Football / Coaching at the Ctrossroads: Are football's children in need?: England's World Cup exit and the apparent lack of young players capable of basic skills has focused attention on how the game is being taught. Special report by Phil Shaw

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The Independent Online
AS PEP talks go, it must have been one of the gentlest ever delivered on the premises of a Premiership club. 'No one's going to shout at you if you do anything wrong,' the coach calmly assured his players. 'The important thing is to enjoy yourself and not to be afraid to try things.'

The speaker was Dave Richardson, Aston Villa's director of youth development, and his audience 20 or so boys under the age of 12 assembled for their weekly hour under the lights at Villa's centre of excellence in rural Warwickshire. Richardson was as good as his word, supervising a session to warm the spirits of the watching parents on a night so cold that the goalposts needed lagging.

The youngsters, drawn from all over the Midlands, have been recommended to Richardson by teachers, scoutmasters and the like. In a series of skill excercises, then in a mini- match during which the ball was seldom propelled above the synthetic surface, the ability on display was dazzling. Everywhere there were 'Cruyff turns', audacious dummies and drag-backs with the sole of the foot.

You ended up thinking that if Josh, a wonderfully balanced, mini Darren Anderton from Erdington, and the small but prodigiously gifted Jamie from Halesowen - or any one of half a dozen others - does not make it into the professional ranks, there must be something badly wrong with the system.

Which is precisely what many with an interest in the development of England's young players have been saying for years. On Monday, the Football Association Council voted in measures which some of those involved at the sharp end argued could revolutionise English football. If it was a revolution, it was a quiet, typically English one; more of quiet coup, with minimal media scrutiny.

What was approved in a London hotel was based on recommendations Richardson helped to draft for the FA's infamous Blueprint. The most important change is that club centres of excellence, of which Villa have three out of a total of 150 in England, will now have 'unrestricted access' to players in the 9-16 age group.

There will also be a limit on the number of 11-a-side matches boys can play - in some cases more than halving the total to a maximum of 60 - to stop 'overplay' and the stress-related injuries to which it can lead.

The players' union vehemently opposes the first measure, for reasons articulated by Gordon Taylor elsewhere on this page. Richardson, a former non-League player who has helped mould the talents of players from Gary Lineker to Stephen Froggatt during 28 years with Middlesbrough, Leicester and Villa, believes it offers an opportunity to catch up with the Continentals.

'Last week I was in Holland at a club called Go Ahead Eagles in Deventer, who have their best boys in four times a week as opposed to the hour we've been allowed,' he said. 'Now we'll be able to do likewise. Working on a 30-week cycle, that's going to make a significant difference.'

An ex-teacher himself, Richardson traces a major part of the problem to changes in school sports over the past three decades. 'The football business lived off the schoolboy scene because they didn't need to coach or organise games. The teachers did everything for them and the clubs just went along and creamed off players.

'In the mid-Seventies there was a sudden change. The teaching fraternity wasn't so keen, and the Sunday scene became the big thing. Clubs just accepted it all, but now people are saying: 'Hold on, we're not getting the right material in - why?'

'We don't want to destroy schoolboy football, but to work with it. Instead of us all pulling like hyenas at a piece of flesh, which is what we've been doing, we'll now be able to plan their programme, though we as clubs will now have priority.'

Several of Richardson's under-15 group will have played as many as four matches in five days - for their schools, district, county and club - by the time they arrive at the centre tonight. 'That can't be right,' he said. 'But with the new legislation, it shouldn't be happening next year.'

He also hopes that the influence of the over-zealous teacher, parent or Sunday-team manager, screaming 'Close him down]' at a 10-year-old will be diminished. The development of technique should, in theory, take precedence over the need to win games.

Critics claim that because centres and boys will have to be registered with the FA, they will merely be in the sway of its much maligned director of coaching. 'It's not Charles Hughes's baby,' Richardson insisted. No one had ever ordered him to teach 'direct play' and nor would they now.

The Managerial Staffs Association, the professional body for managers and coaches, would, he hoped, have a considerable input into the curriculum. 'For the first time we've got a voice, and we definitely won't be tied to any dogma. That's not to say 'direct play' is wrong: we don't want to discourage a penetrative long pass. There has to be a blend with British football's traditional strengths.'

But shouldn't coaching tap into the expertise of professional players more? Richardson lists six ex-pros who help at the centre. Nigel Spink works with the goalkeepers when commitments allow, while all Villa players are invited to get involved.

'It's up to them. I can't tell them they've got to come. All I'd say to Gordon is that you won't find any centre of excellence turning away a professional footballer. But having international caps doesn't make someone a good communicator, and anyway, how many are interested?'

The more important issue, according to Richardson, is whether a football industry which has myopically neglected development is now prepared to invest financially in its future. Villa, whose teenaged hopefuls played on a concrete car park in Birmingham until the Eighties, offer a progressive model for any club with TV cash to spare once the Taylor Report is implemented.

'Until now, there's been a muck-or-nettles attitude towards coaching in this country,' Richardson said. 'The time has now come to grasp the nettle.'

(Photograph omitted)