Youth Development, the World Cup & England’s Future

by Back Page Football

England are out (again) and the inquest has begun (again).

So do we blame the manager for his tactics or the players for lacking ‘passion’ or skill? Do we blame the media for pressuring the team? Or should we just blame the Germans for being better than us?

Whilst searching for answers let’s consider whether there might be a more fundamental reason for England’s repeated failure to succeed at the highest level for 44 years (and counting).

I suggest that a number of elements in England’s youth development system are having irrevocably negative consequences on the senior side.

Frank Lampard of England appeals after his goal is disallowed during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Germany and England at Free State Stadium on June 27, 2010 in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

England’s rightful place?

But in any discussion about failure, we have to start by asking, why – besides fanatical nationalism – do we expect England to win tournaments in the first place? Is it realistic to believe that England ought to do better than 1 semi-final in 40 years?

By any measure, I believe we should be competitive with our more successful European counterparts Germany, France, Italy and Holland:

If we start with the crudest measure of ‘raw material’, England’s population is around 51 million. Germany’s at 82 million, France’s at 65 million and Italy at 60 million are all significantly higher so perhaps this offers a straightforward explanation for their apparent ability to consistently find more quality players.

Indeed Germany has almost four times as many football players than either England, France or Italy:

England | 4,164,110
Germany | 16,308,946
France | 4,190,040
Italy | 4,980,296

Source: FIFA Big Count Summary Report

But sheer player numbers cannot adequately explain the relative success of the European nations. And if population was the sole deciding factor, China (26m players) and India (20m players) would be world forces. In fact, of the world’s 3 largest populations only USA (24m players) consistently qualify for the World Cup.

The Netherlands has only 1.7m footballers (from a population of just 16m) but since 1974 they have progressed to two World Cup finals, a further semi-final, four European Championships semi-finals and won the Euros. In the same timeframe England have only reached 1 semi-final in either competition.

France and Italy, countries with almost identical numbers of players to England have both won the World Cup once and been losing finalists once in the last 5 tournaments.

These countries have similar climate, similar genetics, similar culture, similar wealth and even similar football league structures to England. So what are the differences that propel their national sides deep into tournaments where England flounder?

Grassroots Coaching

There is a huge developmental window of opportunity from the ages of 2-12 during which time 95% of a brain’s movement patterns will have been imprinted. It’s possible to learn new skills after this stage, but the time to internalise them gets ever longer.

It’s therefore obvious that to develop footballers with great touch it would be advantageous to train them properly from the earliest possible age and ingrain the correct ball-caressing technique before they get to secondary school.

Unfortunately the responsibility for coaching at this most critical stage falls upon the least qualified of coaches, those at grassroots clubs.

I’m a grassroots coach myself and there are, undoubtedly, a host of noble people who volunteer there time to train their players and organise matches. But the truth is, the majority of grassroots coaching in England is abysmal.

Any grassroots coach who earns their Level 2 Certificate in Coaching Football is in the tiny majority – the (vast, vast) majority, sadly, are still unqualified parents. Head out to any playing field on a weekend morning and you’ll spot these coaching oafs; truly believing that an U7′s win record is indicative of coach quality and mindlessly repeating retarded TV pundit tactical analysis after their mini-soccer games.

The dearth of top coaches in England is terrifying. According to UEFA, “there are only 2,769 English coaches holding Uefa’s B, A and Pro badges, its top qualifications.” In comparison “Spain has produced 23,995, Italy 29,420, Germany 34,970 and France 17,588.” Source: The Guardian

The consequence of this dramatic difference isn’t felt at Academy level, where the UEFA ‘B’ licence is generally the minimum standard for even a part-time coach. The shortfall is felt at grassroots where parents and players may have no other choice but to follow instruction from a coach who has barely kicked a ball in his life.

Wayne Rooney of England reacts during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Germany and England at Free State Stadium on June 27, 2010 in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

In France the municipal government funds professional football coaches to work with all the junior clubs in their local area. In Spain every town and village has a centrally-funded deportivo (literally, sports club) where young people can play football, basketball, tennis, volleyball and more under the supervision of highly trained coaches.

In England kids get changed in the back of their Dad’s muddy car and run onto a bobbly pitch where somebody else’s Dad shouts at them for an hour.

It’s little surprise that without ready access to expert coaches, millions of players are passing through their developmental window without being shown how to properly pass, receive, dribble or strike a football.

I’ve recently spoken to George Burley, Iain Dowie, Graham Taylor and Peter Taylor who’ve lamented that young footballers don’t play in the streets of England anymore. Instead it has become the coaches’ responsibility to provide an environment in which players can get quality time with a ball, have the freedom to experiment and to practice their skills.

Grassroots coach education needs to see a massive increase in funding. When you raise the base of a pyramid the peak gets higher too. But, unfortunately, without incentives to get qualified, very few grassroots coaches are willing to fork out their own money and take time off work to get their coaching badges.

Academy Coaching

Rising from the mini-soccer maelstrom, the most talented players in the English grassroots game are invited to train at a local professional club’s Academy or Centre of Excellence.

This is great if you’re a young footballer lucky enough to live in London (where you can go to Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, West Ham, Fulham, Watford et al) or the North West (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton, Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley etc) but it’s not so inspiring if you happen to live in the South-West (erm, none).

It’s also not that great if you actually enjoy football. Once you’re in an academy there won’t be much playing it.

It seems an obvious truism to say that the time spent practicing something is directly correlated to how good at that thing somebody will be, but in most cases players will see a dramatic reduction in their training time as soon as they join an academy.

Between the ages of 8-14 – remember the development window? – academies average 2-4 hours of contact time a week, and most require that their players avoid also playing for their grassroots clubs or school teams as a precaution against… actually I don’t know if it’s injury, conflicting training styles or something else. A huge fear of ‘overtraining’ is prevalent throughout our elite youth development institutions.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Bayer Leverkusen are training their youth players for 18 hours a week. In Amsterdam, Ajax see their players every day. In Brazil, 3000 professionals live at their clubs, eating, sleeping, learning and – crucially – training with their teammates every day of the week.

Geoff Colvin’s ‘Talent Is Overrated’ (and subsequently Dan Coyle’s ‘The Talent Code’ and Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’) highlights the recurring number of 10,000 hours which world-class performers seem to have clocked-up during their developmental years. Time and again, the amount of quality practice is seen to be more critical in distinguishing top performers than any other factor of wealth, genetics or ‘natural talent’.

It’s worth stating again; the key ingredient in creating great footballers is top quality practice and lots of it.

First Team Opportunities

An argument which has cropped up again and again is the ‘foreigners problem’. We are developing great young players but they aren’t getting the opportunity to finish their football education in the first team, because Premier League teams prefer to import players.

A simple look at the percentages of foreign players in the English Premier League (59%) and that in Germany (50%), Holland (39%), Spain (38%) France (34%) and Italy (30%) seems to bear this out. Soccer Europe

But these figures offer a snapshot of the English Premier League as the world’s wealthiest division, whose clubs can take their pick of the world’s talent. The question needs to be why are the foreign players being picked ahead of their English equivalents?

Lukas Podolski of Germany is congratulated by team mates after scoring the second goal for his team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Germany and England at Free State Stadium on June 27, 2010 in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

There’s little doubt that clubs would love to bring local players through their academies and into their first teams.

They invest millions of pounds in youth development every year with the hope that they will find the next Messi, Ronaldo or Rooney on their doorstep and save themselves a wad (or turn a nice profit). With questions of fan loyalty under foreign ownership, it is an added boon that playing local lads on a Saturday also reinforces the strained links to their hometown communities.

But there seems to be a repeated failure to graduate all but the most exceptional youth players, and there is good reason to believe that the limited options for 18-21 year old footballers is one reason for this.

Whilst the brain is almost completely developed by the end of high school, the body can continue to mature until 22 (or even older). Oftentimes skilful players dismissed for their stature at 17 and 18 will strengthen sufficiently in the following years to a level where they can compete with the earlier developers and even with the bigger, tougher professionals.

In fact these players will frequently have developed excellent ball control, balance and poise as coping mechanisms for playing with the stronger players around them. When they catch up physically they can be much more effective than the players who have always been able to bully their way around the football pitch.

Unfortunately an under-developed 18 year old has very few options at the end of his youth career. If he isn’t left to rot in the awful reserve league with the old and the lame, he might find himself shipped out to the awful lower leagues (with the old and the lame).

There, everything he’s been taught about ball retention, running at defenders and imaginative play will be kicked out of him by his resentful opponents or bullied out of him by his manager – panic-stricken at the thought of a relegation battle that could see his club go bust.

Perhaps, instead there’s a role for a dedicated U21 league (tied into University football so that the kids that don’t make it have something worthwhile to fall into?) or for clubs to operate full-fledged ‘B’ teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona do in the Spanish second division.

In Brazil, scholars frequently sign small contracts which keeps them in the youth development system up to the age of 22 – and it’s no coincidence that many Brazilian superstars have break out seasons in their early-twenties, whilst so many English ‘wonder kids’ at 18 look distinctly average a few years later.

Time will tell, but a side-effect of this new austere age may well be that it becomes more affordable for clubs to retain talented prospects until 21, or older, than to import a ready made foreign player.

Some Solutions?

Now, it’s all very well complaining about something, but it’s only useful if alternatives are suggested. So here are a few ideas which might give us more reason to be optimistic about the future of English football.

The FA have just released ‘The Future Game’ document which lays out their vision for developing elite youth players over the next 10 years. It has been written after consultation with hundreds of academy coaches as well as physical and psychological development specialists.

‘The Future Game’ offers a clear view of what technical, physical and mental attributes we need to give young footballers if they are to perform at the top level and, ultimately, represent England in major tournaments.

For a long time self-interest has dominated the academy system and the national game has suffered as a result. But now the opportunity is there to sing from the same hymn sheet and create a consensus about the style of play, qualities of player and the training methods which will produce the best possible results in the future.

Another core element of The FA’s youth strategy is the much-delayed opening of a National Football Centre. Once this facility is completed it will be used to bring the most gifted players at every age group together for more intense competition and coaching. By combining players from different clubs in this way they will push each other further and when it comes to represent England the youngsters will already know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and playing style.

http://www.leisureopportunities.co.uk/images/211010-fa.jpgBoth ‘The Future Game’ and the National Football Centre are, I believe, significant steps in the right direction. We should hope that, in the clamour to find scapegoats after England’s World Cup humiliation, we don’t throw out Trevor Brooking’s babies with the bath water. There is an acknowledgement at The FA that previous systems have not worked and a genuine attempt to modernise the youth development system is underway. Their new strategy will take time to produce results on the international stage.

However, heavy investment is urgently needed in grassroots facilities. At the very least every player should have a decent pitch to play on – this would end the excuses offered for long-ball football in a stroke – and reasonable changing facilities where they can adequately prepare and discuss their matches with their coach.

Even more critically, we need to invest in better coaching. I know hundreds of grassroots coaches who would sign-up for Level 2 and UEFA ‘B’ licence courses tomorrow if places were made available to them. By offering funding options, and running many more courses, The FA could rapidly create a broad base of UEFA-qualified coaches and disperse them amongst schools and junior clubs to pass on good practice.

Once good coaching was more accessible, The FA can also make coaching more difficult by requiring more stringent tests for Level 2 qualifications (and weed out the poor coaches) before awarding clubs Charter Standard status.

With more qualified coaches in more places, working to a central template of player development, there can be greater communication between players, parents, junior clubs, schools and academies (and less reason for academy coaches to object to players training elsewhere). This would increase the number of training hours and lift young footballers closer to the 10,000 hour target.

Pavl Williams, Better Football.

17 Responses

  1. Eamonn Power Eamonn Power says:

    Really good article, I’ve long thought that the problems in the english game are so deeply ingrained that there may be very little hope in eradicating them and this article serves only to compound my opinion.

    I particularly liked the piece on grassroots coaching, the stats about the number of qualified coaches are incredibly telling. Too many “have a go” coaches are involved at this level and this is where players are exposed to the “get it up them” school of thought where neat passing and ball control are secondary priorities to strength and tackling. Players may be young at this level, but certainly not to young to avoid picking up bad habits that will stay with them.

    1. Thanks for your comments Eamonn, I completely agree with you.

      It would be interested to see what would happen if the balance was flipped right around so that all the current academy coaches worked exclusively with 3-9 year old grassroots players and older players just played small-sided games amongst themselves for 3-4 hours a week?

      I’d hazard a guess that the quality of player at the end would be as good or better than we’re currently producing simply because the mechanics were instilled correctly in the first place!

  2. Kevin says:

    Great article. I agree that England’s problem lie at grass roots level. There is no structure to the way they play. England has to get back to playing for the love of the game. I found these great videos on YouTube of kids doing these incredible street skills. Check out http://www.youtube.com/weareupc. They’re brilliant.

  3. andy says:

    Counldn’t agree more grass roots is the problem + living in area without big clubs.My son is 11 he was lucky to be offered a place at leicester acadamy in our town which had been set up by the council free of charge along with leicester.They would train once a week and during the holidays would be taken to leicester to be assessed the coaching was excellent and free they released him at 9.The problem now is he loved the coaching he received he has been offered other places but these come with a cost and transport problems.He has a level 2 coach at his club and they are fa charted they train 3 times a week but I refuse to take him on the 3rd occasion as this is just running 11 year olds for an hour without a ball for fitness which I don’t agree with.I also tried to get him involed in futsal but noone is intrested in my area and again would have to travel.Grassroots is where the money should be going 11 year olds playing on full size pitches with full size goals is a disgrace and kids are giving up football at a very young age already.

  4. Kevin Driscoll says:

    As an American who believed that a move to England would one day be necessary to share my passion for football on the grand stage, it surprises me how strikingly similar the youth levels are in our two countries. The stories of the “the pack” following the ball, eating orange slices at half time and never once watching the ball leave the ground are not ones that Brits can relate to, as obviously the level of skill and understanding of the sport is higher, but the high grass playing fields here that bear a closer resemblance to the rough at st. andrews than the pitch of old trafford discourage the long game, (you will never see a diagonal lobbed cross from an American player), no changing facilities or organization from coaches are all eerily transcendent. Its funny to think that the solution England has taken to reinvigorate its youth programs is nearly the same that America, so many years behind the rest of the footballing world, must undertake if it ever expects to play in a world cup quarterfinal match. Even in the narrow focus, the 2010 world cup, the problems for both sides were strikingly similar. Lack of organization, lack of any sort of team mantra in terms of playing style, lack of scoring from strikers (though in England that’s probably more due to the fact that there is no true second striker for Rooney to link from nor top class, chalk-on-your-boots wingers, as he has at united; while the Americans simply do not understand the game well enough to allow a striker to score, nor is Altidore a particularly good fit at the role of primary goalscorer) were all the downfall of teams that clearly wanted to win. I have no doubt that if England are able to refocus their game both through the skill of players, but also through a specific style of play, most notably on the attack, (remind me why milner did not have the opportunity to throw 800 more crosses at the middle like the one to Defoe? Especially given the fact that the Gervais caricature of Rooney’s aerial skills exactly 4 years outdated, and the large, tall but ridiculously without pace Heskey playing so much, not even to bring Crouch into the conversation. And why Theo Walcott is at home but SWP and Aaron Lennon and his questionable eyebrow/haircut were in South Africa) they will have success in the future, hopefully with the Americans continuing to be a thorn in the side of every major footballing nation.

  5. Ben Trasler says:

    Good article, very interesting read.

    One point that I would make though is the opening of National Football Centre, whilst important, shouldn’t be relied upon to bring us future success. Italy and France both have their own centres in Coverciano and Clarefontaine and you can see how ultimately they’ve worked out after their own ‘golden generations’ have expeired. The French were more of a basketcase than a national football side in South Africa whilst the Italians lacked even less penetration and creativity than England.

  6. George says:

    Spot on in the artice. See what 4 goals against your national team by germany can inspire. It did the same to me in trying to find solutions for Australian Football. Someone in Argentina will be next. In Australia we also have real issue with Grass Roots Development – or lack of it. I coach my kids U7 team. Participation has never been bigger. There are seven Under 7 teams in our club and eight U6 teams. Most clubs in our area and throughout Metro Aus are the same. Regional Aus ditto pro rata. If we win hosting 2022 participation will be massive. The problem at grass roots at club level is lack of structure for the coaching of kids (6-12).
    The coach is usually a volunteer parent – who may or may not have played the game. Generally with little understanding of junior development. A small proportion undertake some very good FFA coaching courses. Most coaches try their best to give the kids some fun but training sessions are generally a bit of kick and giggle. Each session is left to the discretion of the individual coach and his limited bag of ideas. It is unreasonable for all coaches to get a level 2 licence. Junior clubs need a Coaching Coordinator type (99% of clubs don’t) who is accredited. The coaching coordinators role, at the very least, is to advise coaches on correct procedure, implement the latest structure/techniques from the FFA and other schools of excellence as well as providing resource material and support. If the child is not able to dribble the ball with control for 20m, turn, change direction, head up and pass to team mate by the time they are 12 – then its going to be extremely develop a talent pool of young players good enough for a national team to be competitive on the world stage.

  7. Pat Mcavena says:

    I think that you do have a serious foreign player problem in England and it does seriously limit your talent pool. Your talk of people not being able to take the next step to the first team is quite frankly bull****. The real problem with the soccer in England is the owners of the clubs . They are only interested in a good product on the field and not the development of their countries own players. Yes you can get some knowledge or advantage with someone who knows something different but unless you strive to develop the talent for yourself it does you no good. How many foreign players were playing in the premiership when England won the world cup . Also your comment on the population differences between your countries doesn’t hold if you consider Paraguay and Uruguay.
    And maybe England would consider a more rigid fitness strategy the Germans are putting all other teams to shame by running them into the ground.

  8. how are you all am a young footballer i play in middle i need to be helped am so talented but in our country we do not have any help ,i stay in u g a n d a thank you

  9. adigbli samuel says:

    i am youngman who is for to be a coach and would i get this opportunity

  10. JOSHUA JEBARAJ says:

    I am 17 years old, Indian boy. I am interested to play foot ball in Liverpool. Is there any possisility for me to come and join in liverpool academic foot ball course.

    Please reply me.

    Josh

  11. JOSHUA JEBARAJ says:

    I am 17 years old, Indian. I am very much ineterested to play in Liverpool. Is there any possibility for me to play there.

    Thanks Joshua

  12. Pingback: soccer
  13. Russell says:

    Spot on. It comes down to money and we all rely on the government to guild community sports facilities which is not going to happen. With the Premiership awash with money should they buil the facilities and pay for the staffing? Maybe, but that would focus money on London and the North West is they would do it at all.
    I believe a solution would be for the FA to channel money to any league or non league club to fund coaching training, staffing and facilities improvements IF they are willing to open up their facilities to the community for local youth development. It’s a win win for all, taxpayers, clubs, communities.

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