It is a landmark day for the future of England, yet the future is not all bright, there are many issues to sort out in the coming years

Today was a landmark day for youth football in England, where the youth development review was approved and in which has the potential to put in place a future where youth football can be progressed for the good of the players and the future of England’s national side in the coming decades.

In order for the new proposals to be approved, 75% of the representatives from each county FA had to vote in favour of the new proposal, 87% did. We may actually be in a position to develop more players capable of playing elite level football. However, the fact it has taken so long to put through and be decided on says everything about the continued issues plaguing youth football and thus the senior level, in England. 

In 2000, Germany had a similar performance to England in the Euro’s in which after they decided to address the problems which were plaguing their game and their future. Whereas they saw the development of youth football as a priority, England felt a change of manager at the top would suffice. We have believed that we live in a Golden Era where we possess the best players in the world, yet we are delusional, and for the past twelve years, while Germany have been developing youngsters who we are now seeing today in the top levels of the game, where we are witnessing a dominance of success from Spain, then we are only waking up to the belief that something needs to be done. 

Lay the right foundations

Let me address the stages of development needed for England in the coming decades. What is required is a joint approach from the government and the FA to improve levels of physical education in schools so that our children from 5-11 receive a multi-linear development of mobility and key multi-skills. If a child ONLY plays football and nothing else, then they will develop only uni-linear skills which as they progress, will stunt their development and restrict their mobility. The worry is that less time is being given to PE in schools, which is creating children with limited mobility and which may in fact be hampering the development of children in all disciplines, not just sport.

If a child is given the right learning environment to learn multiple skills, then perhaps the children we develop up to the age of 11 will have a broader range of skills and a larger potential to progress in multiple sports. As we focus on football we need to address what we can do to create more players of a certain level. These new plans will seek to change the structure of the games that young players partake in; U7/U8 will play 5v5, U9/U10’s 7v7, U11/U12’s 9v9 and U13+ 11v11. Amazingly, there are young children who are playing 11v11 on full size adult pitches, with goalkeepers playing in full size adult goals. 

It seems unbelievable, yet there are many who disagree with changing these rules. Below the age of U11 I would prefer to see small sided games taking place if there are structures to the games, the concept of “street soccer” is apparently lost now, mainly due to health and safety and issues of children being outside, as well as “no ball games” being a common sign in many communities. This loss of “free play” has restricted the development of children into decision makers for the simple reason that the child in structured games and coaching sessions is restricted and denied from making their own decisions; not just in the game itself, but on the rules, dimensions and time. 
The concept of “street soccer” is not just about freedom to express, but in fact freedom full stop.  If children cannot experience "street soccer" then we need to create ways of providing them with the right opportunities and guidance to improve their skill development; between 7-11 the window of opportunity is vital to lay down the foundations of techincal excellence. Thus, it is important that the football training given to children is done correctly, or their development will be hampered.

What is the FA doing?
The FA are seeking to make learning fun for the players and to give them more contact with the ball and to be more active in the game, this is all commendable and there should be no one who disagrees with this concept. At Man Utd the academy players between 7-9 play 4v4; more games, more balls and more contact for the players. If it’s good enough for United then why not the local Sunday league side? The issue then comes down to the most pressing concern for youth development in football, the coaching. 

The problem with “dads” who help out is that they have no idea what they are doing. A bag of balls and cones does not constitute a coach. I will make generalizations here which are wrong, as there are many good youth coaches out there, however there are many who use the same methods and thinking of when they were kids and how they were coached. Unfortunately, many of these methods are based on adult training and have no place or relevance for youth players. Fitness training for 8 year olds is something I have witnessed which made me cringe and I worry that there are far more damaging coaches out there than good ones and more clubs need to address these issues quickly. 

These “coaches” should not be working with young players, their intentions may be admirable yet they are damaging the kids they work with. Every club should ultimately be a charter standard club where coaches are monitored and their qualifications are suited to their role. The FA have a major role to play in making sure the right people are working at this level.

This is where the FA are accountable in their desire to improve the grassroots game. Listening to Nick Levitt, the FA National Development Manager at the grassroots show this past weekend highlighted that although the FA have good intentions, they are restricted in their desire to change the game. Instead of saying, this is how we will coach our kids, they have asked coaches what they believe needs to be improved, this seems ludicrous to me. Two years of going around the country asking questions seems like two years wasted. 

When you see models of Spain and Germany it is clear that we need to learn from them and not our own unqualified voices. For me the German model is exactly what we need to replicate, they started it 12 years ago and the new generation of players is being witnessed already. Many coaches and football experts know what we need to do, it is up to the FA to implement those changes, finally they have done it, yet as mentioned, it has come later than hoped. 

It all comes down to money

The implementation of the SSG's will be a major boost for children's football development, yet there are more issues to address if we want to develop players for the elite game. In Germany, what was key for them was the creation of 121 national talent centres which sought to improve 10-17 years old in technical skill development. Imagine if England had invested in something like that?! Well, Trevor Brooking sought to with the creation of the FA Skills programme; his vision was to have highly qualified coaches work around the country with the talented players from the grassroots teams in all the regions in order to develop more highly skilled players. 

Why was this not implemented? Because the FA chose to build Wembley and the funding for the Skills programme was cut. What does this say about the FA’s intentions? Imagine where £900 million could have gone; if the Burton centre, St George’s Park had been replicated in each county, then surely more youth players could have been developed? The Skills programme received funding from Tesco, however they insisted in this being inclusive for all which diluted the quality and the intention of the programme.

It is an issue we have in England particularly about elite development. Many view the word elite as dangerous and non-inclusive and often players with potential are held back too often, with coaches afraid of losing their “best” players. This mentality is preventing the development and progression of talented players, however the movement up from grassroots to academy lacks a middle area, where a Skills programme would have gone, where in Germany the centres built would support and further players with potential. 

Without this middle level, the pool of talent will be restricted and reduced and the FA need to produce these centres, with highly qualified and high quality coaches, in order to develop more players. It all comes down to cost however; the FA believe it is the job of Academies to go into clubs and develop better coaches, and the Academies believe it is the FA’s role to push talent up. Ultimately it is the job of both.

Academies and Centres of Excellence need to give more back to the local clubs instead of just taking the talent; coach education clinics would be beneficial for grassroots coaches, showing them drills and methods used within the Academy. Also they need to improve the quality of their “Development Centres” where it is often only average coaches who are working with players who have potential. The FA need to develop their own centres too, and the key to both being effective is putting in quality youth coaches who can improve the pool of talent. 

What is essential then is to have the money to entice qualified coaches to work at this level, as the unfortunate truth is that all the big money is at the top, in the senior game, so it is no surprise that the better qualified coaches go there. This is wrong and must be addressed if we as a nation wish to develop better players and more of them. 

Collaboration of bodies

If these bodies worked together then we could really change the future of the English game; we could see more English players playing in the Premier League and hopefully more players challenging for the national side. We could be like Spain and Germany, yet it will take 10 years and more to see the benefits of a new programme. What is key is that more money is given to the quality coaches and investment is made in a number of developments all over the country in youth football. This way we can take potential players from the grassroots on to the next level without having to necessarily go into an academy immediately. This will mean a gentle movement into the elite levels which can produce more players and give them more time to improve.  

The issue many Academies face and which they are guilty for is that when they release players they are allowing them to drop back to the bottom level where the quality  of players and coaches is not as high. Imagine if an advanced development centre could cater for players moving up and also moving down, this way keeping them coached to a high level. Too many players who “drop out” of Academies are thus lost and with that comes the reduction in the pool of talent.

The final step

Finally, if as a nation we improve the quality of grassroots coaches, implement changes in the format of youth football and improve the quality of physical education in schools, then we still need to amend the issues of the senior game, where players between 17-21 are being lost too easily and the step between youth and senior is not being addressed well enough. As the Premier League has improved, as the money has increased, so too has the influx of foreign players and the restriction of England’s youth players progressing from youth football to the professional game. When only 38% of players playing the league are English, then there are clearly problems for the development of the national side. When Germany and Spain have around 60% of national players playing in their leagues, then we must consider this a key issue to address. 

This is the final step, and with the new A licence in 17-21, more quality and understanding at this age group can lead to more players going into the pro game and staying there. What must also change is the “home grown” rule in squads, right now that means any player developed in the academy system, regardless of nationality. In Germany the 6+5 rule means only players from Germany are eligible to play, this model enables the home grown players to play more, enabling more players to gain the necessary experience to improve and take their skills from their youth education into the senior levels. This will need changes from all bodies, notably the Premier League. 

Ultimately the progression from grassroots football to the senior game is unpredictable and so it is difficult to assume that any player can make it. Thus, if we increase the pool of talent across the country and improve the quality of players who are capable of playing in the modern game, then we may allow ourselves to have more English players in the Premier League and more choices for the National team manager to select. It will take time and patience, yet what is key is that everyone works together to improve the levels and quality of players and coaching in the country. 

An exciting time awaits and today is a landmark day for the future of England, yet the future is not all bright, there are many issues to sort out before we start producing a steady stream of world class youth players, the question is, can everyone work together to achieve these goals?

Related articles