Clever Trevor

Trevor Brooking is unhappy about the attitudes pervading youth football and, based on his own experiences, Barney Ronay can see his point

Trevor Brooking, who has turned out to be an unexpectedly evangelical FA director of coaching, has talked a lot over the last month about the “golden age of learning” between the ages of nine and 13. The FA have identified this as the crucial window for football skill-cramming, the period that decides whether or not you’re going to be a Velcro-touched master of the chest-trap.

I spent my own golden age of learning playing decent-to-rubbish standard 11-a-side football in the south-east London leagues of the 1980s. This is exactly the kind of untamed, frontier-country football Trevor now seems to have his eye on. Unless things have changed radically in the past few years, it’s a sitting duck, too. 

The main target in Sir Trevor’s crosshairs is the youth football coach, or “teacher of the game” as the FA have hilariously restyled him. Under their proposals, every park-team odd-job bloke with a padded sports coat will have the chance – or in some cases the requirement – to pass a centralised coaching course. Certainly my main “teacher of the game”, a man called John who was someone’s dad, could have done with some help.

Our coaching involved short sprints and then longer sprints. We did “crab-walking”, a horribly painful bended-knee waddle. We practised booting the ball as far as we could and stood in a line waiting to boot the ball into the goal. We had fights. On one occasion I watched two of my team-mates punch each other in the head for about five minutes while John sagely looked on, under the pretext that it was “best to let them sort it out”. No doubt at the same time Dutch kids our age were learning to do 6,000 knee-ups with a ball bearing on a three-a-side Astroturf futsal pitch.

John was a theorist, though. He would have liked doing one of Trevor’s courses, ticking the multiple-choice boxes, frowning over the diagrams. He would shout things like “demand the ground” and “let the ball do the work”. I still don’t know what either of these mean. Winning was very important. The “If-we-beat-these-we-go-11th” side of things always featured heavily and every match was accompanied by ferocious parental swearing, gloating cheers, and occasionally two dads rolling around in the car park afterwards. The FA’s new blueprint is explicitly ranged against this.

It proposes that coaches preach enjoyment over getting results. It may as well propose a ball made of cheese and hat stands for goalposts. From the age of nine we played 11-a-side on a full-sized pitch, both of which are now also likely to set an alarm hooter ringing in Trevor’s Soho basement. He is right, though. It was terrible. Rather than a golden age of learning, my memories are of a golden age of dog shit, of chasing around a toe-crushing, rain-bloated ball, of the biggest team always winning, and of the entire dressing room turning up with carrier bags crammed full of chocolate bars “for energy”. Trevor would have looked on sternly, or perhaps brooded in silence behind the toilets.

The real problem was the adult-sized pitch, which seemed unknowably huge, like a continental wilderness. Your team-mates were no more than tiny specks in the distance, the goalie a midget in his man-sized goal. This, too, is on the FA’s verboten list. Goals and pitches must be “age-­appropriate”. Back then the problem was addressed by the presence in every team of the big kid who wasn’t very good but could boot it. He might not have been able to perform a cushioned first-time instep lay-off. But he could belt the ball half the length of the pitch.

There’s a depressing statistic about the large proportion of English professional footballers who would have been among the oldest kids in their school year. Even now, watching one of those under-17 home internationals on TV, you still notice, with a sense of nostalgia, the occasional big kid with a vital role in the booting-it process.

We played in a lot of five-a-side tournaments, and looking back this was different. It made more sense. The big kid who wasn’t very good didn’t get a game. Parents seemed calmer, their sense of macho self-worth not quite on the line in the same way. And unlike the full-size 11-a-side it was fun, rather than a traumatic test of mettle.

The 1980s were essentially a remedial decade for the golden age of learning. At the time, even at the top level, there was no notion of trying to play in a more “technical” way. And while it would be impossible not to feel a certain nostalgia for the sheer gut-wrenching large-scale horror of the 80-minute, full-size 11-a-side game, you can bet Sir Trevor’s itsy-bitsy, no-swearing, six-a-side romp-abouts are a bit more fun, and probably a lot more skilful too. But they are, of course, still just a good idea.

From WSC 263 January 2009