Thursday, 31 May 2018

"Every player has their own talent": Inside Vitesse Arnhem

Between 17-19 May, I attended a coach education tour of Vitesse Arnhem's youth academy. This was run by Murray Jones of Football Tours and Events, which you can find out more about here. The below blog is my summary of the three days...

Vitesse Arnhem are (proudly) one of the oldest existing clubs in Holland. Founded in 1892, the club celebrated their 125th year of existence by winning their first ever trophy. Last May they beat AZ Alkmaar to lift the Dutch cup, goals from Ricky van Wolfswinkel (remember him) sealing a two nil victory.

Vitesse have more recently been in the spotlight for their 'close working relationship' with Chelsea, as their owner Alexander Chigirinsky is close friends with Roman Abramovich. Whilst this has helped bring in young talents, the owner has also placed a close emphasis on the youth academy with a budget on a comparable level to category one clubs in England.

Over the three days were fortunate to have a great level of access not only to their facilities, training sessions and games but important staff members such as Bart van Rooijen and Richard van Der Lee (both co-ordinators within the academy). As a club, they are very proud that they are one of five clubs awarded 'International Certification' by the KNVB (Dutch Football Association). The other four clubs being Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar, so they are in good company!

Facilities

View of the 1st team training pitches
The Papendal Olympic training centre lays home to Vitesse's academy and senior training ground. Whereas when I visited Ajax's de Toekomst everything was very close together, Papendal is a very open and scenic place. It's very pleasant to walk around and has a very relaxing nature. There are many pitches, some specific to the first team (with positional play lines much like Ajax had) and also an astro pitch in front of the shiny newly built main building, financed by the owner. Every age group through to the senior side can be seen walking through the building, which generates for a great environment in which the young players know the senior players well. Mason Mount, loan star from Chelsea, is one player who was highlighted and praised for their interaction with the academy players.

Gelredome (minus pitch)
The Gelredrome stadium, leased by Vitesse as they no longer own due to previous financial difficulties, holds a capacity 34,000 people. This is more than enough space for a club like Vitesse, whose fan base is much smaller and average gates of around 14,000 fans. It is a very interesting ground however. On arrival, t is instantly clear that it is not owned by Vitesse, with as many pictures of popstars on walls as there are footballers! The ground is particularly interesting for two reasons, it's retractable roof and convertible pitch. When we had a stadium tour the roof was on and the pitch was retracted (see picture), which made it feel very un-football like! As the roof is so heavy, the corners are filled by concrete which you could imagine takes away from the atmosphere.

Vision

The youth academy's vision places an importance on the individual player. Developing the individual to make the most of their talent is number one on the agenda. However, they can not develop or win alone, meaning players must learn to work together and work as a team. This will also enable them to learn to play in the framework that Vitesse set for the coaches to teach the players.

"Players will make their debut in the first team, not the team!"

Essentially, it is more about the individual than about the team. As they move through the age groups, it is still about the needs of the individual player. Although the teams play in competitive leagues, if a player needs to be challenge further, they will move them up a team even if that could negatively affect results (for either side). A good example of this was a fixture we watched between Vitesse and PSV, who had won the league already, at  under 15s level. Vitesse needed just a point to finish in the top three of the top division, but had several under 14s players in the side. The game was still competitive, both teams really going for the win and ultimately PSV won 2-1, but their players would have learnt a lot against a good side.

The main target of the academy is that the first team squad will be filled by 40% of players trained by the academy. Furthermore, 50% of those players will make up the starting eleven. As it stands they have many players in the squad, but not the starting eleven, hence the second of those targets. These targets are set not just because they want to develop talent but also so that they can sell talent. The club often lose players to Ajax, PSV etc at youth level but if they can hold onto their best talents until senior level they will bring in more money when they sell them. So in part, much like Ajax openly admitted when I visited them, it is a business model.

Interestingly, they cite the connection with Chelsea as a means to help their young players. If a young player with potential is not ready yet for a first team place, rather than sign a player (on a multiple year contract) they can loan a player for a season. That way, the academy product has another year to develop which they can evaluate without a player blocking their path come the next season. This was an angle I had not previously considered!

At the core of their vision is developing a passion for the game. The players who make it through the age groups will be the one that have the most passion and love for football. For that reason they aim to make football a fun game to play (again, parallels with Ajax's ideals). In addition to this, they can then develop creative players, who play with initiative. "Every player has their own talent".  

The Vitesse academy look for several qualities in the profile of a player; Proactive, Quick learning, Athletic skills, Winner's mentality, Technical ability and, last but not least, their own character. The club look for potential and not necessarily performance. To them, it would be very easy to look at current performance but they feel it is important to take the tougher route and attempt to find players who with time will grow into better players, using the qualities mentioned. Furthermore, as people they are looking for curious individuals, who are respectful and again, have their own character.

In terms of Talent ID, Vitesse work with ten grassroots clubs in the region. These partnerships are not financial but the clubs they work with get benefits such as coach education and tickets to games. The obvious benefits for Vitesse themselves is the opportunity to build a network to help them identify potential talent. This is something I feel is sorely lacking in the English game. It is something that would come at minimal cost to clubs but create a network of people to help find the right players for a club. Equally, it can strengthen the grassroots game with coach education to help make the level of player coming through stronger.  Looking more broadly, across the county, Vitesse have 20 national scouts. This gives them the opportunity to recruit in areas such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam where there may be missed talents in more densely population regions.

"Are you ready for the game of the future?"

At Vitesse, they stress that football is always changing. To stay ahead of the game, they must keep thinking forwards and being innovative. In order to keep progressing, they must keep adapting and looking at others and themselves. 

Vitesse want to "play dominant, attractive and dynamic football with players who can translate this in all circumstances in practice"

We had many excellent presentations in the media room!
They do however have guiding principles for how they want to develop players and the style in which they want to play for. They start off simple eat the younger ages with less topics/areas but as they get older they are exposed to more detail and depth around the Vitesse way of playing. These fall under, very simply; Defending, Attacking, Transition from Defending to Attacking and Transition from Attacking to Defending. 

We were fortunate to have a presentation from the U19s head coach, Ben van Dael. Ben had a wealth of experience, working at VV Venlo for 15 years (spending time as assistant coach of the first team and also as the interim head coach) and had also been manager at Fortuna Sittard just a couple of years ago. He gave us a great presentation after a training session about what they had worked on and it's relevance to their upcoming game (which had unfortunately been cancelled). One thing he said that really stood out to me however was "it's not all about systems, it's about spaces". Vitesse play with a 1-4-3-3 formation, but that in itself is very flexible to meet the needs of the individuals and the demands of the game. 

Freedom and fight

Ajax U14 v Vitesse U14
As we witnessed training sessions across the age groups there were many different types of sessions, covering different topics under those four areas stated. What was apparent to us, which Bart (van Rooijen) confirmed to us, is that the coaches have freedom to decide what they coach the group during the course of the season. This "lack of structure", if you can call it that, was a point of discussion amongst many attending alongside myself. Their thinking is that the coaches know the players the best. They are the ones that see them in training, and especially see how they play in fixtures in a competitive environment. The coaches just need to make sure that over the course of the year they cover the guiding 'principles' for that relevant age group. There is not a syllabus, so to speak, which is what those I attended with (including myself) are used to. 

Another similarity that lies with Ajax is that the coaches are there to 'help' and allow the players to do a lot for themselves. Each player has a talent and Vitesse are looking for the coaches to connect with the players, be positive and not get too emotional about mistakes - as it is important to remember the players are children. When players are struggling, they want to develop a player's character to 'fight' and keep going. This is evident when we witnessed Vitesse U14s v Ajax U14s, a fitting conclusion to the tour. Both sides showed a lot of talent, but despite having very little to play for (in terms of the league table) Vitesse's battling spirit prevailed, winning the game two nil. This gave a really clear image of what Vitesse Arnhem were about. They try to play football in an attractive manner, using a positional game but equally they display a hunger and desire to win the game. The players understand what it means to play for the club.

The three days or so that I spent there most certainly weren't enough, and I would love to visit again and learn more about how they implement their vision and principles of play into the teams and players across the age groups. I look forward to seeing how Vitesse, a club certainly on the rise, continue to develop their players and how they continue to utilise the relationship they have with Chelsea!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comment section below. Thanks again to Murray Jones, who organised the whole trip and a top person too! 

Monday, 7 May 2018

Michael Carrick - a wasted talent?

Hearing that Michael Carrick would be retiring at the end of this season and taking up a coaching role at Manchester United was a sad moment for me.

Not just because he was a player who I often tried to model my own game on as a youngster, but because it made me reflect on an ultimately wasted talent.

Not necessarily at club level, where Sir Alex Ferguson saw beyond the criticism he had in his early days, when the pressure was on to find a replacement for Roy Keane. Ferguson recognised the qualities Carrick brought and had shown as a young player at West Ham and Tottenham. Carrick won pretty much everything there is to win at club level. 

It was on the international stage where he was sorely underused - particularly in the big tournaments. Carrick earned 34 caps in total. Nothing to be ashamed of, of course, but when you see that the likes of James Milner, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Phil Neville, Gareth Barry and others have earned more caps it irks me slightly.



Carrick in his prime is the player that England sorely need now and in hindsight, clearly needed during the era of the 'golden generation'. 

I suppose it seems strange that I might say that when England had midfielders such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes (all regularly compared against each other). Sure, there was talent in the centre of park, where you could also consider David Beckham could play but what England really lacked was someone that could control the tempo of a game and be unnerved under pressure.

It was often question whether Gerrard and Lampard could, or should, play together in midfield. The evidence from their performances together in an England shirt suggests no but I wonder how they would have fared with a holding midfielder in Carrick behind them? 

England managers at one staged, particularly Sven, seemed wedded to 4-4-2 which meant shoehorning a player like Paul Scholes in at left midfield, or giving Gerrard or Lampard defensive responsibilities in the midfield unit. It was only when Michael Owen got injured at the World cup, and the other alternatives were Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott, did Sven decide to switch to a 4-5-1. 

Carrick was pretty unfortunate in this case too. Having performed excellently in his first and last game in an international tournament, he was dropped for Owen Hargreaves (who himself was playing very well, to be fair). Just when it seemed it had fallen into place it was snatched away from him. Here is a video where he is highlighted by pundits as man of the match in the game against Ecuador. 


Gary Lineker asks at the end of the video 'why has it taken so long for him to get a chance' and yet that was the last we would see of Michael Carrick at an international tournament! 

From 2006 onwards for several years, Carrick was one of the most consistent, high performing midfielders in Europe, let alone of the English players. It beggars belief as to how he was so vastly underrated by English managers.

Going into the 2010 World Cup, some of the concern was whether Gareth Barry would be fit in time, regarded as a key player. Fabio Capello response to Barry's lack of fitness was to change his whole game plan, ending up Lampard and Gerrard in a 4-4-2, once again. Carrick, meanwhile, spent the whole tournament on the bench. He was 28, at the peak of his powers you would argue! 

Roy Hodgson also appeared to neglect him, although he did make it clear that by then Carrick had made it clear he no longer wanted to join up with the squad only to be overlooked again. 

Looking at the current England squad; we don't really have an outstanding midfielder in that mould. Eric Dier is a good footballer, who can fill in at centre back or centre midfielder but I would not consider him to have the passing ability to play as a holding midfielder on his own. He benefits from having Mousa Dembele or Christian Eriksen around him where he can distribute the ball to them. England lack a player with the level of passing ability Carrick possessed, and that is a real issue considering the way the FA want England team's to try and play in this day and age.

My other concern is where the next 'Carrick' is going to come from? Do we place emphasis on this type of player in England? 

Don't get me wrong - the academies in England are clearly producing some seriously talented footballers. Whether they get the opportunity is another question of course, but the success of the England youth teams last summer points to a high standard coming through. But what I am hoping we can produce in the near future are players who can control the tempo of a game from deeper positions, players who can play under pressure to create space for other players. 

We have a lot of talented attacking footballers, and have many young players (Sterling, Kane, Rashford, Alli) in the current England squad but what we are really waiting for is a midfielder with the reading of the game, the vision and the composure Carrick demonstrated at his peak for Manchester United. 

It is nice to see that he is taking his first steps into coaching. If done in the right way, taking the necessary steps, he could provide a great insight for young footballers. He had a brain like few other English players and it will be very interesting to see the impact he may have at United next season. 

That said, I still can't help but feel that despite the success he had in his club career, he was a truly wasted talent in an England shirt. 

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Academy restructuring - set to become the norm?


"The Club has been forced to rethink the way it develops young players as a consequence of the impact of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) system."
This was the line from Tranmere Rovers FC following the unfortunate news that the club were set to, essentially, close down their youth academy. 

Tranmere have been in the Conference now for a couple of seasons. With a full time academy (and various other ventures that they are leading the way in), this was eventually going to be an area that they had to scale down should they not get back into the football league in the near future. 

This will have been tough on the many players in their academy that may not be so lucky to find another professional club. Tranmere have acknowledged themselves that and will try to assist them in finding new clubs but not all will be able to. Equally, I imagine many will have lost jobs and roles and have to find themselves new environments to work and coach in. 

However, Tranmere are not the first side to come to this conclusion following the impacts of EPPP. Wycombe, Brentford and more recently Huddersfield have all restructured in some form. 
Jason Koumas - a success story of
 Tranmere's academy in the past
All four of those clubs have produced a good standard of player from their academies. In days gone by, Tranmere have profited from the sales of Jason Koumas (£2.5m), Ryan Taylor (£750k), Ian Nolan (£2m), Clint Hill (£250k) who they had produced in their academy set ups which will have surely helped with the running of the club, let alone the academy. Due to the current system, Tranmere are now losing players for free at the younger age groups where they may previously have been able to hold onto players. 

These are not decisions that clubs are taking lightly. 

Brentford were well regarded in the competitive environment that is the London academy scene, with Miguel Rios, Kevin O'Connor and Ose Aibangee known figures for their good work at the club who were thriving in the Championship. 

Huddersfield cited their frustration at the lack of local players coming through to their first team. A startling fact in the BT 'No Hunger in Paradise' documentary revealed that Manchester City had more scouts in Huddersfield than Huddersfield themselves. They clearly did not feel the academy was value for money, despite having one U15 that was in the England youth squads and has since signed for Manchester United.  
"Running our academy in its current format (U8s to U18s) costs in excess of £300,000 a season and over the last two years we have lost over £500,000 of central funding for academy operations. 
  
Prior to the introduction of the EPPP system, the income from player sales offset some or all of the cost, and Tranmere had some notable success in developing and selling players." 
Tranmere's academy operated in, like Brentford, Wycombe and Huddersfield, a very competitive environment. They are probably used to losing out on players, but also probably made some good money previously for players that they lost to clubs around them. With EPPP making it easier for clubs in the higher categories to sign players from further away, this only compounds this issue. 

In terms of developing players, Tranmere are now going to focus their efforts on a 16+ development team. This may have come off of the back of Brentford's success in this area, as they now have more freedom to play against different types of opposition and focus their efforts on one group of players. You would imagine that this is more financially viable for them too, as well as still offering high levels of coaching in 'centre of excellences' at "affordable prices" for players in the local area. 


What will not be cut is the Futsal academy, contrary to reports earlier in the week. Tranmere have been a real leader in this area and are helping to develop Futsal in England as it continues to become ever more popular. They have received lots of praise for how they promote Futsal and also have an international coaching scheme, where the have coaches in China. 

I also found this statement interesting too: 

"Change is never comfortable but football has changed and we have to react and redefine our academy operation order, to protect the Club and to benefit those in our community."

Again, this is something similar to Brentford in being able to offer more to the community. Money that they may feel was wasted towards their academy programme may go to better use in creating more inclusive communities. Tranmere have announced several things that they are going to do with schools and grassroots football, which I commend them on.

One of the major criticisms (and I believe this too) of professional clubs is the lack of work or partnerships with grassroots clubs. I have mentioned this before, but Ajax work with over forty clubs in their local area, working with them to develop players and importantly, coaches! 

There is so much work we can do that could help raise the standard of coaching, not only to develop players but offer more opportunities for young children to be physically active and feel part of their local community. 

Tranmere feel that they expect more clubs to follow suit and it is hard to argue with this. 

EPPP serves a purpose, that being benefitting those at the top of the tree but much like in wider society this does not trickle to those lower down. Why not reject EPPP if this is the case? 

Ultimately, clubs outside of that inner circle may have no other choice.

You can read the story from Tranmere here. I'd certainly be interested to hear people's views on this!

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Winter Football issue - is Futsal the answer?

It's a common issue every year for grassroots football across the country.

A downpour of rain over night and your weekend can be ruined in one moment when you receive the dreaded message.

'Game is off'.

It is a constant point of debate amongst supporters of grassroots football. What can be done to stop this annual period of postponed games due to waterlogged pitches and bad weather?

Some of this discussion turns to the state of facilities for the grassroots game. 3G pitches were recognised as the way forward, with the core issue being funding. While the Parklife scheme is being
rolled out across the country by Sport England and the FA, a lack of facilities at this current time has been considered a real issue. And hearing the prices that some of these football 'hubs' are going to charge to hire it anyway, I'm not sure it's going to solve much of the problem.

Just this weekend, a central venue league for under sevens which play all their games on a 3G astro had to call off their games anyway. We can have as many astro turf pitches as we want but if even they get ruined by the weather, we need another plan.

A familiar sight
Another idea has been to move the grassroots football season to the summer. Whilst this is a decent proposal there will be issues around holidays, the great summer tournaments we have in that time and importantly, sports such as cricket would really lose out. 

More recent talk has centred around an alternative solution. Leagues have begun to pilot winter Futsal programmes.

This just seems to make so much more sense than the current, traditional set up. There are plenty of halls, such as in primary and secondary schools, with the space to play games in. The facilities would not be hard to come by with the right planning and are probably cheaper too. Futsal goals may be an issue, but again with the right preparation this can be organised in good time. It could be as simple as running through the start of December to the end of January, the times were traditionally rain stops play. 

This is not an attempt to stop kids playing in the rain, as some might worry or claim the world is going mad. I love football in the rain, but it is this period where games are routinely called off due to the pitches being unplayable that we need to find a solution for. Additionally, the pitches that regularly take a hammering could get a much needed rest as well and be in better condition potentially by the time the football season starts up again.

From a player development perspective, this could be massively beneficial too. Whilst Futsal is a sport in its own right, there is no denying it could be a great tool for improving a player's technical ability, especially in the early ages. That combined with decision making, with less space and time on the court, can add to the holistic development of a player. 

We wouldn't quite need these facilities...
It could be viewed from a multi-sport perspective too, with a variety of health and social benefits. This would offer something alternative, something fresher, to also give young players a chance to try something new that actually they may want to take up later down the line to stay physically active.

There would, I am sure, be other minor barriers. Such as knowledge of the rules of Futsal for players, coaches and importantly, referees. Or having to buy enough Futsal specific balls for the games.

Once again, these are problems that are simple enough to solve and while it may take some more of our time (and money) it may just be worth it. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Expected goals, expected scepticism...


As Jeff Stelling fumed about Arsene Wenger citing expected goals post-match (what does he even know, anyway?), his Soccer Saturday cronies laughed in the background. 'Yeah, you tell 'em Jeff!'

It is not the first outdated rant that a member of the Soccer Saturday team has made, as poor Marco Silva will tell you.

It is no surprise that these 'Football Men', as they often referred as within the game, are as usual off the mark with a new approach within football. I would guess that it threatens their own positions, as they begin to look more and more outdated. 

It is also not surprising that he had absolutely no idea what expected goals really is, as many who dismiss it as pointless do. 

A rant like Stelling's about expected goals is a dangerous one however within football because it will have been lapped up but unsuspecting fans, players and coaches who also have no idea what expected goals, or 'xG' as it can be known, even is. As a result, they will themselves be dismissive as it's a load of nonsense according to good old, lovable Jeff. 
Jeff rants about xG, Marco Silva and
 how football was better in his day

But if you dig a little deeper the whole concept of expected goals is very interesting and above all, useful. How many times have you been discussing a game you've just watched, particularly as a fan of one of the teams, bemoaning the missed chances that have impacted the outcome of the game?

Expected goals actually helps us work out if that is true or not. It is a metric that quantifies the likelihood of an effort on goal actually being scored through an algorithm.

Why should fans care? Well, they don't have to, and they probably don't, but when someone is bemoaning a team's fortunes such 'on another day that shot goes in' or 'we were unlucky' you can actually go a long way to proving it to be true or not.

xG has come to prominence somewhat more as it has started to appear on MOTD (after the corner statistic flashes for each game, how sad am I?) since the start of the 2017-18 season. For anoraks like me, it's really cool that something like this is being embraced in the mainstream media. It is something I think will quickly become the norm amongst football fans in the coming years.

For coaching, scouting and analysis, it is just one of many developments in football analytics. Any team who outwardly promotes their use of analytics is labelled as using 'moneyball', which I think again shows that there is a long way to overcoming the dismissive nature of football towards stats!

A metric like expected goals can be huge for departments across a club. Coaches can assess where they might need to work with a striker, in terms of their finishing or the positions they pick up. Analysts can identify exactly that for them. Scouts can back up subjective attitudes towards a player with objective data like this. If a player truly does pick up good positions but just isn't scoring them yet 'xG' will help identify this, making the recruitment process a whole lot more efficient.

I am by no means an expert on this area, far from it (!) but I do recognise it's significance and how it could aid my own coaching in football if I wish to pursue it at a higher level one day.

As analytics becomes more sophisticated it is slowly being dripped into youth development in the professional game - which can only be a good thing. The more objective we can become to supplement that alongside the more subjective information and ideas we have about players the more informed decisions can be made about young players and their future. Too often, decisions on young players are made on a whim because of a personal opinion from one coach, which may not be representative of that club as a whole. 

In terms of grassroots football, it may not have as much significance due to the nature of the game at that level with various constraints that would not really allow for it, not least of all; time. But just by educating players, or coaches, they can start to think a little more objectively about things rather than relying on their own confirmation bias.

The dismissal of expected goals as a metric by the more old-school thinkers is a strange one, but as I said above not surprising. Statistics, especially the interesting ones, possibly threaten this type of individual's 'traditions' and 'values' and maybe they worry will be rendered useless as modern football develops. Those who embrace it however, will find the benefits. What is to lose anyway?

Though the 'Football Men' may not like it, expected goals is here to stay and is slowly becoming the norm. Furthermore, there will be many more useful statistics to come that will be far more meaningful than the original 'possession' that brought stats into play in football. Analytics is developing in football into something very meaningful, so think before you dismiss it without even understanding it!
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To learn more about expected goals and analytics in football, here are some interesting articles!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/40699431 - BBC article

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/nov/22/jeff-stelling-expected-goals-stats-xg-soccer-am - Guardian article

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLcXH_4rwr4 - FourFourTwo documentary

https://experimental361.com/ - Very good website that breaks it down

https://statsbomb.com/2013/08/goal-expectation-and-efficiency/ - Goal expectation and efficiency

Friday, 15 September 2017

The relative age effect revisited

Last year I wrote this article on the relative age effect. Since then, for my dissertation in my degree I researched the impact of the coach as a social agent on RAE and whether their knowledge levels are sufficient in combatting birth bias. If you wish to read my dissertation feel free to contact me or comment below! 

Istvan Balyi, a sports scientist, devised the long-term athlete development model during the 1990s. Balyi recognised that the talent identification process in sport was flawed and that someone who is identified as talented at a young age does not mean they will always become an elite athlete. An easy example is that often a young player would simply be physically mature for their age and stand out as a result because they could use their size as an advantage at that time, leading to smaller talents going unnoticed.

Balyi's model sought to restore the balance between training load and competition during childhood and adolescence, recognising the different stages that young people are ready to develop at. If
fundamental skills were taught during these optimal stages of development, it could help divert the focus away from short terms results (or selecting the current best performers) and focus on long term development. For this reason the Football Association adopted, and adapted, this model in order to create a holistic method for coaches to follow.

This is relevant when discussing the Relative Age Effect (RAE) as the theory suggests that those born earlier in the year, and thus more likely to be bigger in physical size, benefit in the early years of talent identification and selection. But why is it that coaches and scouts identify more physically mature children as 'talented'?

My dissertation research primarily sought to gain an understanding of the knowledge grassroots coaches have of the relative age effect, and furthermore how they impact this and their understanding of the FA's Long Term Player Development model (LTPD). It involved over 200 coaches answering questionnaires and some attending a focus group.

In my results, there was a chasm in levels of understanding of RAE between UEFA qualified coaches and Level 1 grassroots coaches. On the face of it, this is understandable. Coaches who have more time to invest in themselves and coach at a higher level were more likely to have encountered education on RAE. It was also identified in the focus group that Level 1 coaches are more likely to be a parent or family member with less spare time than a career coach who has UEFA qualifications.

However, this is problematic because when children are identified to be selected for a professional club it tends to be in the grassroots game, probably coached by coaches with Level 1 or 2 qualifications. These coaches tend to have less of an understanding of the Relative Age Effect and as a 'social agent' may be allowing RAE to manifest as a result. They may be giving increased and better quality opportunities due to their perception of a player as 'talented'. This is known as the Pygmalion effect. A player who may have more talent but just hasn't been able to showcase it yet because of their current physical disadvantages may miss out on these opportunities. It has been shown in research that "talent" at a young age is not a very good indicator of their chance of making it as an athlete and this could be a possible reason why.

My research found that the majority of coaches (particularly those with the Level 1 and/or 2) felt inadequately educated on the matter. Though there has been an increased emphasis on implementing RAE into coach education, the majority of coaches responding to the questionnaire felt they had not been made suitably aware of the issue. This suggests that although most have encountered RAE not enough time has been spent on it nor has there been much depth to this education. Due to the time constraints of coaches who volunteer in the grassroots games, ideas such as short refresher courses and online modules were recommended for further education on the Relative Age Effect, which could also count towards any FA Licensed Coaches Club (FALCC) members continuous professional development. Details such as ways that coaches can combat RAE were mentioned, as they felt that a lack of solutions were provided for coaches to use at grassroots level. More information on how the FA's LTPD model can reduce RAE would also be hugely beneficial! A holistic approach will reduce the reliance on one area where someone may be forging ahead, such as physical development, which is mentioned is not always a good indicator of future ability.

In the FA's adapted LTAD model they introduced four corners which they believe impact a player's development. Technical, Psychological, Physical and Social. In the questionnaire and focus group, participants were asked to rate which they felt were most important but also which they felt they could impact on the most. The issue with identifying young people as naturally gifted is that this means that they do not believe they can coach this. It is 'nature' after all! However, this is another mechanism that allows RAE to manifest

The physical corner of development was also recognised by the coaches as less important to consider and less likely for them to be able to impact on. Whereas it has previously been an accepted idea that in English football too much emphasis is placed on a player's physical ability to help win games, it might also be a less conscious factor that creates this birth bias. Because coaches do not consider it as important, they are less likely to cater someone who is physically smaller and recognise that they need more time to develop before they are discarded as not good enough! Furthermore, if a coach does not believe they can affect a player's physical development due to it being an issue of 'nature' then that player may suffer more in the future too.

This was an interesting topic to cover for my dissertation and one that I consider very important in the grassroots games, particularly at the younger ages. Players are picked up (wrongly in my opinion) at ages as young as four and five nowadays. Everyone is in a rush to beat each other to talent and therefore these decisions are made in an instant. Subconsciously, are these people going to identify the smaller, younger, possibly less noticeable players or the players who make an impact on the game in that moment in time? Hopefully this is a trend that will begin to change and more due diligence will be made!