Football: Can we have our ball games back, please?: Young victims of 'mixer' mentality: Jim White on the perils of parents living out manager fantasies

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The Independent Online
YOU can see the problem with English football every Sunday morning in Victoria Park, east London. He is standing there, thick-necked, shaven-headed, with a muscled dog on a studded lead snapping at his ankles. He is patrolling the touchline of a football pitch, yelling 'get stuck in', 'don't let him get past ya', 'shove it in the mixer' at muddied players. Players who are ten, nine, eight years old.

He is there, too, every Sunday in every park in every town in England, giving up his time to frighten his son's friends, turning them into a gang of cloggers, kickers and rushers. This is where it all starts, where skill is smothered and muscle takes over. This is where we become a nation moulded in the image of Tony Adams.

It need not be thus. There is nothing innately less skilful about an English boy; compared with a Dutch, Brazilian or German child he can cut it. During the last half-term holiday, I took my five-year-old along to a scheme run by Leyton Orient, a day of football fun for kids, it was called. And some of the boys there, six and seven years old, were doing things with a ball that would knock them dead on Copacabana Beach: balancing it on their necks, flicking it up with their heel, playing keepie-uppie for minutes on end.

So what happens to them? How come these junior Gullits and Cantonas don't make it? Why do they give up on football or, and it's much the same thing, turn into Carlton Palmer, who George Best memorably suggested 'can trap the ball further than I could kick it'?

It is certainly not the Leyton Orient coaches' fault. They were brilliant with the boys, patient, full of ideas, keen to make sure even those like my son, without much in the way of skill in their genes, were involved. There was no pressure, the tone was about enjoyment, self-expression and working with the ball. My son couldn't stop talking about it for a week afterwards, he even toyed with the idea of becoming an Orient fan.

No, the problem comes when they get a bit older: nine, say. In the inner cities - professional football's nursery - schools football is no longer significant. During the Eighties a combination of teachers' strikes, silly anti-sport dogma among local authorities and the off- loading of playing fields marginalised it.

Now many teachers are doing their best to reverse a decade of decline, but it is not easy. At my son's school, for instance, top-year pupils play their matches against other primaries on shale pitches. The headmaster encourages them, Arsenal have an excellent community scheme in which players visit the school, teach them skills and fill them with enthusiasm, but there is nothing regular about it. And they never see a blade of grass.

The nearest comprehensive to where I live doesn't play football at all. Without access even to shale, it concentrates on basketball and roller hockey in the gym. And it does it well: one of their old boys has just signed a contract with an American junior basketball club. A whole generation of inner-city boys are growing up there without interest in our national sport.

The only way boys can play organised football regularly is in the ad-hoc clubs organised by parents. Here they fall into the hands of well- meaning amateurs living out their management fantasies, the man on the touchline in Victoria Park.

Steve Winfield knows all about it. He runs a side for under-10s called Clerkenwell, which used to play in an East London League. He formed the side two years ago because he was alarmed at what he saw when he took his own son along to join an existing team.

'Only the big boys got in the side,' he says. 'Because they can kick it further, simple as that. These blokes who are meant to be coaching scream and shout, terrifying kids into winning at all costs. They have real problems finding goalies, because no kid wants to stand there in a full-sized goal while some big oaf comes and wellies it over his head into the net.'

Steve encourages his boys to enjoy themselves, to play with a smile on their face and to pass the ball. 'You play teams who don't pass all morning, they simply whack it to some big lump up front. And the trouble is they beat us that way. When you're little and skilful you just can't compete with that. So the bloke who runs the side thinks he's doing a good job, he's winning and he tells his boys that's all that matters.'

Worse, Steve has seen his more skilful players systematically targeted and kicked out of a game in the second half. 'You can't blame the lads who do it. Kids do what they're told at that age,' he says. 'But you can see it, the coach has told them to go get the good lad. The problem is habits you pick up at that age stick. Violence and aggression wins, skill's irrelevant. And the little lads think sod this, they go off and play Nintendo instead.'

Steve Winfield believes we should restrict the amount of full- scale football under-10s play. Have clubs where they concentrate on skill and enjoying their football. 'It really opens your eyes when you see these so-called coaches making nine-year-olds run laps and do sit- ups. God, they should be fit at their age, give them a ball and teach them how to use it.'

His philosophy is to play games with eight a side, on smaller pitches, with small goals. Ease brawn out. Ensure that when the boy is introduced to the full-scale game, at 11, say, he knows how to address a ball rather than an opponent's shin.

Steve is not the only one, of course. Across the country there are enlightened amateur coaches, men who encouraged the infant Andy Cole and Ryan Giggs to emerge despite the system. The better professional clubs too, such as Orient, are engaged in the community, doing their best. But as long as the man with the bull neck and the pit bull remains in control of our national game, it is no wonder players such as Giggs appear with all the frequency of an England World Cup win.