Monday, 19 June 2017

Youth football: Where do we draw the line?

This blog post is inspired from reading Michael Calvin's latest brilliant book 'No Hunger in Paradise'.

The book does a fantastic job of capturing youth football and its realities within the professional game. At times it is heart-warming, at others it makes you despair.

And while reading it, it reminded me of everything that is wrong in youth and grassroots football.

Four, five, six year old boys are sold the dream. They are invited to 'academy development centres', promised contracts once they turn eight, their heads are filled with ideas of the riches that come with the game.

The reality is, barely any of these players will end up in the professional game as footballers. That is the cold reality. So why are these young people so unprepared for this? The percentages are tiny, minuscule. To be clear, I have never stopped a player progressing to an academy that I have coached, nor would I ever. It is a wonderful opportunity. Nevertheless, the reason I am so passionate about coaching in grassroots football is because although children do not all become professional footballers, they do all become members of society.

Do kids truly get to learn to love the game?
And inevitably, whether it be at eight, ten, twelve or as they approach the potential offers of scholarships, these players are discarded by their respective clubs. On a visit to AFC Ajax last September (blog here), their academy recognised that by releasing players, they are admitting that they have failed the players and that the coaches are not doing their own job.

I see similar parallels in grassroots youth football. Young children are released for not being 'good enough'. Firstly, good enough for what exactly? Secondly, why do they need to be good enough? The very definition of grassroots football is the introduction to and enjoyment of the sport.

How do we change the ever growing commodification of academy footballers, though?

I firmly believe players shouldn't be registered with professional club until fourteen years of age, but we know that this is never going to happen, nor is it practical. Clubs find loopholes round the fact that clubs are not allowed to sign players until they are eight as it is, as identified earlier in this article. An alternative might be that you can not release players on the grounds of ability until the age of fourteen. That way, you my get some degree of patience. For example, some players may struggle through a growth spurt (or a lack of one). Quite often clubs will get rid of a player like this whereas all they need is someone to give them the opportunity once their body settles down. I would be interested to hear people's thoughts on this!

Another cause for the concern in the growth of young players becoming commodities for clubs, if they are not already, is the presence of intermediaries. I find this abhorrent, simply put. As players approach sixteen they no doubt need some form of support in this area but surely that should come from the club providing education? That way we will get less players getting caught in a tug of war battle, incited by an 'agent' which would let them get on with their development with minimal distractions.

No doubt there are good agents about, as highlighted in Calvin's book, but does a nine year old really need an agent? There are too many people looking to milk the next superstar for everything they have and it is a stain on the game.

As players become shifted from club to club looking for the 'best' offer, this throws up many issues not just for the child as a footballer but as a person. Is this really what is best for the child?

It all came too soon for Sonny Pike
Clubs ask players to relocate at young ages to be near enough to the training ground - otherwise they may not be asked to stay on. I have witnessed parents share a genuine concern for having to move their child just to play for a professional club's academy at just ten years old. Equally, there are some parents who push their children too far. Taking them to clubs left, right and centre. Are they being given sufficient education on their child's welfare and what is truly best for their development as a player?

I am indeed aware that this is the 'nature of the beast' that is academy football and the professional game, but does that make it okay? Clubs are going above and beyond now, seemingly having no shame in the length they will go to sign a player. Two huge clubs now have been punished and yet it feels like we are only just scratching the surface here.

And finally, is it all a bit too much? Children can not cope with the same strains as adults, battering them year in year out, is it a dangerous game to be playing with their mental health, as well as physical? These players train up to four times a week plus a game. Will they be able to form a stable social life? Are they getting as much time to concentrate on other areas in their education? As I said, not every child can become a footballer.

I guess my question is, where do we draw the line? And are we currently crossing it?

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Review: The FA Youth Award

On Friday 7th April, I was delighted to undertake (and pass) my FA Youth Award assessment. This was the completion of a 'journey' that I had begun in 2013, having just turned eighteen and coming out of the level two course I had completed at college. 

With the introduction of the youth module content into the level 1, level 2 and soon to be UEFA B, I thought this represented a good time to review the FA Youth Award, and the impact I have seen it have on myself (and others). This blog will hopefully give an accurate account of the course, and the messages it hopes to give coaches. 

Youth Module 1 - Developing the Environment

A lot of people I talk to, who have been through at least two of the youth module courses, claim that this is the better of the courses in the FA Youth Award. From my perspective, I think this is due to the way it changes people's perceptions. 

The youth module one is a fantastic introduction to the award, and the course overall, as it starts with the most important thing. The kids. And more specifically, how we allow them to enjoy football. 

Our very neatly prepared 'Space Recognition'
session on the Youth Module 1!
The four days on this course were intense, but fun! We were being educated in the exact way that would be expected of ourselves when working with our players back at our clubs. The exercises we were shown were fun, but worthwhile. A game as simple as 'skills corridor' had your technical focus for players to practice but with a fun element and challenges to it (depending on how you adapted it). This is a session that I used with under eights that I coach just a couple of weeks ago, albeit slightly adapted and renamed 'skills volcano'! 

As with the title of the course, the environment created by a coach is the key focus here. How do you manage mistakes? This in particular was something of an eye opener for candidates, as we began to recognise mistakes as learning opportunities. Looking back, this seems so obvious but it is not always as simple as that. Looking after a player's self-esteem is equally as important, and ties in well with this. This was something I connected well with, as it has always been my belief that you should make each and every player you coach feel valued. You will always see more development than berating them for mistakes, in my opinion. Have you ever seen a player perform better in tears? Probably not. 

Youth Module 2 - Developing the Practice

I attended the second module of the youth award almost a year later, a good time between having attended module one. This gave me the chance to consolidate my learning from the first course, and I was raring to go for the next instalment. It didn't disappoint. 

We were now moving onto 'the practice' and this was a great course for working on how we design our sessions. The practice spectrum (Constant, Variable, Random) was introduced and it was time to consider the returns we wanted from our sessions. High levels of repetition (constant/blocked practice) with less realism or less repetition but more context to the game (Variable, Random). There is no right or wrong answer, only appropriateness for YOUR players based on their needs and stage of development. It is important to remember that these courses were largely centred around being age-appropriate, which forced us to justify everything we did in our coaching, an example of good practice we should try to do as often as possible. 

Another area of focus was in our planning and evaluating. This is an area, where I think now we make some key mistakes, as highlighted on this module. We love to plan, to the smallest details but this creates a rigidity, and means we do not adapt the session to our players needs. In comparison, we do not put as much time in to our reflections. Our evaluation is usually the journey home, or in the de-brief with players after a training session or match. If anything, I think we are doing it the wrong way round. We need to have a flexible plan for the players which can be adapted and moulded, whereas we need to be more stringent in our evaluation. However, it has to be said that for volunteers, which we mostly are in grassroots football, time constraints can make this process difficult.

Youth Module 3 - Developing the Player

The third and final course, this was a really good four days to tie everything together. I attended a CPD event which was an introduction for what to expect and also gave lots of information about the assessment that you can chose to do at the end of it. What it was really good for was bringing together the elements from the level 1 (top tips), level 2 (STEP principles) and the content covered in the youth modules one and two. What it would allow us to do, was select the right tool at the right time. 

I wrote a blog about the first two days of the module three course which you can read HERE. What I will say is, looking back, that this gave us the chance to think about how we develop players specifically. In my planning for my portfolio, I have become more player specific with my planning, and my challenges. The trial and error method through challenges is a really good way of developing players individually I find. But when you begin to make loads of challenges, it will dilute it somewhat. Be meticulous in what you do!  In your planning, if you focus on individuals it will also allow you to manage difference in your group. How often do we extend, and challenge players further who are forging ahead? Can we help those who are striving to keep up?
A challenge card I created for players! 

After the third module I also began to focus on the principles of play in greater detail. I am lucky in that the group I have been working with towards the youth award assessment has some eager learners, and they enjoyed learning about the principles of play, defending and attacking wise. This is where you can see that as you go onto module three, it makes the link from level two to level three/ UEFA B.  It also introduces the whole-part-whole methodology, which you are expected to use in your portfolio (and if not justify why!). I enjoyed trying this in my sessions, as it was something new and that I have been able to add to my repertoire. This design of practice aims at giving the session as much context to the game as possible. It encourages the coach to give players practices that look like the game. This is important as it can be easy for coaches to get drawn into creating fancy sessions that have lots going on but look nothing like a game of football. 

The assessment

The assessment is optional. At the end of the module three you can, if you wish, not take the assessment and get a certificate for attending. The assessment however, is not straight away, or during the course. The first part, the portfolio gets you onto the second part (practical session) and that gets you onto the final part, the question and answering. 

For my portfolio, I had tried to keep a good flow with the session topics, whilst catering it towards my players needs. We started with four in possession sessions, followed by four out of possession session, with as logical an order as possible. I then had a transition session, with another attacking session to complete it. I think this is a pretty good mode of assessment, however in future I would suggest a visit at some point during the sessions, like with the new level two. I think this would give a good opportunity to ensure the candidate is on the right path. That being said, I was able to send my sessions in to an FA tutor to do just that, minus the visit! 

The practical is fairly straight forward in what is expected of you. I was asked to deliver an arrival activity, part practice and whole practice from my portfolio. As it was on a different topic for each I had to stop and explain at the beginning of each to my group but in general this was fine. And it should be, as they should have already done it in your previous sessions! In between the 'part' and 'whole' I had a quick chat with the assessor, to see what I needed to do more to pass and this was massively helpful I felt. Assessment sessions can die a death because the coach has no idea towards the end what box they need to tick and it turns into a bit of a mess. This way, the coach has a clear focus and they don't have to get anxious. This helped me massively.

Finally, the questions as the final part of the assessment. I spent many a night revising from my different learner packs and pre-course reading. What I will say is that if you have got to this point, you probably will know the answers to these questions. So do not worry! 

Overall thoughts

Here are some overall thoughts that I like about the course, or what I gained from it. 

Pre-course reading - This is a useful idea, as coaches will often turn up at a course not truly knowing what to expect. The pre-course reading in each of the youth award modules gives a good indication of what to expect. However, they only usually covered the physical corner of development in these booklets. I understand why, as it may not be the most interesting to discuss in a workshop during the course, and saves time, BUT I do think the pre-course reading could give more information of what candidates will be doing on the actual course in a bit more detail. I think that is a minor detail and overall this is a very positive idea. 

Quality of tutors - My experience of the FA tutors through this process has been overwhelmingly positive. I have been fortunate to have Matthew Joseph, Jamie Godbold, Keith Webb, Mark Leigh, Ray Lee on the courses and also Mike Antrobus who came out to assess me. In addition, other tutors and coach educators would stop by to observe and help. I learnt a lot from each and every single on of them in different ways. 

Learning from other candidates - This was equally as important. On the module one, I produced a session as part of a group of three with Anthony, an A License coach who is a county coach developer and Gillian, who at the time was working with a similar age group to myself. While putting on a session as part of a three can be quite difficult, the planning and evaluating was a valuable experience and as a young coach I learnt a lot from both. I have been fortunate to keep in touch with several people from the different modules, one example of the benefit of this was me being able to observe a UEFA B assessment day as a result. Put the effort into talking to other coaches as much as you do with the coach educators! 

The cost - I have been fortunate in my experience that I was able to do two of the modules through my charter standard club (and McDonalds, oddly) in order to attend the course for a minimal fee, possibly even free in fact. However, this is not the same for everyone and I think the FA need to become more creative in their pricing. With the content of these courses going into new Level 2 and 3 courses we may see a welcome change as it is asking a lot of coaches who put a lot of time and money into grassroots football as it is. While I do think you get value for money, the cost can be quite prohibitive I feel. 

Realism - This is not so much a limitation of this course but a problem for all coaching courses. When candidates are asked to produce sessions on a course, they do so in an environment that does not match the one they work in with their squads. This is why the new FA coach education course assessments are being done with visits to coaches' clubs, which is a positive. On the second day of my module three, one of the coaches invited his players as it was a half term, which was a great idea. It meant that we practice sessions closer to what we usually do, with children! 

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience the FA Youth Award has given me. It has helped me stand in good stead for future courses and further coaching experiences!

I think it is interesting from my perspective as these courses are now being implemented into the level two and three. For anyone who is going through these courses currently, I would be very interested to hear your views and thoughts on these courses in the comments section below. Equally, if you have any questions, or would like to see my portfolio, feel free to ask! 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

You are the ref: what next?

I have always had very strict principles when coaching my players about how they 'communicate' with the referee. This is someone who is giving up their time in order to help them have an organised game of football. Dissent will not be tolerated. 

Although it is slightly different in the professional game, as the art of refereeing becomes professionalised too, I still believe in similar principles. Even if you feel a referee performs, in your view, 'badly' they should not be used as a scapegoat for your team's failure to win a football match. 

If you google 'Mourinho referee' there are
loads of pictures  just like this one.
These are people who in comparison to the players and even managers, make far fewer mistakes. The issue they have, not too different to the role of the goalkeeper within a football team, is that if they make a key mistake it is magnified.

The referee's performance provides an easy excuse for under pressure managers (looking at you, Jose) or a way to deflect from a poor team performance (and again, Jose). 

Being a Wolves fan, much has been made of the standard of officiating in the Championship and it was difficult not to be bemused at the events that occurred this week in the Newcastle -Burton game

Keith Stroud's decision to give a free kick for encroachment at a penalty was one of the strangest decisions I have seen for a good while. Understandably, due to the pressures that come at this level; fans, players and managers were in uproar. 

The easy and standard thing to do here is to make a generalisation about how poor referees in the football league are, and that we have a problem with their knowledge of the game. However, I see more of a cultural issue that is deeper rooted. 

Retrospective punishment provides a simple example of this. When a referee does not spot something contentious in the game, it can go one of two ways. If he admits he did not see it and that is why he did not take action, retrospective punishment can be enforced. That is fine. But when the referee claims he did see it the powers above will do nothing. In principle, I can understand this, they don't want to over-rule the official or look as if they are throwing them under the bus. 

What I feel this does however, is make the situation worse. What they are allowing the referees to do is not admit to mistakes. Having recently read Matthew Syed's Blackbox Thinking (highly recommended) this is an example of a 'closed loop'. This is a fixed mentality where failure does not lead to progress. If the referees feel as if they can not admit to mistakes (usually as they know they will be given a weekend off or be demoted to a lower division) then progress will be stunted. 
We may not be seeing Mr. Stroud for a few weeks

If mistakes are not identified as learning opportunities, how can we expect the standards of refereeing to improve? This is a key issue that I feel that the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Official's Limited) and the Football Association have. Within their inner circles, it may well be that referees have mentors that help them following mistakes, but the way it is dealt with publicly does not give this image at all.  

The scenes from the game also do not point to this type of environment. If there was an acceptance of mistakes, surely his assistants or the fourth official would have interjected and the farce that ensued would have been stopped in its tracks? It is likely that they were too worried to undermine the man in the middle. 

When I first saw that Howard Webb was a part of the BT Sports team of pundits, providing an insight on referees during the game, I wasn't sure if I liked it. As mentioned earlier, it might seem as if he is throwing his former peers under the bus. In the long run, it could help. He is not lambasting referees for making mistakes, just making observations on what decision they could have alternatively done.

Hopefully organisations can follow suit and we will see more progress. Otherwise, we will continue to see the same mistakes made over and over again. And isn't that what Einstein said was a sign of insanity?

Friday, 24 February 2017

Ranieri - a victim of his own success

In 2015, with Leicester rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, manager Nigel Pearson appeared to be seriously losing the plot. 

A week wouldn’t go by without a controversial comment, telling a fan to ‘f*ck off and die' or even an incident on the pitch. Most famously he bizarrely asked a journalist if they were an ostrich, and then proceed to tell him that he was more flexible than him anyway.

My thoughts too, Claudio.
Whatever his point was, Leicester were seemingly doomed with their manager unable to stop the rot, he was struggling to come with the intense pressure that comes with being a Premier League manager.

What happened next was incredible. Leicester won six of their last eight games to complete the impossible job and survive relegation, even finishing in 14th. The ridiculed Pearson was now a genius, having turned it all around. 

Although at one point it appeared that Pearson had been sacked, and then reinstated, he had managed to keep his job despite all being lost. 

Pearson would eventually be sacked in the summer following a controversial incident with his son and two other young Leicester players in their post-season tour of Thailand, but it doesn’t detract that he had been afforded the chance to turn it around. Pearson had of course got them up in fantastic style the season before, winning the Championship at a canter.

It was his mess to clean up.

And yet, the same can not be said for Claudio Ranieri. 

Following the miracle season that was 2015-16, Leicester had fast become many’s second favourite team. I was one of many willing The Foxes on to win the league. This was in no small part down to Ranieri. A bubbly character and clearly a real gentleman, you couldn’t help but like him. It was the perfect story for a man who had not won a league title before, despite having managed to a high level throughout his coaching career.

Winning the league with a defence containing Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson is no mean feat. Coaching Jamie Vardy to score 24 league goals, and Danny Drinkwater the lynch-pin a driving force in Leicester’s midfield. You would think a man who could do this would have a job for life, no matter what. 

Apparently not. 

With his side still in the Champions League (with a rather excellent result away at a fantastic Sevilla side), Ranieri has been ruthlessly dismissed.

And in the wake of this news it appears that this has come as a result a set of players forcing the manager out. Let’s just pause on that thought. Who on earth do these players think they are? Without this man, no one would have remembered who you were. Your vastly improved salaries (300% improvement for some) would not have come about without him. 

It is shocking. 

My single favourite moment EVER
Yes, they were in absolute free-fall in the league. But as Jamie Carragher rather excellently made the point; it is not the be all and the end all to be in the Premier League. Leicester have never been a huge club, nor will they be. But they have ruined a legacy. Leicester will probably never win a major trophy again, yet they could have been a shining beacon of what a success like this can do to reward people. Instead, a fantastic person has been thrown under the bus by a bunch of average footballers.

Furthermore, did people really expect Wes Morgan to continue playing like Franco Baresi? Or Jamie Vardy to continue scoring at such a rate? This was a team of Championship footballers, plus N’Golo Kante (who’s absence is more obvious as times go by), what was really going to happen?  

Had Leicester finished 15th last season, no one would be batting an eye-lid at their performances this season. All Leicester City, the club and their players, have done is show great disloyalty to the person who brought them the greatest success in their history. They have become emblematic of all that is wrong with modern football. 

Leicester may well keep their place in the Premier League for another season, but what they have lost is a significant amount of good will. 

Let’s just hope they do the right thing and give that man a statue. 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Scratching the surface - AFC Ajax study visit

"You are the coach. You are responsible for the system and the philosophy." 

These were the words of former Dutch international and Ajax legend, Sonny Silooy. Sonny was presenting to us the Ajax philosophy that is admired across the footballing world.

We also took a tour of the Amsterdam ArenA. 
Sonny himself is a great example of what the club do so well. Players who are entrenched in the Ajax framework, who have been adored at the club in recent history are welcomed back to the club with open arms to help the next generation learn and flourish. Another example is Johnny Heitinga, now coaching with Jong Ajax, the club's under 23 side. His experience in the game and understanding of the club's philosophy is vital. No one is brought back on a whim however, they still have to be the right person for the club and they are paired with a trainer-coach at each age group.

We were fortunate enough to have exclusive access inside De Toekomst, the famous training centre of AFC Ajax. Ajax's record for producing talent is in a league of it's own. 'De Toekomst' translates to 'The future' in English - something held dearly as key at this club. The two days spent at the centre were incredible, hardly enough, but incredible.

For the duration we had the wisdom of Eddie Van Schaick, who has been at the club for nearly ten years as a coach and now consultant, sharing his wonderful wealth of knowledge with us.

Taking and giving responsibility

Responsibility comes from top to bottom. The club strive to improve their model everyday. The coaches have an obligation to those that are selected to play for the club. There is no screaming and hollering at this club - there is a quiet seriousness about the place but what is important is that the players are treated how they should be, as people. The coach must connect with them on all levels, not simply as footballers. Patience is a key quality of a coach at this club throughout the age groups.

The responsibility handed to players here at De Toekomst is in stark contrast to what I have witnessed at English clubs where, without wanting to generalise, players are often handed everything on a plate. The tools are given to the players, but it is what they do with them that is most important. "The most learning happens when a player takes it upon themselves" says Eddie. They are keen to see players putting in the extra work to develop, as that is what makes the difference. Additionally, the players do not need telling to leave the area clear, bring kit, move equipment, collect the footballs in. This shows on the pitch - the players are quick to correct each other, to help each other and make decisions with their own minds.

Planting the seed

Everything done within the academy is so well thought out and to the smallest detail. In their incredible dome facility, there is a performance testing area that analyses an individual's movement. This is done to create an awareness of what you are doing. "Everyone has their own individual technique" and rather than correcting someone, they want them to understand and feel comfortable within their own style.

'Power Hill'
Out on the athletics track, players can take part in a variety of activities. Basketball hoops and mini courts are in place aimed at goalkeepers and attackers so that they can train the mind to be wary of rebounds. 'Power hill' is a steep track and it is easy to think of the old school 'hill runs' when they show us this but work on here is often done with the ball or devised into a game. "They don't even realise it's training". On the small pitch (almost street football like) grids are etched into the markings to promote positional play, a key component in Ajax's philosophy. Here they are encouraged to play 3v1, 4v2 possession games and concentrate on their spacing. The aim is that these things will fast become second nature to the players.

This is much like the practices we witnessed in training at several age groups. Whether it is a technical practice, possession game or small sided game, the conditions are set to replicate Ajax's footballing philosophy and system. Once again, this is so simple yet so effective. A simple attacking (unopposed) technical practice that the under 17s worked on showed the players exactly the type of passes they are looking for and exactly the movements when running into the box.

After watching the Ajax under 23s training, one criticism Eddie had was that in a technical passing practice the first pass in the sequence went wide. He felt that the first pass should go centrally as going wide straight away created a dangerous scenario if possession was lost. Once again, it is the small things but this is what makes them stand out amongst the best.

"They are playing to win within the framework of Ajax"

In Holland, academies play against each other every season in a league system. This, they feel, is important for the players to understand that the aim is always to win. This is always a topic of great debate in England, as we have seen the shift away from league formats until after the age of eleven.

I believe this is a case of culture. In England, there has been a need to come away from the win at all costs mentality that hinders many young players development. In Holland, certainly at Ajax, development takes priority already where they still have a league format. There is no need to take the incentive of winning away.

Games are played in four blocks (they have only recently come away from the traditional two halves) and at the younger ages are now played as "twin games". Because academies generally have around sixteen players in each age group, at the younger age groups they play two games next to each other. Previously this was not the case until Ajax pulled out of the league system a couple of years because players were not getting enough game time. 

Eddie states that "The game is for everybody". Once again they reaffirm the obligation to the players they have selected. They all deserve the opportunity, equal playing time is insisted upon. When it comes to international tournaments, this is relaxed slightly but each player still gets significant time on the pitch.

The club has set systems that they are keen for the coaches to use at different age groups. At under 9 for example, in six a side they would like the team to play with one goalkeeper, two defenders, one central midfield and two forwards. At eight a side, which is the next step it is a 1-3-1-3 formation. And at eleven a side, it is the typical 1-4-3-3 that Ajax are associated with.

Fun and T.I.P.S

"Fun is number one".

This will come as no surprise but at De Toekomst fun is a key component of learning. Not only does the most learning come when an individual is having fun, but the playing philosophy of Ajax lends itself to the players' enjoyment. They have the freedom to attack and express themselves. At the younger ages, not a great deal of importance is placed on shape. As they get older, the players are encouraged to push each other and themselves but at the same time they embrace each other as if they are family. Each player has a lot of personality and when we were fortunate enough to witness the
games throughout the age groups, there was a great deal of it on show.

Ajax used the famous 'T.I.P.S" model for their development and assessment of players. Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed. If a player has all four in abundance, they are seen as golden. This model does not disregard physical ability but size and maturation is clearly not something that comes into the thinking, a reason I particularly like this model. Focus on what you can control!

In phase one, ages 8-12 players at the academy train four times a week for two hours. When it comes to phase two, however, between 13-16 the length of sessions is reduced to an hour and a half. This is because of puberty, school and other pressures that come with growing up. By the age of twelve, the coaches will know the potential of the players and this is where they need to be patient. It is refreshing to hear about.

Only scratching the surface

This was simply a snapshot of the work that goes on at this world class set up. There is so much more that I could have, and probably should have, added (feel free to ask anything below in the comments). Two days was simply not enough as there was so much more to learn about and further detail to cover. However, I did learn an incredible amount and the experience did leave me with further enthusiasm for improving my own coaching and to visit more clubs. These widened experiences can only be positive and are something I would do again in a heartbeat.

This study visit was made possible by Murray Jones and Euro Football Tours and Events. They have links with many clubs and have covered many different clubs too. I wholeheartedly recommend attending one of their events.  You can find out more at:

Monday, 29 August 2016

The curious case of Ross Barkley

August 20th 2011. Everton continue their traditional slow start to a season under David Moyes with a dismal one nil defeat at home to newly promoted QPR (beaten 4-0 by Owen Coyle's Bolton the week before). There is, however, one positive to come from the game.

A sparkling performance from a Premier League debutant lifts hopes. At just 17 years old this boy seems to have it all. He is strong, he can run with the ball at great speed, he is inventive and he has two good feet. 

Five years on though, and the jury is still out on Ross Barkley. 

Injuries, loan spells and an unsurprising lack of trust from David Moyes in a young player sees Barkley's development stall. Loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds do little to persuade Moyes to select Barkley.  

In comes Roberto Martinez as Everton manager - the young attacking midfielder thrives. They come devastatingly close to Champions League qualification but in the year of a world cup there is surely a chance for Barkley to announce himself on the world stage?

Barkley makes his debut against Neil Warnock's QPR
Except Roy Hodgson is England manager. After an exciting performance against Ecuador, Hodgson is critical of Barkley, making his first England start. Despite clearly being the best player on the pitch, Hodgson bemoans his decision making asking journalists why they don't obsess on someone else. In Brazil, Barkley is limited to cameo appearances from the bench until England's fate is sealed and they are knocked out. This is fairly typical of Hodgson, but it also sums up people's opinions on Ross Barkley in his career so far. 

There just seems to be a reluctance to accept and trust him as a top quality footballer. 

Take last season as an example: In 48 games, Barkley scored 12 goals and assisted a further 11. Not only was that his most effective season to date, one in which he was nevertheless widely criticised by fans and pundits alike, but the 23 goals he contributed to in 2015-16 was bettered by only Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy of those selected for Roy Hodgson's England squad for the European Championships. 

How many minutes did he get in the tournament? Zero. As England toiled and struggled against Iceland, in a performance desperately lacking someone willing to take a risk, who would run at defenders, Ross remained sat firmly on the bench. 

Maybe it's an Everton thing?
As Everton struggled under Roberto Martinez last season, so did he. In the second half of the season he lacked confidence but when he raised his game he raised his team. In the FA Cup semi final against Manchester United him and fellow England international John Stones were at the heart of everything good as Everton pushed them all the way. In the game Barkley created several chances (particularly for Romelu Lukaku) that went begging. Had one or two gone in, would he have been hailed as the star man? 

For a player who is as close to the complete package as England are going to get, why are people so cautious of him? Turning 23, he clearly has his best years ahead of him and what he badly needs at this point is an England manager who will invest in him. 

This brings us on to the new England manager, Sam Allardyce, who has left Barkley out of his first England squad in charge. While Allardyce brings a different approach, you have to be puzzled that he did not select Barkley in a squad that contains Theo Walcott, Michail Antonio, Jordan Henderson and names Wayne Rooney as a midfielder. 

Having stumbled across watching his debut against QPR that day I was sure Ross Barkley was set to become an England star for years to come. He still can, but I now have a nagging feeling that we could be about to waste one of the most talented players in a generation. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Home comforts

Sean Dyche thinks that English football managers get a hard time.

He says that if he was foreign he'd be hailed as a genius. Now I am actually a fan of Dyche, I like the values he instills into his teams, I like what he has done on a fairly limited budget but I don't know many foreign coaches who have been called a genius who's sole title is the Championship (having got relegated the season before).
I may not be willing to say
 this to his face though...

He says he was criticised for playing a four four two formation with Burnley in the Premier League only for Claudio Ranieri to be lauded for his approach with the same system just a year later.

But here is a thought for Sean Dyche. His Burnley side that year were relegation favourites, just like Leicester the season after. Burnley were relegated, Leicester won the league by ten points. Dyche was unable to find a system that got the results needed to survive, while Ranieri was able to extract incredible performances from previously limited footballers to create history. Ranieri was also able to adapt their strategy as Leicester became harder to beat as the season went on. So there is certainly more to it than Dyche claims, don't you think?

When I read interviews with English coaches who have spent time abroad, I often see the same thing said. The other nations think we are arrogant! And this from a young English manager does little to dispel the myth.

When you look at the current crop of young coaches coming through it's no wonder there is a majority of foreign coaches at the top level of English football. There was a real struggle to find viable English candidates for the national team manager's job. Eddie Howe has done an excellent job, producing excellent football with Bournemouth but who else is there that really strikes you as a potential world class manager? Lower down the divisions, there are promising young coaches, but it is up to them to prove themselves.

Ajax's 'De Toekomst' which means 'The Future'.
An open access facility.
Something that has summed it up is the recent ventures abroad from British coaches ending in failure. Both Moyes (who also performed miserably when given arguably the biggest job in football) and Gary Neville were both sacked within a year of being appointed at Real Sociedad and Valencia. The Premier League is hyped up as the most challenging league in the world but when tested abroad the last English manager to have any success is the late Sir Bobby Robson nearly twenty years ago. We have to do more to raise our standards.

It is however positive to see coaches taking the plunge and working abroad in many different roles. For English coaches to become more rounded and adaptable it is vital that they pick up these experiences. Hopefully it can become the norm rather than simply an exception.

I know that one of my ambitions is to work abroad, whether that be in senior football or developing
young players. In fact, next month I am fortunate enough to be visiting one of the best youth systems in the world at De Toekomst, Ajax's famous academy set up. You can expect a blog on that trip!

The open nature of academies across Europe is in stark contrast to academies in England. Everything is top secret. You have to have some form of identification or permission to get in to places. Rather than share ideas, you get the feeling that clubs are more worried about other clubs gaining an edge on them. While you can understand it to a certain degree, particularly from a financial view, it is still disappointing that this is the attitude we have.

This may be the next step for us as a nation in terms of developing better players and coaches! We have been going in the right direction (Youth Award, change in structure of coach education, England DNA) but this would enhance what is already a positive process.