Chris Kirkham has seen the ugly side of junior football.
As a qualified coach he has watched pushy parents bawling abuse at young players and has had to deal with children who won’t shake their opponents hand. So, when the Football Association unveiled what it called a revolution in youth coaching, Kirkham wasn’t surprised that some didn’t share the organisation’s vision.
The plans are centred on youngsters playing nine rather than 11-a-side, smaller pitches and goals and more emphasis on skills rather than winning. It is the latter which has provoked the most anger.
“Without fostering a winning mentality in the young we will never get a national side which can go all the way in major competitions,” posted one anonymous parent. “In one afternoon the FA had cemented our status as footballing also-rans.”
With the competition having been removed from many school sports days some years ago others have regarded the FA’s move as a further backward step. However, Kirkham, who six years ago set up his own club Burlington Jackdaws in his home town of Bridlington, has a more optimistic view of the new programme.
“When the FA announced it wanted to take the ‘must win’ philosophy out of youth football it was never going to please everybody,” he says.
“There is a thinking that unless youngsters treat every match like it’s the Champions League final they will never succeed on the pitch as adults and we will become a nation of boring losers.
“Those who think like that also tend to be the ones who cause most trouble on the sidelines and it’s almost impossible to persuade them that there is another way. However, I’ve been coaching for too many years to believe that the way to get the best out of kids is to pile on the pressure.
“The fact is that a lot of kids who turn out to play each weekend don’t care who wins. They just want to play and I can guarantee that if you asked them the score at the end of the match, some of them wouldn’t have a clue. No one is saying that winning isn’t important, but we are saying that if you give young footballers the freedom to develop their skills then the game overall will benefit in the long term.”
The changes, announced by Sir Trevor Brooking earlier this week, were backed by 87 per cent of the 778 FA members who voted and those behind the move insist it is to vital if English players are to compete with their European neighbours.
“In somewhere like Italy or Spain, youth football puts much more emphasis on teaching skills rather than who scores what,” says Kirkham, who is also the author of Show Some Respect: The Sound and the Fury of Junior Football. “In fact in some places as soon as the ball has gone into the back of the net, the scoreboard returns to 0-0.
“The whole focus is on short touch passing and protecting the ball. That’s where foreign sides really excel and our lack of those kind of skills is what has let us down in the past. If you can get youngsters to concentrate on keeping possession and perfecting their ball skills, the winning mentality will come later.
“If you put everything on scoring goals, the end result is a load of kids hoofing the ball up the pitch in the vain hope it will end up in the back of the net.”
While the FA only made the change official this week, the initiative has been in the pipeline for some time and various clubs across the country have already begun to embrace the new set up.
“We started a nine-a-side league last year and it has made a big difference,” says Kirkham. “In the past youngsters would move straight from playing seven-a-side to 11-a-side on a full-size pitch. That’s a big leap and they often struggle to maintain their skill on the ball.
“The other advantage with not having so many players is that it’s much easier to put together a side. Spending hours trying to muster a team can be incredibly frustrating, but the main difference is the impact it has on how the youngsters play.”
With the Euros kicking off later this month, the usual hopes of English success are already beginning to build. It’s unlikely to be realised, but the new FA set up could reap its own rewards in the future.
“It’s a long time since we won the World Cup,” said an ever hopeful Sir Bobby Charlton following the FA’s announcement. “One day soon we will and it will be because we bit the bullet and decided this was where we were going.”