Grassroots youth football in England faces the most testing changes for more than a decade.
But next season, we will start seeing a dramatic difference on pitches up and down the country.
There has been a lot of support for the wide-sweeping alterations to the national game at youth level which – it is hoped – will produce a potential World Cup winning side sometime in the future.
There does need to be change – that is accepted.
But as a coach, I feel like we’re standing on the edge of a cliff.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a “dinosaur” as one concerned football club secretary was apparently called when he questioned the changes at a so-called “consultation” meeting (in which apparently there were only pre-selected questions people could actually ask the panel, by the way).
Small sided games will mean more touches of the ball for kids which can only be a good thing.
I totally agree that having 10 or 11 year old kids playing on a full size pitch and with full size goals is ridiculous.
I think the benefits of mini-soccer go straight out of the window once youngsters start playing on a massive pitch.
But I can see the other side of it too.
I am concerned about how these changes will affect youth club football in England.
On paper the changes look great. It looks like the master plan which will guarantee England beat Germany or Brazil in a future World Cup final….job done!
But if you’re working with kids from different backgrounds in parks, playing fields and sports & social clubs week in week out, then the changes will create a logistical migraine.
Four or five different sized goals and pitches will be needed for many established clubs: 5-a-side, 7-a-side, 9-a-side, 11-a-side (youth) and 11-a-side (senior) – don’t forget many youth set ups share their grounds with grassroots senior sides.
It’s all very well saying ‘play a small-sided game across a coned off area on a bigger pitch’ which was suggested to me by one policy maker – but when do you fit that game in to the Sunday schedule when the 11-a-side pitch is being used all day?
More coaches will be needed to run five-a-side teams. And of course they will all need to have the Level One qualification and be CRB checked.
If you’re at a fantastic facility such as the brand new multi-million pounds St George’s Park National Football Centre – you can have all the different size goals, pitches, coaches and Respect barriers you like.
But what if you’re a small club in an economically deprived area where coaches are doing vital work in the community but cannot rely on subs from their players to help fund the sport?
Yes there are grants to help pay for equipment and training etc. But I think the powers that be forget that coaches and club organisers also have day jobs and families as well as the vital voluntary work they do for FREE.
It’s hard enough trying to fit it all in at the best of times – let alone having to cope with more admin.
Non-competitive football up to Under 12s could also have a knock on effect.
Could we see breakaway leagues forming away from affiliated leagues as coaches and parents get ‘bored’ with playing friendlies?
I hope not, but it is a real possibility.
The game does need to change. To be fair, I don’t think the FA had much of a choice really.
We want kids getting more time on the ball.
We want coaches encouraging their kids to keep possession and pass rather than ‘lump it’ up the pitch to the big forward.
But I think it’s going to take a generation before we see any real benefits.
It will only come when children aged four or five now go through the football system and become parents themselves that we see any real sweeping changes.
I’d love to see an infrastructure put in place by the FA to help grassroots football.
I feel that the FA sees grassroots as the poor ‘rough and ready’ cousin compared to the professional club academy system.
More money needs to be pumped into grassroots level to make these changes work so clubs can have the confidence to hire more pitches, buy decent goals and make the changes work.
It’s almost as if they’ve said: “Here you go, we’ve decided on these changes – now get on with it.”
The grant system also needs to be more accessible and easier to complete.
Only thing that could be improved and hasn’t been addressed is coaching qualifications.
I would go as far to say the Level One course is not sufficient to create skilled coaches.
I’d like to see new coaches carry out their safeguarding children & emergency aid within six months of taking on a team.
But I’d also like to see some sort of combined Level One & Two hybrid for all new coaches – Something that does not take as long as a Level two to pass but is more substantial than a level one.
That would give the coaches more confidence and knowledge to take back to their teams.
We have something very special in this country.
We have thousands upon thousands of skilled volunteer coaches and officials working week in week out with youngsters from all walks of life teaching them not only the beautiful game but also life skills, respect, discipline and in some cases, a sense of belonging.
It would be a shame if all that was put in jeopardy.