Last week I attended the SFA annual Club and Coach Development Conference at Stirling University (#clubdev17) with nearly 200 club coaches and leaders. There were great speakers providing great insight into the game. It was kicked off by the Aberdeen duo of Gavin Levey (Head of Academy at Aberdeen FC) and Steven Sweeney of the Aberdeen FC Community Trust giving a great presentation on their academy and development programme. Great examples for coaches on being creative and developing talent. The subsequent presentations from Michael Beale on his experience at Sao Paulo; Stuart Ferrier from the Scottish Institute of Sport on developing and applying your principles (my personal favourite) and finally Paul McGuinness and Jim Ryan on their experience at Manchester United developing talent were all given at an extremely high standard.
As a coach, there were loads of takeaways and ideas to implement back at our grassroots club. There was only one big problem and it was mentioned by quite a few coaches. The audience was probably about 80% grassroots coaches however the presentations all came from the professional game. Consequently, there was a link missing and possibly this was a metaphor for some of the problems in our game.
Project Brave is the SFA flagship programme to change the current system. While I am sure there are loads of good parts that make it up, there is a fundamental problem. Again, it is aimed at the professional game where talk of number of academies, funding, elite status are all important but not sufficient. Again, the grassroots game is being ignored, yet that is the base of the pyramid and an area that the likes of Germany and Spain invested heavily in during their barren years to kick start the conveyor belt of talent that will eventually reach the top flight. Also, we know the success story that is Iceland and how they started quite literally at the bottom.
Reflecting back on the conference and the post-event discussions there was an acknowledgement that the current system is not producing enough quality or participation. There are many grassroots volunteers who want to help and who are keen for change. I am sure every one of us want Project Brave to succeed but I think most of us are cynical that self-interest and ego will win and we will continue on our current road to nowhere.
We just are not producing players with the technical and tactical ability for the modern game. I include my own club here. Having watched many games over the years, I still see players who, despite being with the club for many years, still can’t do the basics of control, passing, dribbling etc. I know a lot depends on the player but the system we have is just not giving them the chance to develop properly. I still see goalkeeper’s at u13 continually kicking it long and losing possession. If the top coaches like Pep are telling you this is the quickest way to lose possession then why do grassroots coaches continually encourage this?
So here is my manifesto for Project Braver
Starting at the Children’s level, I would build on the work which has already been done. The SSG at 4’s, super fives and 7’s is all the right thing to do. SSG’s with lots of touches. This is the age when the basics are learned and thus needs to be done in an environment of no pressure from coaches, parents and the scoreboard. Equal game time should be implemented for all as there is no way at this age that you can determine who will develop as professional footballers (I could give a hundred examples of late developers who went on to make it in the game).
At this level, we have the kids natural exuberance and we need to harness this in developing a love of the game in a stress-free culture. Basic skill and technique should be the priority rather than wins and losses. At this age scores or league tables are not kept but some coaches persist in keeping their own ‘fantasy league’ table. I heard one children’s coach saying ‘we would have won the league if there was one’ I would encourage mixing teams up to equal teams or even better let the kids pick teams. At this age, it is time with a ball that is most important and we need to do everything to foster this. No lines, no complicated drills but player and ball in perfect harmony. Lots and lots of it. At this age, at the moment, there is generally one ‘match’ per week at the weekend. At best they might get 40 minutes of ‘game time’ We need to mix this up. We could still have these games but more events/festivals where players just come along and play with friends or against them where they can try things to develop. There is no risk here in my book and only upside.
As we move into the high school years and youth level, it will get more organised and competitive but at least it should be built on a solid foundation of skill and ball mastery. I loved Jim Ryan’s ‘Intimidation by skill’ ethos. Rather than physical intimidation which is still seen weekly throughout the age groups, the emphasis is on having the tools to intimidate by skill.
Post-conference created a great discussion on the structure of this level to address the dichotomy of competition and participation for all. A great suggestion was having a regional and community level. The regional level would consist of well run clubs who good facilities, qualified licensed coaches (A licence preferable) who could create a competitive environment where players learn and develop (best v best). There are many existing clubs who would qualify to meet this criteria. To name but a few who may already be there are Cumbernauld Colts, Spartans, East Kilbride FC, BSC, Hutchie Vale who have the pathway to the Lowland League but there are many other clubs who would have similair set-ups to bring real competitiveness and enhancing the players playing. Clubs like Syngenta, Cantera, Harmony Row, Gartcairn, AM Soccer and many more could be invested in to provide possibly 5 regions of 8 teams plus inter-regional competition.
The above structure would be very much still development football but due to the nature there will be selection and rejection issues as we strive to continually move the most developed players into this environment. This will help build resilience and work ethos as it is the clear route to the professional ranks. I would run this format up to u19’s or even u21’s as there will be late bloomers working through the system.
Below this level will be a large base of community clubs (like mine). These clubs would be fully inclusive and would allow everyone who wants to play, the chance to play. Coaches would be qualified (L2 or above) with development and inclusion being the key metrics and not points, leagues or cups. Playing with friends is key to developing that lifelong love of the game. My best memories are not winning Scottish Cups at a young age but the games where I played with my friends with no pressure but to go out and enjoy it. Wins and losses should be irrelevant. If we can achieve the joint objectives of producing players who can step up to the next level (when they are ready) at the same time as keeping everyone playing that wants to play then we have achieved our objective.
My Project Braver has now created a pathway to the professional game through the grassroots game where we have invested in the grassroots by improving coaching and participation to develop the basic skills before being able to move up to the next level to test your developmental progress.
My final plea is to the SFA to get involved and be braver. Listen to the grassroots coaches as we see it every day. Implement the good ideas that are out there. Remember, we are perfectly designed to get the results we are getting and unless we change the system then nothing will change.
If you love the game as much as I do and can see that such suggestions could really make difference then we might have to start the revolution at grassroots level. My hope with this blog has always been to raise awareness but now we need to see action and the brave ones stepping up to the plate. Please get in touch if you think we could be braver together and make the changes that are required?
POSTSCRIPT: I had already written this blog but was just about to publish during the Scotland v Slovenia game. No matter the result the issues would still have remained but yet again another tournament is missed. The sad thing, yet again, is we lack the players with genuine technical ability in all areas of the pitch that can hurt opponents. The Slovenians with a population of 2m against our 5.5m showed better technical ability all round.