Have a ball, then make yourself comfortable

The English way
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The Independent Online

Ronaldo, sporting the biggest pair of shinpads in the world, is having trouble with his left-foot strike; "little" Law-rence is dribbling his way through the cones on the way to a goal which he celebrates with exaggerated and professional glee, while Lucy, all golden locks and mean right foot, shows them all how it should be done. This is central Surrey on a sunny holiday afternoon and Old Trafford seems a long way distant.

Ronaldo, sporting the biggest pair of shinpads in the world, is having trouble with his left-foot strike; "little" Law-rence is dribbling his way through the cones on the way to a goal which he celebrates with exaggerated and professional glee, while Lucy, all golden locks and mean right foot, shows them all how it should be done. This is central Surrey on a sunny holiday afternoon and Old Trafford seems a long way distant.

The scene would be recognisable in any one of a thousand summer footballing camps run the length and breadth of Britain. Outside the gate is a smart noticeboard advertising Cranmore School, an Independent Catholic School for ages 5 to 13; inside is a sporting wonderland, all yours for £3,000 a term or £40 for four days on a soccer course run by the Surrey Football Coaching Centre, the largest Football Association-backed soccer schools organisation in the UK.

This year the SFCC will run 32 courses in the county for 10,000 kids, one of whom, statistically, might make it to a professional club. The primary aim at this stage, though, isenjoyment not talent-spotting. "If a kid goes home at the end of the week and says 'thank you, I've had a really good time and I've learnt something', then that's great," says Dave Melham, director of the SFCC.

At the heart of the course is the FA syllabus which requires kids to be tested in dribbling, shooting, heading, turning and speed. Given the self-confessed inability of our national team to pass the ball properly, there is surprisingly no test for passing the ball or ball control. Each child gains a star rating (one to six) and receives an FA certificate at the end of the course.

In practice, the coaches vary the drills, adding in what Melham calls a "few bits and pieces of our own". Some set-up play before the shot, for example, or teaching diagonal and decoy runs to create space. In summer camps, with a varied range of abilities to absorb, the skill is to extend the more talented without ignoring the others. A fundamental principle of Melham's coaching is that each kid has a ball and that for 20 minutes every morning and afternoon they play on their own with the ball, honing individual skills, practising simple technique.

"I can remember when I went over to play in Holland with a side and I watched Feyenoord warm up," Melham recalls. "They had a ball each, we had one ball between 15 of us. That's stuck with me. If you start as a five or six-year-old just playing with a ball, learning to be comfortable with it, by the time they're 9 or 10, they're not going to be intimidated. You can find some summer camps where the kids have one ball between 35. I mean, what good is that?"

Out on the field, the oldest age group are being coached in the art of passing. Refreshingly, the routine includes a variety of pass; the chip, the flick with the end of the foot, the pass with the instep and the outside of the boot, the children are encouraged to experiment and explore different techniques. "Watch for body shape," shouts the coach. Body shape? Not a phrase you will find in the FA coaching manual. Melham leaps from his chair and stands square. "I mean, Paul Ince. Whenever he receives the ball he's like this, square on. That cuts down your options. If you receive the ball with the body slightly angled, you are balanced to turn either way, which opens up your options. That's good body shape. It's second nature to players like Zidane and Petit."

Equally, Melham believes that 10-year-olds are perfectly able to understand tactics and different formations. With the teams he runs at the Wimbledon Academy, he encourages a rotational system. One day centre-forward, the next right full-back so that, in the Dutch way, every player has an understanding of another's role. "Relaxation, composure, those are other words we use a lot," he adds. "You can't play unless you're relaxed."

Had Melham's career taken a different turn he might just be coming to the end of his life as a professional and wondering what to do next. He is 33 and left Wimbledon's books just as Dennis Wise was signed on, drifting into the twilight world of non-league football with Sutton United and contemplating what might have been had he been coached properly before the age of 15.

He was always interested in coaching and so when a chance to help out with some minisoccer camps came along he jumped at it. "It started with five kids on a Saturday morning and has just progressed and progressed," he says. He started Surrey Football Coaching Centres back in 1991 and 50,000 kids later his enthusiasm is undimmed.

When not running his company, he works for the Wimbledon Academy and it is a source of understandable pride that one of his summer camp kids has made it into the Academy. It is what professional clubs do with the talent fed into them that concerns Melham. Too many, he feels, fall by the wayside, the victims of poor coaching and the influx offoreign players.

Kevin Ross, one of the SFCC coaches, has first-hand experience of the Victorian man- management practices of some clubs. Ross played alongside Jody Morris in Chelsea's junior ranks until one day he was summoned to the privacy of the disabled toilets at the club training ground, along with two others, and told he was not wanted any more. He remembers this incongruous scene as if it was yesterday.

The beneficiaries of that brutal rejection are a group of seven and eight-year-olds Ross is putting through a series of games to help timing and coordination on the playing fields of a Surrey school. Ross is determined to help the next generation of players reach the heights he was denied and he comfortably passes the Melham test of enthusiasm. "I love it and I'm working with the best group. At that age, they know something, but they don't think they know it all. It's one of those jobs that makes you want to get up and go to work. Working with the kids, the sun's shining, I can't think of anything better."

Sometimes, Melham wished the FA would take a little more interest in his work, just a letter of thanks or a visit from one of the top brass. He has arranged his own sponsorship with Pepsi and Umbro. On the other hand, left alone, he can develop and adapt his own ideas, open his mind to other influences.

"Are we technically poor in this country? I don't think so. It's a matter of developing good habits early on. Can they pass the ball with both feet? If they try it and hit the tree, too bad, go back and try again." Ronaldo and little Lawrence might not be the future of England football, but it is reassuring to know that the next generation are learning to pass the ball properly.

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