It is not PlayStation for dads: FA's grass-roots plan for richer England future

Educating parents, scrapping league tables and smaller sided games are part of revolution to improve juniors
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The Independent Football

While Jack Wilshere has spent the season working towards what is expected to be his competitive international debut at Cardiff tomorrow, Nick Levett has been pounding the nation's motorways, continuing the Football Association's efforts to ensure that, in a dozen years' time, players like the precocious Arsenal midfielder will be the norm, not the exception.

Levett is the FA's national development manager for youth football and mini-soccer. It is a big title, for a big job. He is currently touring the country seeking to win "hearts and minds" for a revolution in grass-roots youth football which, the FA hopes, will end in a long-overdue English World Cup triumph.

The governing body is seeking to roll back decades of social change with an ambitious programme so contentious it does not intend to make it mandatory until 2013. By then, it hopes, the mini-Mourinho dads (and mums) will have been persuaded to see the bigger picture, and put the kids first. That will entail accepting the scrapping of league tables for children below secondary-school age, the introduction of five-a-side and nine-a-side football, summer football and a change in the date that determines which age-group children play in. "These are sensitive issues but we have got to get our young players technically better," said Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development. He added: "The success of the Under-17 England team shows we can produce players, but we need a greater depth of talent. If we implement these ideas I'm sure we will see progress."

The reason the FA needs to take these measures is that children now play almost all their football within organised structures. Boys and girls as young as five are playing in proper teams. Thirty years ago most junior leagues began around the same time children went to secondary school; prior to that it was the old cliché, "jumpers for goalposts". That meant small-sided, self-refereed games with an emphasis on skill and dribbling with the pitch size determined by the number of players involved.

Social change, notably parents' fear of allowing their children out on their own, the attraction of electro-nic games like Nintendo, and a decline in open spaces, means kids no longer play like that. Organised teams have become the norm; the problem is, they are run by adults, and many appear to be operated as much for the latter's benefit as the children's.

"Many, many parents do a brilliant job, but some need to ask themselves, 'why I am running this team?' said Les Howie, the FA's head of grass-roots coaching. "It should be about letting the kids develop skills and enjoy themselves, it is not PlayStation for dads."

The FA has been working to educate parents and reduce the critical approach which drives so many children away from the game. "There is work to be done but we are better placed than a few years ago," said Howie. Indeed, a recent 5,000-head poll on Club Website, an internet site devoted to helping grass-roots clubs, found that 74 per cent support the move to nine-a-side – quite a change, considering there was a protest march on FA headquarters when 11-a-side was outlawed for under-10s a decade ago. Moreover, there are nearly 200 leagues already operating nine-a-side.

However, changing the competitive culture surrounding youth football is not easy and there was much less support for the scrapping of league tables. The FA believes children are not motivated by the desire to win medals, and has polling evidence to back that assertion up, but it seems parents are. Thus Levett's roadshow.

It is not just the grass roots who need to be convinced. Three FA committees have been involved in simply agreeing the form of a consultation process that will run until September. Next month, it is hoped, the FA Board will pass an outline budget (for administration and provision of items such as smaller goals) that is expected to run into several million pounds. It should go through but, football politics being what they are, nothing is guaranteed.

It is hoped the new measures will start being adopted in the 2012-13 season with mandatory introduction for the following campaign. The new age eligibility recommendations would initially apply to under-sevens only to prevent existing teams having to break up.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Player Pathway, which introduced four-a-side football for children aged six to nine, and restricted trophy competitions, midwinter football and 11-a-side matches to children over 12, is already in operation.

While it may seem a tortuous process getting these proposals adopted, not everyone believes the FA is going far enough. As one rising coach argues on these pages, the philosophy of the English game needs to change, and the standard of coaching to be raised. That is also on Brooking's agenda, but he has learnt from experience that the national sport can only be steered in the right direction, not pushed.

Game of Nines: What the FA proposes

1. More small-sided games

Current Seven-a-side up to under-10. Then 11-a-side.

Proposed Five-a-side to under-eight, seven-a-side to under-10, nine-a-side to under-12, then 11-a-side.

Of the major European countries only in England do primary school children play 11 v 11. The Football Association proposes to copy practice in France, Italy and Germany with five-six year olds playing five-a-side, and the introduction of a nine-a-side stepping stone from mini-soccer to the full-size game (Spain play seven v seven to the age of 12, then 11 v 11, the Dutch start with four v four).

The leap to 11-a-side is currently so great it is the period at which children are most likely to stop playing the game. A fun game becomes a slog dominated by the bigger boys (or girls). That is hardly surprising. The first time you play on a full-size mens' pitch is not easily forgotten, especially by goalkeepers. As one boy told the FA: "Why do I have to defend the same size goal as Petr Cech?" Another said: "Why is the pitch so much bigger than last year? We're only a little bit bigger."

Indeed, Nick Levett, the FA's national development manager for youth football and mini-soccer, said: "The fastest-growing kid grows 2.5cm in the three or four months between leaving mini-soccer at under 10s and starting 11 v 11. In that time, we increase the size of the goal by 265 per cent and the size of the pitch by 435 per cent".

As a consequence the big kids dominate and teams launch the ball long as it would otherwise take too long to get up the pitch. The kids thus end up playing like Stoke, not Arsenal, which is no good for England; the big kids – the Carraghers and Carrolls – thrive, the would-be Messis disappear.

2. Fewer league tables

Current Tables begin at under-nine

Proposed No tables until under-12

The proposal which is likely to meet most resistance is the scrapping of league tables. When, in 1999, the FA decided no league tables should be published until the under-nine age group Les Howie, the FA's head of grassroots coaching, received hate mail. It was forced through, and is now grudgingly accepted, but the argument will have to be won again.

The FA believes the kids are on their side. When asked in surveys why they play, children regularly place the winning of trophies and leagues near the bottom of the list. Besides, the FA is not prohibiting all competition. It is happy to have short-term leagues, as at festivals, and cup competitions, but not a nine-month campaign that is quickly dominated by a few teams.

3. Summer football

Current Season runs August-May.

Proposed Playing March-November

This forms part of a consultation, but is a grassroots development with local leagues, especially in the north, considering the switch to make the most of kinder weather, better pitches and lighter evenings. Training would benefit even more than matchplay. There are issues with cricket, but junior football is usually played in the mornings, cricket in the afternoons.

4. Reduce birth-date bias

Current Eligibility in line with school year, 1 September–31 August.

Proposed In line with calendar year, 1 January–31 December.

Summer football would also make it possible to change the eligibility dates for junior players to mitigate the disadvantage suffered by children born in the summer who are always the youngest (and thus often smallest) in each age-group.

At present eligibility runs in tandem with the school year, so an under-11 team are all under 11 years of age on 1 September (the last year of primary school). This creates an inherent bias towards autumn births as those children are more likely to win places in selective teams. They then get better coaching, and play with and against better players, and so maintain that edge.

In the Premier League academy system in May 2009 57 per cent of the 2,500 students were born in the first third of the school year, 14 per cent in the third.

While changing the start date would to an extent simply move the bias, that would be mitigated as school teams, and selective sides based on education, would remain with the current system.