The spirit of the game is being lost at junior level, but there is an alernative says Owen Amos

On the Northern Echo’s sports site, the sports editor recently wrote about an advert the paper was asked to place. “Under-10s team seeks experienced goalkeeper,” the advert said. It was, the sports editor said, by no means the first: every week, under-nine, ten, and 11 sides are seeking “proven players”. Winning is all. “Do the kids have to send a CV?” he asked, “or get their agent to submit a DVD to stand a chance of making it?”

This, of course, will not surprise anyone who has strolled past a Sunday-morning junior game. The lad who punts goals from the centre circle, over the keeper’s tiny arms, is the star; the nine-year-old who hasn’t mastered the game sits, freezing, on the bench. One grass-roots campaign, Give Us Back Our Game , wants the fun back in football. A worthy goal in itself, but also a sure-fire way to improve young footballers’ technique.

GUBOG – which runs courses for coaches and workshops for clubs – thinks that children’s ideas, honed on the playground, are often best. “You learn technique through games,” says Paul Cooper, the scheme’s co-founder. “If children are doing endless drills, they get bored. Secondly, they need to understand what the game is about – it’s combining technique with insight.”

So GUBOG’s games are not Sunday-morning punt-fests. It says no leagues until at least under-12s, emphasising possession over points. Eleven-a-side games should wait until at least under-13 – as happens abroad – and full-size pitches should wait till games have full-size players. Currently, the FA say under-11s should play on pitches just 30 yards shorter than adults do. Smaller games make skilful players, GUBOG believes – and has the stats to prove it. Rick Fenoglio, from the campaign and also a senior sports science lecturer from Manchester Metropolitan University, made a year-long study of under-nines in eight-a-side and four-a-side matches. In the smaller games, he found 135 per cent more passes, 225 per cent more one-on-ones, and 280 per cent more tricks. “If all junior teams that play seven v seven played four v four, and all junior teams that play 11 v 11 played seven v seven, the number of extra touches across England every season would be 4.4 billion,” he says.

GUBOG’s endless games have other tweaks, too. Firstly, until 11-a-side, there is no referee – giving games fewer breaks and less confrontation. Also, games are often conditioned to hone technique: one trick, for example, is to have matches staged across pitches rather than up and down, with goals on each side, to encourage switching of play.

Cooper, who coached sides from under-sevens to under-18s, helped set up the campaign in 2006. “As time went on, things were getting worse – particularly at mini-soccer level, under-seven to under-ten,” he says. “There was too much competition, too much hostility. The whole thing had moved away from being child-centred to adult-centred.”

The stories on GUBOG’s website prove the point. “I have a son who is now 18 and has never liked football – which I love – principally because of the horrible experiences he had on muddy fields with big goals and demented parents at the age of seven,” says one. “In my brother’s under-seven team the same players play every week, even though there is a squad of 13,” says another. “Some boys sit on the bench week in, week out because the coach says they are not good enough. He says he can’t bring them on because most of the games are too close.” So GUBOG works on, chipping away at our rock-hard junior football culture.

From WSC 263 January 2009

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