I’ve been involved with the FAW Development Department (Welsh Football Trust) for a long time now. I first took my Football Leaders Award five years ago and studied (but didn’t complete) my C Licence in 2008. Before that I was involved in coaching resources, employed as an external contractor to produce the Trust’s website, and the multimedia elements of its coaching materials. You could say that I’ve been embedded in the culture of modern football development for a decade, and this has influenced my attitude towards the junior game.
In those early days, the WFT was run by Mark Aizelwood and was held up as a fine example of development practice by UEFA -The FAW was one of a first footballing associations to win JIRA approval from UEFA’s Development Committee for its coaching programme. If Wales have failed on the field, its off-field development activities have been more than impressive. But has it worked on the ground?
I am still involved in the junior game, as a coach and a Father of three boys who are all currently playing junior football – i.e. small-sided football at Under 11 age group. (I was astounded recently to find that England are only now adopting small-sided games, and still run competitive league competitions at all ages.) You would think that the WFT message would have been digested in the past decade, but sadly, I find myself pretty much a lone voice, a barely tolerated evangelist for non-competitive football in my area.
The WFT recently introduced the concept of 4v4 games on small pitches for the U7 age group. There are no goalkeepers and small pop-up goals. It sounds rubbish doesn’t it? It’s not proper football. But we’ve been playing it for two seasons now, and it is absolutely bloody fantastic. Weaker players get more time on the ball, there are more goals, there is more fun, and crucially, there is less stress eminating from the watching parents and coaches on the touchlines. It has proved a huge success.
Except. But. Although.
It still isn’t quite working in the way that it should. Not quite. Coaches should be putting out teams of mixed ability on the field, but they don’t. If there are eight players, they will chose the best four and the weakest four. Players are allowed, and occasionally encouraged to stand in front of their goals throughout the game, as a de facto goalkeeper, when the system is designed to encourage free play. Often this is due to the influence of a parent rather than the coach. But generally it is a huge improvement on the old system which would see parents screaming with joy as their oversized hero lamping his 7th goal of the game past a weeping goalie who will never again return to the sport.
At other junior age groups, we still get official requests for results and scorers to be published in the local papers despite WFT guidelines that publishing results is not acceptable. I know of one manager in our un-competitive U9s league who collated all results of the best teams, counted the points, awarded his own club a trophy and announced themselves as Under 9′s league winners in the local press. Stop laughing, it’s not funny.
The WFT sent out this missive last year.
Organisation of games, festivals and fun days
The FAW believe that the game of Mini Football provides children with
the necessary introduction to competition. The game itself is a
sufficient skill development challenge for children. As a consequence
no league or knockout competition must be organised (or will be
sanctioned by the FAW) involving Mini Football.” (Their emphasis)
It has been completely ignored.
Like a fool, I read it and thought that it was meant to be taken seriously. Our club organised a tournament at U7 level, and we just arranged a series of games with no outright winner and no collection of results. It seemed to go down well, and it was certainly the best tournament day that I’ve experienced. We repeated it again this season and nobody entered. Not a single team.We asked the WFT about competitive U9s tournament and we were told that it was up to us. Fearful of a poor response if we moved from the traditional format, our U9s tournament carried on as normal.
At the same time, our local league announced its annual tournament for Under 7s. It was competitive last year, despite the WFT notice, and I had complained. I requested confirmation that this year they would be following WFT guidelines. The league pointed out that the “V” in “4v4” suggested that it should be competitive and told me they would be awarding a trophy to the winner of the lague/knockout tournament like they always had done. I felt like a letter-writing Mr Angry of Leamington Spar. Why am I so out of touch? The league correctly pointed out that the local FA’s own tournaments were competitive.
I am a councillor on the North Wales Coast Football Association, and a member of the Development Committee. When I questioned the traditional competitive nature of the NWCFA’s annual junior tournament at a meeting, the other councillors looked at me like an alien. But wasn’t I right?
no league or knockout competition must be organised (or will be sanctioned by the FAW) involving Mini Football
I discovered that it is possible to receive special dispensation to hold competitive tournaments after all. Why? Isn’t it a straghtforward case that competitive football is either good for the game or bad for it? How can there be exceptions? When I raise the question of WFT’s non-competitive guidelines , the attitude from administrators is “oh we can get around that”. The question is why do we want to get around it? Am I the only person who actually believes in the WFT’s philosophy? Because that’s how it feels. I have even spoken to senior old-school WFT coaches in the past who are less than enthusiastic about the liberal “fun-for-all” approach of the organisation’s policies.
I believe that the WFT realise that the culture of competitive, lung-bursting, winner-takes-all football culture is so deeply engrained in this country that only a gradual approach can work. There would be a revolution if it imposed its new guidelines too rigidly. Unfortunately this sends out a mixed message which leaves believers like myself looking foolish.
I think there is a problem too in the term “non-competitive”. In football development circles this means that there are no league tables, no knockout total, no goal difference, and no single prize winners. In normal life, the term “non-competitive” is used as a semantic argument by reactionary opponents to the new liberalism – sugggesting that teams don’t try to win – that it’s a jolly kickaround with no tackles and no emphasis on scoring a goal. Nonsense of course, but old habits die hard.
Part of this is a generational thing. There are still many people involved in football administration whose formative years occured when this rule still stood on the FAW rule book in 1970.
Clubs, Officials, Players or Referees are not permitted to associate themselves in any way whatsoever with Ladies’ football matches.
I was at a meeting recently where one councillor left during a discussion of the women’s game with the words “I don’t want my Andy Gray opinions to get me in trouble.” Is it any wonder that I am seeing a decline in the number of girls taking part junior football? Our Under 11′s squad has six girls from just one small school, yet nearly every single team we have faced this season has been boys-only. We regularly get hammered as a result. How can this be good for the future of girls football development? We have had several players leave our village club because their Dads didn’t agree with our policy of equal game time for all sexes and abilites and our emphasis on participation over winnning.
Another problem is that junior coaches at the youngest age are often young fathers, mad about football, who have been chomping at the bit to play the role of Alex Ferguson since their child was born. Their enthusiasm is often dampened after they undertake a Football Leaders Course. I have heard several stories of new coaches walking out of the course, disgusted by the WFT’s emphasis on participation and criticism of a “winner-takes-all” attitude. “I’ve been playing the game for twenty years” said one bloke on my course. “Why are you trying to teach me not to win?”
I am always reminded of an enlightening discussion I once had with Kevin Thelwell, who now manages the Academy at Wolverhampton Wanderers. I had just begun coaching and was complaining about the lack of facilities available for my new team. “Just put bibs on them and use corner flags as goalposts” he said. I argued back vociferously. “But the kids want fancy kits, they want touchlines marked out and they want proper goals with nets, like they see on the telly.” “No he said, that’s what you want. The kids just want to play.” He was absolutely right, and we sometimes lose sight of that I think. It is very easy to project our own sophisticated concept of football onto the children, stifling that raw enthusiasm for a simple ball game.
I have just returned from a football tour to a club in Holland which has left me despondent about the way our junior game is played. We visited a club called FC Beeres Boyes which serves a population of 5,000 near Eindhoven. It’s just a village club, but it runs 50 teams. There are six teams at each age group – including girls in all teams. There are 2 disabled teams, womens teams, veterans teams as well as the seniors. The club trains its own referees and coaches from the youth teams. It has six pitches inluding a 3G astroturf pitch and a small stadium. Their parents watched the game from a distance in near-silence while we all crowded the touchlines shouting encouragement and instructions. You get the picture.
It is very difficult to be critical of junior football provision in our own country because it is nearly always provided by unpaid volunteers. If we want to provide football for our children, we do it ourselves. That means raising money, paying for coaching courses, and meeting the ever growing raft of licensing conditions which all costs money. There are small grants available, but generally junior football in Wales is privately funded, which is an outrage while the Government pays lip service to the benefits of sport. No wonder we fail to compete with Holland and its council-supplied facilities.
I realise that all of this makes me look like a smug, Guardian-reading, pompous and pious twat. And to be honest, that’s how I feel when I voice support for the Welsh Football Trust’s philosphies in a country which historically emphasises the macho, battling aspect of the sport and treats football more like a war than a game. If we are to change that cutlure (and surely we must to progress), then the Welsh Football Trust needs to use ambassadors to get that message across.
While our Welsh football heroes are distant figures like Tony Pulis and Mark Hughes and their emphasis on winning, the competitive side of the game will prevail. Respected figures should be used by the WFT/FAW to push through their development message. Ian Rush needs to head a team of influential figures that visits all Welsh regions to speak to administrators and coaches and try to develop a culture that is currently being resisted by those at grassroots.