15 July ~ Most professional sportsmen are dedicated to their craft, often to the exclusion of social lives and leisure time, especially in individual sports where the level of competition demands it. Athletes, gymnasts, tennis players and golfers, for example, spend hour after repetitive hour, day after day, honing their skills, striving for improvement. Cricketers also spend much time on the practice ground, attaining a technical excellence – certainly in terms of fielding – that few other team sports can match. Footballers, on the other hand, turn up for work at ten, do a couple of hours' training, go for a massage, then lunch and are on the golf course before two.
No wonder Man City's pampered poodles were up in arms over Roberto Mancini's demand for a double shift. Then there was the wretched England team in South Africa complaining of boredom between matches. How about spending a few extra hours practising penalties, then? Clearly, in a sport where so many are in the comfort zone, with mid-ranking Championship players living in mansions and driving Bentleys, lack of hunger and motivation has to be an issue. But that alone does not explain a culture in football that tolerates mediocrity and is immured to the demand for better skills and techniques.
Professionals generally refer to football training rather than practice. There is a belief that you can't "train" for more than two hours a day because what it adds in fitness it subtracts in terms of wear and tear. If this is the case, why is not more emphasis placed on practice? Nowadays the top professionals are superbly honed athletes who benefit from all the latest fitness and nutrition technology.
In comparison, the technical development of players seems a distant priority. How else can you explain a player earning millions a year who is unable to take a corner? It is not a difficult skill, the margin of error is large, yet Premier League players often underhit, overhit or put corners straight out of play. Almost as incredible is the fact that so many top players are now exclusively one-footed.
The reason for these technical shortcomings can only be that they don't practice enough. Thus, the right-footed player is forced to check inside because he doesn't have the confidence to use his left – and when this deficiency applies to England's most talented player, Wayne Rooney, you know we have a problem. I remember a coach at Lilleshall, which produced Michael Owen, being asked why they hadn't done more to improve Owen's left foot. He replied: “When your right is that good you don't need to." With attitudes like this is it any wonder we produce so little talent.
Every young player should be drilled until they can cross and shoot easily and accurately with both feet. It is so simple, so obvious, and such an advantage, yet few in the game, including even the top managers – judging by the number of one-footed players their teams produce – seem to grasp it. One person who does is Cristiano Ronaldo. He rightly gets criticised for his vanity, self-pity and lack of sporting integrity, but no one can question his dedication to be a better player.
All those little tricks and shimmies only come from hours of practice, likewise his unique shooting ability which seems to become more unerring, unpredictable and unstoppable with every season that passes. On top of that he has great heading technique (another skill that seems to be neglected by modern coaches and players) and he is two-footed. He has virtually no weaknesses in his game because he has identified them and eradicated them.
This has to be a lesson for coaches to learn: identify a player's failings and work on them through repetition until they become strengths. Better still, for the richer clubs at least, dedicate an individual coach to each player to analyse and run a programme suited to his needs. And the more hours put in the better. Just think what a player Michael Owen might have become if he'd committed himself to improving his first touch and left foot as he did to improving his golf handicap and horse-racing knowledge, because at 18 he was better than Ronaldo at that age. And if that is not testimony to the value of dedication and practice, and the resultant rewards, I don't know what is. Stephen Griffiths