There’s a minute to go and Lewis Farrell – aged 11 – has just been on the receiving end of another crunching tackle from his Dad in the back garden. He picks himself up, quickly checking his cheek to make sure the astroturf hasn’t given him a burn as he planted his face on the deck, and grabs the ball. He faints left and jinks to the right leaving the old man for dead, before smashing an unstoppable four-yard shot (it’s only a small garden, astroturf or not) into the top corner of the net to win this particular 15-goal thriller. We shake hands and he turns to march triumphantly through to the living room before marching upstairs for another life-draining hour on the X-Box.

On the way, he passes his Mum who asks him the score, “I can’t tell you,” he says “dad’s made me promise not to tell you the score and, not only that, I’m not allowed to tell you the outcome of the 14 game league we’ve been playing for the last two weeks.” He’s screaming inside, “I beat him, I beat him 8-7 AND I won the league,” but trudges silently upstairs, the manner of his momentous victory now diluted by the fact he can’t tell anyone.

Ridiculous? Of course it is. But that self same scenario is played out, albeit less dramatically, on a wider scale at ‘non-competitive’ professional youth football matches up and down Scotland every week. Hordes of starry-eyed kids, knocking their technically gifted pans in, trying to emulate their heroes, only to shake hands at the end of the game and be told that no one kept the score.
Before I go any further, let me say that I believe there is a place for non-competitive, small-sided games and low impact/high energy technical sessions. At a young age, we MUST be playing small-sided games with no pressure attached. Primary School aged children who just want to PLAY football. Skills being honed by many hours and thousands of touches of the ball. Budding Messi’s bobbing, jinking and winding their way though cones and smashing the ball into the net, just like Lewis.

But surely, by the time they have started to grow up around Secondary School age, it is time to start teaching them how to WIN as well as how to play. Currently, our professional youth players don’t encounter competitive ‘league’ football until they are 17. I find that absolutely staggering, because between the ages of 11 and 17, winning is NOT the be all and end all, but neither is it the devil incarnate.

The Coach

Of course, I am aware of the argument that comes with games being competitive and league tables being a factor. The team that loses 12-0 being demoralised psychologically, the danger of the result becoming more important than the development, but surely if any of those becomes a factor, it is the club’s policy, standard of coaching and Youth Programme that needs to be scrutinised, rather than the league table, is it not? Alongside this though, both the coaches and parents have a huge responsibility. My worry about our young coaches is that many of them don’t know the game and, as such, they have a ‘fear’ of hands-on coaching. The SFA have, believe it or not, made remarkable strides in recent years introducing young coaches to the game. Facilities are improving and performance schools for the elite are without doubt one of the ways forward, as are the various coaching initiatives by both Tesco and MacDonald’s (there’s an irony in there somewhere I’m sure) but what about the coaches on our Pro Youth/Academy pathways who look after the rest of our future stars. Well drilled, well organised sessions, passing drills and nice, neat uniforms but how many of them know how to coach a player positionally? We’ve all seen a lovely, intricate passing drill come off and look great, but what are the players actually learning? Practicing technique, yes, but what about a match situation. Can the player make that same pass when confronted, when put under pressure. Can the coach put on a session addressing defensive needs, or strikers’ movement or how to get penetration in attack or depth in the midfield?

That’s what we need to address, not the coach’s ability to put on a session, or teach a skill or how to pass, but their knowledge of the game and their ability to identify both personal and team weaknesses. In my opinion, this can only come on the back of competitive youth football and the relative pressures that come with that. They have to be able to identify situations that only arise in matches, from losing situations and winning situations. Coaches will improve and the better ones will progress along with the players. Surely talented, technical players can only be enhanced by having a winning mentality. They need to learn how to win 1-0, how to use that honed technique to keep possession at crucial times, how to retain the ball, how to give away a ‘technical’ foul to kill the game. It may not be the perfect, picture book football that sells DVD’s, but it’s a part of the game we have never been particularly good at. The Germans, the Italians, the South Americans are masterful at it, but it only comes from playing competitive football. Winning football.

The Parent

Parents too, have a huge responsibility to understand (and accept) how the Pro Youth/Academy system works. The system is geared entirely towards the clubs, which unfortunately means a lot of sometimes talented players are discarded as being “not good enough.” Clubs are not only developing footballers, they are trying to develop ‘assets.’ This may not be popular to say, but is a necessary part of the process. If clubs have invested heavily over the years in their programme, they have every right to make a decision on whether or not they see that player playing a part in the club’s future.

Parents MUST prepare their children for this eventuality; they must also be realistic in their assessment of the player. We’ve all seen the kid who struggles to get a game as he may not be at the level of the rest and yet, his parents believe he is going to be the next superstar. It makes the job of picking the player back up after the disappointment so much more difficult from both the clubs and the parents’ point of view. Finally, whilst the SFA have made great strides with those new facilities and coaches, some of our clubs should be ashamed at their efforts over the years to progress young players. Hamilton, Livingston and Falkirk can all be held up as shining examples of clubs who had faith in playing youngsters instead of filling their team with cheap, experienced foreigners. The rewards for these clubs have been clear to see, as their conveyor belt of talent has been sold on at enormous, well deserved profit. It is only now that they cannot afford to have a team full of senior players and, as a financial necessity rather than by policy or design, that most of our other SPFL clubs are blooding youngsters in the hope of unearthing a gem.

As someone once famously said “you (apparently) win nothing with kids” and I’ve never seen a trophy won yet, with technique and flair alone. It takes attitude, organisation, discipline, grit, determination, fitness and all manner of skill to win a league, but then again, how are you supposed to know how to win it if, by the time you reach 17, you’ve never played in one.

Now after a poor return of just one winner from three selections, Alex Rae has returned to Belgium with his tail between his legs and most of you will be glad to hear there will be no Guest Tipster slot this week due to the International break.

David Farrell

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