Socrates, futebol de salão and Premiership ambitions – Steve Wilson looks at the strange case of Simon Clifford's Garforth Town
Watching Garforth Town crash out of this season’s Northern Counties League Cup on the kind of wet and windy Tuesday evening in northern England that foreigners are habitually assumed “not to fancy much”, it was difficult to imagine anywhere further from Brazil.
Yet now this former pit town just outside Leeds has been thrust into the spotlight after news broke that, in a matter of weeks, the various plumbers and electricians that make up the first team will be joined by a very famous doctor: 50-year-old Brazilian legend Socrates.
The architect of the deal, owner and manager Simon Clifford, is out to revolutionise English football. No one who has met this cocksure and passionate man – like a young José Mourinho from the north-east of England – would bet against it. A former primary school teacher, Clifford befriended Juninho when he joined Middlesbrough and the player introduced him to futebol de salão – a small-sided version of the game using a small, heavy ball that puts the emphasis on control and touch, that most Brazilians play until their early teens. Juninho claimed, perhaps apocryphally, that he hadn’t kicked a full-sized ball until he was 14.
Clifford went to Brazil to see for himself and returned convinced that using futebol de salão to furnish youngsters with ball skills, rather than having them run around muddy pitches in 11-a-side games, held the key to improving standards here. “There is a lot of rubbish talked about Brazilian football,” he says. “That they are so good because they play in the streets or on the beach. OK, maybe they do, but you see kids in this country playing in parks and that isn’t why we play the way we do. The clubs have a scientific attention to detail that we haven’t got. In the 1958 World Cup every bit of meat the players ate was measured for fat content. They were light years ahead and still are.”
Clifford wrote a training manual based on futebol de salão. He set up his first soccer school in 1996 as an after-school project for local kids. They now number over 600 – including franchises in Singapore and Australia – and around 150,000 children participate each week in this country alone. Eight years on and the evidence is mounting that he is right. Seven graduates of his school system now represent England at junior level; eight in Scotland. In 2002 a team made up predominantly of youngsters from the Chapeltown area of Leeds beat Scotland schoolboys. What the project needs is someone to break through into a full professional side. They may not have long to wait.
Micah Richards, 16, made a goalscoring debut for Manchester City reserves in this, his first pro season – as did Jason St Juste for Darlington; Seb Muddell, the first futebol de salão player to earn international honours at schoolboy level, is on the fringes of the Norwich squad; and Nicky Riley, 18, is enjoying success at Juninho’s present employers, Celtic.
Garforth will be another litmus test. In the summer of 2002 they fell behind with the rent on their council-owned Wheatley Park home. Unpaid tax and VAT bills threatened their existence and Clifford was asked by a friend to take on the running of the club. He bailed them out with £100,000, but only took on managerial duties after seeing the squad laughing and joking during training despite losing their two opening fixtures this term.
His first act was to convince Lee Sharpe to join and results have picked up. The reserve side is made up entirely of futebol de salão players and within a couple of seasons Clifford hopes the same will be true of the first team.
Drafting in Socrates smacks of just the sort of short-termism that is anathema to Clifford’s vision, but that is not the motivation. The publicity stunt is designed to shed light on the successful work he is overseeing and, as with all Clifford’s work to date, has gone perfectly to plan. “I know exactly what will happen,” he says, in a tone that demands believing. “There’ll come a time when almost all the England team will have come from my schools and Garforth will be a Premiership side. I’ve got the best piece of land in the world and I’ve got seeds that no one else has got. I’m going to cultivate and water them and then it’s just a case of waiting for the flowers to bloom.”
From WSC 214 December 2004. What was happening this month