England focuses youth program on 5-11 year olds

Alfie Apps, European scout for English Premier League club West Ham, is still struck how the coaching philosophy in Dutch youth football contrasts with England. "The difference is immense,'" he told Jamie Jackson of The Observer after watching a coaching session for 15- and 16-year-olds at PSV Eindhoven. "The kids at PSV were having fun. That's what we should do here, just let them play football. In England our clubs put so much money into it and they only want the best, and they want it now. The problem in the UK is that if players are not deemed to 'have it' at 18 we discard them, we basically say they're not strong enough. There's too much emphasis on strength. On the Continent they persist with players until they are 22. That's when English clubs often pick them up."

What English youngster are taught is also a concern to some. Brazil continues to produce a ceaseless line of top-class players and one of them who lit up the Premiership, Juninho, said this after watching an English Football Association youth coaching session: "This is a load of rubbish. It's like learning to swim on dry land."

Aniother concern is the volume of foreign teenagers appearing on the books of Premiership clubs: six from Poland, five Germans, four each from Australia and Austria and 24 other countries are represented. The number of non-British youth players at Premier League clubs this summer is 66 and it is growing all the time.

'While there might be an issue now with English players managing to make the starting XI in Premiership matches, said Sir Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's Director of Football Development, "in five years' time we are going to have a far more serious problem: can our English youngsters even get into the academies at Premiership clubs? It's a challenge that everyone has to face up to."

In 15 years of the Premier League, the number of overseas first-team players has increased by nearly seven-fold. A similar trend at the academies - set up a decade ago to provide elite coaching for talented youngsters - is what prompts Brooking to warn of dire consequences within five years. Officially, young foreign players can only become attached to a Premier League club at 16 and can sign professional forms a year later, though they might be offered a scholarship at 14. Brooking's chief concern is that by the time elite English players reach that age they are way behind their overseas counterparts, which is why so many clubs employ men such as Alfie Apps to scour the world for talent.

The coaching of boys, from when they first start playing, aged five or six, at grassroots level, right through to tuition at Premier League clubs, is inadequate, Brooking believes. Cesc Fabregas, tutored at Barcelona but brought to Arsenal as a 15-year-old, is one example Brooking mentions of a foreign player whose early coaching gave him an advantage over English players. He has backing from Sam Allardyce. 'We don't grow top sportsmen from a young age,' says Newcastle's new Manager, who believes the government should help with funding. "Football cannot be expected to develop players from six years old, as it is, without proper quality identification programmes and ways of schooling young people of promise through the early ages to develop their talent. Until we get those basics in place our chances of breeding a World Cup-winning side are as remote as our chances of breeding an English Wimbledon champion."

Ten days ago Brooking was at Wembley to launch such a skills initiative - one that specifically targets a million young players aged five to 11. This, according to experts, is the age range when children are best able to learn vital skills and practices that will last a lifetime. The new scheme places 66 coaches in nine regions throughout the country and its objective is to raise standards in the general attributes of agility, balance and co-ordination. Brooking has placed a further coach in all the regions whose role is to improve the standard of youth coaching.

"We have to integrate to raise the bar at grassroots level," says Brooking. "If we're doing that we'll do it at the top level. That's why multi-skills are the starting point for every youngster. We want to look at agility, balance and co-ordination, then try to identify the ones who can become football specific. From those in the five-to-11 age range we can get the best, who should go into an elite program. Only a small percentage of clubs - Manchester United is an obvious example - have full-time coaches working with the five to 11s. Most of the other staff working with five to 11s at clubs are working for expenses only, or just being paid for a session here and there. It's not specialised coaching and that's the area I believe we've got to invest in."

He wants more resources directed at the five to 11s and for coaching to 'be age appropriate', with new qualifications introduced for youth coaching. He wants the coaching philosophy to shift, bringing England in line with the way the game is approached in mainland Europe, Africa and South America. There is also talk of strict tests to ensure standards are met and maintained. Brooking's on-field challenge is to oversee a new philosophy, to ditch the endemic English style of play that lacks subtlety and technique and has taken a stranglehold on football from grassroots to international level, where England have won nothing for more than 40 years.

"Clubs have scouting networks all over Europe and the world," he said. "And the funding to bring young players here. To be honest, I don't blame them. At the moment children join their academies at nine. We should target them before that and ensure that they have already encountered a far better quality of coaches. We also need to change what is being coached. Let's have more small-sided games so that they have more ball time. Let's allow them to have fun, take away the importance of winning and stop the young players being afraid of making mistakes. Concentrate on first touch and technique, allow that a short pass can often be more of a killer ball than the big hoof up to the centre-forward. And any parents who are too enthusiastic should, as a last resort, be removed. If we don't do all these things then even the kids identified as elite, when they join academies at nine, will still be starting behind [players in other countries]. By the time they are competing at 16 with a foreign youngster they have even less chance of being taken on."