Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Football Factory

When you see an Aston Martin you see years of careful engineering tweaked time and time again from its initial creative design to the finished product in the showroom. The designers know what they want to achieve and the teams of engineers put it together. Eventually they have a product that as well as looking great has great performance and reliability. It’s fast, strong, agile, stable and most of all desirable. The biggest feature of all is that the template can then be repeated using a factory to assemble multiple versions for sale. So what has this got to do with football?

Can clubs make footballers like Aston Martin make cars?
In many ways I think of football development being perceived to be the same process. Many of us in professional football would have you believe that once in an ‘elite’ football academy you are automatically in that Aston Martin garage with an inevitable end product being the gleaming new Premier League footballer.  This way of thinking for youth players can be dangerous on a number of levels not least the subsequent effects on the players and even perhaps football on a wider scale.
I watched Lionel Messi against Manchester City in ore like everyone did and I debated with a former pro how to deal with him. If you go tight he nutmegs you, if you stand off he kills you with a pass, if you bring him down you get sent off. He must be as close as there has ever been to the ultimate un-defendable footballer. So who and how was this genius created? We have all took part in that debate and it now seems that some clubs and coaches are trying to ‘manufacture’ this player. You see, I do not believe this player would have been poor had he not been at the famous FC Barcelona. They simply gave him the stage and protection needed to develop. It’s that age old nature v nurture debate and many professional coaches will argue in favour of nurture. Coaches are the engineers for sure. They put the designer’s ideas together and carry out the work on the factory floor. But can you really guarantee rolling out top world class level footballers with a set formula? Of course, we as coaches play an absolute key part in that development, but that’s not the crucial part. Actually, many would argue the more crucial part is recruitment. The starting point has to be amazing talent.  You have to see something surely? If not then why do horse owners spend millions on thoroughbred horses? They too have amazing high tech training facilities. So can they not just get any horse and make it a race winner? I have a Labrador dog and I’m pretty certain that if I sent him to a greyhound training track for 2 years as a pup he still would not win many races.
There is no guarantee with human beings and football. Unfortunately once in the academy ‘factory’ many parents get caught up in the hype and believe that the Aston Martin is now on order. It’s an inevitable path that produces the Premier League product. Only to find that in the end it might be a Vauxhall Astra that rolls out the door. Nothing wrong with that but it’s not what you ordered. In some cases it might even be a broken car that no one wants. Then what? Football development is not a proven science. We get it wrong time and time again. The answer is, we just don’t know what we will see when we roll the shutters up. That is why I am so passionate about parents not getting carried away and jumping in to agree with taking their child out of school. Actually, a previous study I carried out proved that you are 40 times more likely to be a doctor than a footballer. Yet when I asked a groups of parents “Do you think your son could be a footballer”? Nearly all hands went up yet when I asked them if they think they could be a doctor, one went up.

I was discussing this topic with an amazing football person last week who was part of Arsenal when they released a young Dwight Gale at 14. He later bumped into the boy at around 17 and he told him that he had given up on football. Thankfully though he did get back into it and played at Stansted FC as a young adult. He was the best player and scored a hatful of goals. That made people notice and he repeated that at Bishops Stortford and Dagenham before moving to Peterborough United where his performances alerted Crystal Palace who spend £4.5m for the Premier League Aston Martin that wasn’t built in any factory. There is no proven science, there is no proven route. Humans are not products. It could even be considered that Dwight Gale may not have had that successful offer had he come through the new Premier League U21 system. We just don’t know. Some players seem to develop better by getting away to play more realistic football.

We understand that fishermen need to earn a living. But we also need to protect wildlife and the environment so they operate within strict restrictions. We have all seen the television series to know that in chasing those expensive prawns many other fish get caught up and discarded. No such restrictions are in place for young footballers who in some areas get caught in huge trawler nets by clubs searching for the golden gem or as I have heard many times “my meal ticket”. Previously scouts would watch many games including club and schools as well as talking to managers and teachers before committing to recommending a player to a club. Now things are different and many more players find themselves scouted early and I question if this waters down the elite level. Are there now larger volumes of players that believe they are at elite level and some parents (not all) believing they’ve cracked it, even allowing players to switch off their academic education in favour of the football dream?

Most clubs have tiered recruitment centres underneath the academy. So let’s say the academy has 120 players. Each age group may have then up to four lower levels beneath that academy level. There could be well over 500 further players then ‘feeding’ that academy and at some clubs they are paying for that privilege to be in that window of opportunity. When I meet some of these players and ask them who they play for, they don’t tell me their great grass roots club name, they tell me the name of the professional club. So their perception is that they are actually a player for that club. That amazes me on two levels. One is that for me, where is the elite then? All these players and possibly parents think they are ‘elite’. Secondly, what happened to being immensely proud of the grass roots club you played for? The root to being a professional could just as easily happen by being the best player with them. Be the best player in the school team. Be the best player in the county team or region team. It’s not all about a guarantee because you’ve got a pro club on your jumper and a coach that delivers (in some cases boring) over structured coaching. Here is perhaps a piece of sound advice. Whenever you get on any pitch, enjoy it and be the best. You never know whose watching.

It is this washed out elite level that could play such a crucial factor in players falling off the football radar at sub 20 years old. Is it because of disappointment? Is it because they always thought they were going to be a pro and didn’t make it meaning the motive was gone. We have to redirect this. You see, top pro players when asked mostly say they played because they loved it. Then something happened and they were alongside there heroes instead of seeing them from the stand or TV. Too many players are playing with the wrong motive and end goal pressure. If they played for the right reasons, then maybe even if they didn’t get a scholarship or pro contract offer they could find themselves arriving later like Dwight Gale. But if they don’t, then they can still take part in a great game that keeps them fit and gives them a break from the harsh reality of work and life. A life which perhaps might be less painful if you decide to not dump your education in the process.

Tony McCool




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