Footie tots prove you're never too young to dribble

The plumber and his mate decided not to follow the FA way. Ronald Atkin reports on a radical plan
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As the ball rolled across the face of goal, Andrew Mills drove it home right-footed. Seconds later he did it again, this time with his left. Andrew is four years old, part of a scheme called Footie Tots, set up by the unlikely combination of a plumber and a property investor, to teach children the skills of football at what is officially regarded as an impossibly early age.

The efforts of the plumber, Ian Wheeler, and the property man, Robert Hedley, to spark the interest and support of the football authorities have been rebuffed but as Andrew and another four-year-old, Alex Bickerstaffe, showed on the carpeted, sprung floor of the Avondale Gymnasium Club at Surbiton, Surrey, it is never too early to make a start in the beautiful game, provided proper precautions are observed.

"I approached the Football Association, who told me you aren't supposed to play football until the age of seven," said Wheeler. The Football Foundation, in rejecting a request for backing funds, said much the same. So Wheeler and Hedley have gone it alone for the past year, devising and buying the equipment.

One of the early priorities was to seek reassurance that there is no risk to health or developing bones. "I got on to the sports people at Loughborough University and asked if there was anything wrong or dangerous in what I was doing," said Wheeler. "They said no." Although the children, from three years up, are learning to play a contact sport, care is taken to ensure no contact in Footie Tots.

The footballs are small and soft and the exercises monitored by Wheeler, who has no coaching qualifications, and Mary Marshall, the Avondale manager, who has. After they had supervised stretching exercises, 10 three- and four-year-olds were directed through sequences on and around circular, oblong and zig-zag plastic mats. If the mat was red, they had to move quickly. If it was blue, you went slowly. First it was done without a ball, then with one. Next came control exercises, done with foam rubber cubes, because, Mary explained, "they are easier to control than a ball which can roll away".

Apart from Alex and Andrew, who have been doing this for a year, the other eight were first-timers recruited that morning by the simple expedient of Wheeler going to a nursery school and handing out cards to mothers with a message promising "an introduction to the world of football, teaching basic ball skills, scoring lots of goals and having fun on the way."

Though their props are easily contained in a large cardboard box, the ambitions of Hedley and Wheeler are limitless. Wheeler got the idea because his daughter, Leanne, took up gymnastics at three. "Soon she could do 600 sit-ups but some of the Sunday football team I coach, Surbiton Griffins, could only manage a couple. I have run this team since they were 11 and they are now 23, but they are a bunch of flaming drunkards. When they turn up to play, some of them are still suffering from being out the night before, and afterwards it's straight into the pub. Yet they are one of the top three teams in a six-divison league. On their day they can beat anybody, but it makes you think.

"That's why I've decided to start again, this time properly, because by the time they get to seven my kids will be able to do all these things with a ball others of their age can't. This is the way forward and we intend to prove it. When TV commentators see players dribbling, they only seem to have one word for it, a shimmy. Yet we have named 14 different dribbling moves. Every single move is individual to each player, imprinted like a fingerprint. All we are trying to do is make that imprint while they are young.

"The skills Alex and Andrew have got, you'd think they were eight or nine. The greatest thrill is to see kids learn to run with the ball. Look at Michael Owen. What's he good at? Running with the ball. It's what every footballer wants, having the ball glued to the end of their foot while running fast.

"But Footie Tots has been an uphill struggle. When you talk to other coaches they say teaching three-year-olds to play football can't be done, simple as that. From my point of view it's a bit like when the first person said the world was round while everybody else claimed it was flat."

Hedley funded the purchase of plastic, at £600 a roll, for the mats, which had to be non-flammable and safe against the possibility of children chewing on them. To become involved, he needed to overcome early scepticism. "When Ian first introduced me to it I couldn't make head or tails what he was talking about. I thought, 'yeah, have another beer, Ian'. It took him a good six to eight months to convince me, and there are plenty of times I have thought it was a waste of time, but it's not. When it actually comes together you can see the result."

Friday's session, predominantly involving children new to the scheme, was cheerfully, noisily chaotic. The sessions are limited to 45 minutes, so as not to threaten the attention span and, though the newcomers were sometimes confused about what they were supposed to be doing, the overwhelming reaction was enjoyment, especially when the time came to kick footballs into miniature goals.

Of the 10 in last year's inaugural class, eight are still going, including Alex and Andrew. This second-year group are called Footie Wizards and when they go into the third year will become Footie Masters. Separate age groups had to be set up when Wizards refused to play with Tots, dismissing them as "babies." Wheeler regrets that a lack of funds and assistance currently restrict each age group to one session a week. "After a year there is real progress and three times a week would be better for them," he said. "More training is essential so they can get the feel of the ball, as long as it's in the proper conditions so they won't risk damaging bones."

The scheme is a brave try and you have to wish the plumber and his mate luck. Who knows, if it works we might find Andrew and Alex scoring for England in the 2018 World Cup.