As England qualified for Euro 2012, thoughts began to turn to which eleven would be Fabio Capello’s first choice next summer. The generation old problem of England not developing players as technically proficient as some of their European counterparts is, at least on the surface, not as bad as it once was. Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere is identified as the most shining example of this but at Manchester United we have several young English players who appear to be stars in the making.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were expensive gambles that look to have paid off and the two should go on to form a defensive spine for the national team for years to come, while in Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck we are reaping the rewards of almost a decade of consistent development. It’s odd to speak about Cleverley and Welbeck in those terms due to the pair only recently beginning to emerge as major first team players but it underlines the importance of development from an early age.
This week I spoke to Chris Lindley of Pro Skills Coaching who this summer became United’s Under 6 Academy Development Coach, after an 18 month observational and active involvement role in the developments as his paperwork was put into place. There’s plenty of talk about addressing any problems at grass roots level; I must admit to having had reservations about just how important active coaching was at this level, but Chris’ responses to the questions I asked were, I found, very interesting.
I have no coaching experience whatsoever aside from playing football with two infant age sister in laws, one of which is four and insists on picking up the ball every time. My first question was pretty blunt; what kind of principles and philosophies does Chris try and implement in his sessions? “My core principles are the same as all the coaches at United, to let the players progress in a pressure free environment and get plenty of touches on the ball,” Chris said. “Football is very simple but people try and complicate it. A player needs to have control of the ball and a variety of tricks in their bag to beat an opponent. Looking at players like Rio and Jones, you can see the high level of technique they have. They didn’t get that by passing it to team mates or booting the ball downfield as a 6/7 year old, they got it by having lots of touches on the ball and learning different tricks. They can then make the decision when and where to use these… Again, decision making is key for a young player, if a coach always dictates the play then when the coach isn’t there, the player will be lost without that direction.”
So, what exactly happens in the average session? “I coached at a session last night (Friday night) which was simple. 10 minutes of technique week, over 500 touches on the ball in that time as they moved around in different directions and at different speeds. We then spent 10 minutes focusing on some tricks and turns such as Cruyff, Maradona, step overs, Scissors, stop turn etc… we had a focus on diagonal movements for the next 10 minutes as we did some inside and outside hooks. We then progress to skills, where the players will play a 1v1 or 2v2 game where the focus will be on the diagonal movements. We then finish with a 10-15 minute 4v4 game of futsal.”
I run the example of my little sister in law by Chris. I say how I actually feel guilty about telling her off – and while I understand that being employed in a position such as his, he has that responsibility to be more intensive, isn’t there a fine line between allowing kids to enjoy their game and trying to, even at that early stage, get some idea of true natural ability? “We have one player who joined us shortly after his fourth birthday at our company, Pro Skills, and he liked to pick the ball up,” explained Chris. “As you did, we had to tell him to put the ball down and that he was there for FOOTball. Playing in groups, it is easier to manage as the players will mimic others, so it would be a bit more difficult with just a single player. As a coach we do have to remember how young they are and that they may not even want to play football at an older age. All we can do is create an enjoyable environment for the player in which for them to learn.”
Good words, but again, in his position Chris is undoubtedly looking already for the “next big thing”. So what does he look for in identifying a talented player at that early age?
Chris’ response is something that shouldn’t really come as a surprise to any United supporter. “At Man Utd we look a lot at the attitude of a player. Talent alone will not make a player… if they turn up for every session on time, work hard, listen and take in the advice you give, more often than not they will have a very good chance of being a good footballer. When we look for players for the development centres, we look for ones who are comfortable with a ball, ones who ‘look like a player’ and those with a good attitude and personality.”
I recall conversations had with two of the 7Cantonas correspondents and former United academy players Kevin Pilkington and Alan Tonge. Kevin benefitted from some of the most exceptional development help and Alan was there when it began to become implemented at United. Alan in particular has always been outspoken about nurturing the technical development of youngsters and that seems to have, in the last few years, some advancement. Alongside Welbeck, Cleverley and Wilshere, there is also the example of Josh McEachran at Chelsea – I wonder if the emergence of these kind of players has lead to some parents perhaps being a little more patient, or trusting in the advice of the coaches?
“I have noticed that a lot more parents are starting to appreciate the technical side of the game a lot more now,” says Chris. “As coaches and people who have been involved in the game very intensely, we have known that the English players are somewhat lacking when compared to foreign players in the technical department, but the average football fan or parent hasn’t been as aware of this. When England play on the world stage or when our top clubs play in Europe, the technical deficiencies have been very apparent and a lot of people are now seeing that we first and foremost need to develop technically efficient players. I think people are warming to this idea but it will take a huge cultural shift and we will have to be very patient for those players to come through”.
So, about that huge cultural shift. I have my own thoughts but I’m no expert, so I asked Chris what he felt was necessary in the development of the youngsters to learn or achieve the same kind of technical capability more traditionally associated with some of the more obvious countries and regions. Chris certainly has a very clear idea. “It is very simple what needs doing at grassroots level in football and in all fairness Nick Levett at the FA is trying his best to make these changes, but in general the FA have not had the foresight or the guts to push through the correct ideas as of yet. At grassroots all coaches need to be at the very least level 2, but not the current FA Level 2 as this does not teach players to be technically proficient so that needs to change also. Games need to be small sided on small pitch with a small ball. I would say 4v4 up until u9s, 7v7 until u12s, 9v9 until u15s and then 11v11. We need to scrap all junior leagues and tables and results, we need to stop parents shouting instructions and we need to encourage our players to make their own decisions, have time on the ball and be skillful. We need to bring the street element back to junior football in order to make footballers again.”
It’s not only the pressure of parents. If a child has obvious talent then this will become hot news very quickly. The case of Rhian Davis, the young Australian boy, is a prime example of what could be the future. Scouting by social media?
“I think you have to be very careful with social media tools. Obviously the things we have at our disposal now enables so many more players to be seen around the world when maybe they would have gone unnoticed, imagine how many players have escaped the net over the past eighty or ninety years that could have had a chance had they had a camcorder and an email account,” Chris muses. It’s a theory that I myself have held for some time, indeed, I wrote a column on 7Cantonas about the “Concept of Greatness” and threw in a similar reference towards the end. Chris is also quick to point out the obvious drawback in identifying a talent so young. “On the flip side, a hell of a lot of pressure can be heaped on such players. Just scrolling through a couple videos of Rhian will bring up titles such as ‘The New Messi’ or ‘The next Ronaldo’ with videos even comparing 8 year old wonderkids from around the world. There is not much we can do to put a stop to this apart from make sure we treat our kids properly and look after them as much as we can. Players brought in with such a huge reputation at the age of nine, ten and eleven is ridiculous but I can assure you that there is no better club in the world than Man Utd to look after people.”
He’s not wrong; a point made poignantly by a wonderfully moving interview in the Guardian on Sunday about Paul Gascoigne, a timely reminder of the fantastic work done by Sir Alex and his staff (as if we needed one!). And I jokingly tell Chris that he’s now part of it, even at his early stage, though he modestly downplays his own importance when I reel off names like Eric Harrison, Jim Ryan, Jimmy Murphy…
“Some great coaches and great men have worked at the club… being introduced to the club, the training facilities and the people around there you get the feeling that it is a really special place. My role is very, very small in developing players and if they get signed they will come into contact with a lot more coaches and they also have to perform themselves. I am confident that if I do my part right I can develop players for the next stage at Man Utd and I am confident in the coaches who will take the players after will develop the players further. Man Utd has a rich history of developing players that are of a very high standard but I do not feel the pressure, I think all coaches will feel the same at the club and the environment is set that all the coaches work pressure free and I think this helps with developing a player.”
Not wanting to take up any more of Chris’ time, I feel like I’ve asked some pretty direct questions and he’s been pretty forthright and outspoken. At times I’ve felt that my questions have been fairly negative so I ask a fairly predictable question to end the interview… what’s the most rewarding aspect of his job?
“Seeing a player progress,” he says, matter of fact. “I am lucky enough to see a footballer in their very infancy, so I see a player at the very first stages of kicking a ball all the way through to possibly signing a professional contract at a club… so to see the progression they make… that is what I coach for!”
Thanks to Chris for taking the time to speak to me. You can find out more about Pro Skills Coaching by visiting the website.