The creation of St.George’s Park has been met with widespread approval and marks a deliberate attempt to bridge the gap between England’s usually disappointing National side and the elite of World Football (BBC). However, the key element that appears to be missing from England’s plan, is a revisiting of the way that grass roots level football is conducted. Unlike countries such as Spain, which have teams that boast many of the Worlds’ most technically adept footballers, in the UK children are forced to play on pitches that are far too big for them and this in turn breeds a mentality that encourages brute strength and size over finesse.
My own illustrious footballing career began with the Borough Green under 9’s. Indeed, it seems absurd to me now that at the time I did not protest at the enormity of the pitches that we had to play on. It should come as no surprise that we were often vanquished by the big kids from down the road, Larkfield. No, they were not better footballers. No they did not possess a young maestro who terrorized our defense. What they had was size and stamina. At that age, running around for 40 minutes on a virtually adult sized pitch is physically very demanding and puts the emphasis on the child’s fitness not his or her skill.
The ineluctable consequence of this is that the boys who are picked for the teams are those not with superior skill but those who have the unusual disposition of being rather large. The sad truth is that unless a child demonstrates exceptional skill, they will struggle in the youth teams to get noticed by scouts and make it through to the professional ranks. This results in a nation that despite its fanaticism with the sport, has far less to choose from than our European rivals in particular.
Who to blame? Well it appears that this failure to recognize the serious flaws in grass roots level football cannot be put on one individual. However FA’s Director of Football, Trevor Brooking, must surely be at least partially accountable. It appears that he has not fully grasped the need to reduce pitch sizes. In an article on 1st March by Matt Slater of the BBC, when questioned about the new Tesco Skills Program (an initiative designed to improve ball skills from the ages of 5 to 11) Brooking said ‘It’s trying to encourage youngsters to play with the ball, do individual skill work and work on their physical literacy – twisting, turning and so on. We want them to be comfortable on the ball.’
It is clear from Brooking’s words that he understands the need to develop football skills at the early ages, but clearly simply teaching a style of play is not enough. Rather than 11 against 11, he must put emphasis on making kids play on smaller pitches to develop close control skills. In an article by Graham Luney of the Belfast Telegraph on 22nd June, Director of Sports Operations at Valencia, Carlos De Lera, said that children in their academies ‘play seven a side games until they are 12.’ If we are to one day usurp the titans of World football, Trevor Brooking would do well to follow the Spanish method.