In an under-nines game I refereed last season, a boy attempted to dribble out of his own goal area under pressure. From the sidelines came the shout: "Get rid of it. No skill." The voice was that of the coach. And we wonder why Norway, even under an exponent of direct football such as Egil Olsen, kept the ball better than England on Saturday.
That is what an emphasis on league tables can do to well-meaning but under-educated coaches (whose praise from parents is often dependent on league position). Football is about winning, but it should also, when children play, be about fun and development. The FA Council's assent yesterday to the Youth Development Review (YDR) is a belated, but very welcome step towards producing an England team that will treat the ball as a friend, not a time-bomb. Admittedly, most of the boys it will affect will never come close to playing for their country, but even at parks level the ability to trap and pass the ball enhances enjoyment and should improve participation rates.
Under the new proposals, to be phased in over two years, league tables will be banished until under-12 (secondary school) level. There will still be competition, but it will be in the form of cups and festivals. From under-12, instead of playing in a league from August to May (a long time for an 11-year-old, especially if the team is struggling) children will play a series of smaller competitions, which will be regularly restructured so teams play others of similar ability.
The other main proposal is the banning of 11 v 11 until age 13. Up to under-8 level, children will play five v five, with appropriate-sized goals and pitches. Under-9 and -10 levels will play seven v seven; under-11 and -12 will play nine v nine. These mandatory changes will enable children to get more touches of the ball during matches, to play on smaller pitches which encourage passing through the thirds (instead of the big kid lumping it forward), and rescue pint-sized goalkeepers from the impossibility of defending adult-sized goals.
The YDR is the result of widespread consultation, much of it with children, and a 138-date national roadshow persuading the conservative world of youth football to accept it. Gareth Southgate, the FA's head of elite development, and Nick Levett, national development manager for youth and mini soccer, deserve much credit for the 87 per cent vote in favour. However, to be sure of getting a yes vote some proposals had to be abandoned or watered down.
The next challenge is persuading the youth game to accept a new eligibility date of 1 January to obviate the age-bias which means an unfeasible number of professional and international players are born in the first four months of the school year. Schools would retain a 1 September cut-off date.
The main changes
A gradual progression to 11 v 11 football, to be phased in by 2014/15: mandatory 5 v 5 football for under-7s and under-8s, with 9 v 9 for under-11s and under-12s.
The sizes of pitches and goals will naturally fit the team numbers. Rather than demanding too much running from growing children, this should help to hone the youngsters' technique.
No long adult eight-month season, either. It will be broken down into smaller periods of competitions to encourage increased learning for the developing players.Reuse content