’s academy. For seven or eight months, H attended this extra coaching and his game progressed.

One Saturday morning, H’s Dad confided that, although the affiliation with the pro club was going well, he feared it would soon end. H was a very quiet lad, without any of the bravado of many as talented as he. The club had told the parents that in the New Year they would select the boys they would continue to coach. The decision would not be based upon talent, as that was a given, but on attitude. H’s Dad was right, as his son’s diffidence told against him and he was cut.

Parenting other people’s children is (hypothetically) easy – it’s your own that are problematic. H’s Dad made the decision not to tell his son outright what had happened, but let him come to understand by no longer going to training on Friday nights.

H came to understand and the effect was upsetting. Not only was his confidence burst, but any joy he had taken from football disappeared. The diffidence of his personality became the way he played. At the stage the team was starting regular competitive matches he slipped out of the starting line-up. He moped and looked uncomfortable and unwilling. His play went backwards more rapidly than it had developed when expertly coached.

His Dad offered him the chance to stop playing. H said he still wanted to come and for months after being booted from the premiership training squad, watching him beside his Dad could be excruciating – although his Dad contained his own disappointment, which was genuinely at watching his son seem so unhappy at play. Away from football, he became passionate about skateboarding and this, his Dad reported, helped him regain some confidence.

One day in a match, maybe two years after the booting, H collected the ball close to the half-way line. Like Michael Owen against Argentina, he glided past three defenders and shot cleanly past the keeper. It was a breath-taking goal. Daft as it may sound when writing of a boy still so young, but the spirit of the five year-old had returned.

H’s Dad wasn’t at that game. It would be a cheap psychological point to link the two, which I sincerely believe would be false.

H is still a first team player at the club. He’s really very good, but like so many kids, the outstanding ability he showed when very young hasn’t persisted. What’s sad is that there is such a clear cause to that uneven development. Expectations raised at a young age, then quickly dashed. And what do professional clubs want with six year olds anyway?

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