Hit and hope

Trevor Brooking is an unlikely evangelical but, as Barney Ronay reports, the mild-mannered one has come down off his fence with a vengeance in a bid to improve the basic football skills of children

“When it comes to skill levels, we are lagging behind the other major European countries… Unless this culture is changed, we will continue to slip behind.” So said Trevor Brooking last month, in one of his frequent and always deeply pessimistic dispatches from Soho Square. In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t the same cheery old sit-on-the-fence Trevor you might have become used to from his “to be fair the ball took a bit of a bobble” appearances on Match of the Day. Two years in charge of the FA’s youth programme have taken their toll, transforming Brooking, the director of football development, into the game’s Cassandra, repeatedly mongering the imminent doom of our national sport.

There is some good news, however: he isn’t alone on this one. “The plain truth is that we are many years behind… in all the essential points, speed, ball control, distribution and teamwork… Our coaching methods must be completely revised.” Says who? Charles Buchan, in a similarly bleak essay on English coaching dated July 1954.

This is, of course, familiar stuff. That the best has gone and the worst is all to come is a theme as old as the game itself. Football as we know it was born out of a period of collective hand-wringing by the departing public-school teams, unable to countenance a world in which the noble pursuits of hacking and handball were no longer actively encouraged. Football was on its last legs in the 1870s and it has been hit by regular apocalypses ever since.

On the other hand, just because we’ve heard this kind of thing before, doesn’t mean it’s not actually happening. Sir Trevor condemns a “kick‑and-hope approach” at youth level, presided over by “parents and other spectators haranguing the referee, the opposing team and their own sons and daughters”. We know this is accurate, because it pretty much sums up the adult game in this country, too. Moreover, Trevor has support from the grassroots on this one, not least from the Give Us Back Our Game campaign, a coalition of youth coaches “concerned that the beautiful game is in decline”, whose push to introduce fun and “free play” into children’s football has received a certain amount of publicity in recent months (including in the web review in last month’s WSC).

Give Us Back Our Game and Brooking are both saying some things we know to be true: English football has historically underperformed and the players it produces are undoubtedly less skilful, in the “foot on the ball and don’t hoof it up to the big lad” sense of the word, than the best of those from many other countries. Whether there’s anything we can do about this remains to be seen. Sir Trevor has hitched his horse to “developing and practising skills and techniques in the five-to-11 age group”, as well as pouring a load more money into youth coaching, something he says has been stymied by a fiscal freeze after the FA’s failure to implement last August’s Burns Report. Give Us Back Our Game are advocating a more broad-brush cultural shift, putting “fun and development” first and bringing back “the freedom of the streets”.

Certainly, there is a school of thought that the end of street football and the start of organised coaching at the end of the 1950s was never properly administered and has yet to become anywhere near state of the art. In all likelihood a few small changes might make a world of difference. Even if it’s just putting a stop to all those “coaches and parents screaming from the touchline” that Trevor, Give Us Back Our Game and any skinny-legged nine-year-old who has ever played a game of park football would be more than happy to see the back of.

From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month