Coaching And The Grassroots Game: What Lessons Can Be Learned From Abroad?

AWAY from the bright lights and the big money of the Premier League, the concerns around football in this country, for those that care, are clear, writes GARETH ROBERTS.

From a poor provision of adequate pitches up and down the land to a dearth of qualified coaches (not helped by prohibitive costs). From a baffling lack of joined-up thinking between governing bodies to a worrying trend of traditionally underperforming on the world stage.

The issues are recurring, the debate neverending, yet the solutions seemingly not forthcoming.

A World Cup semi-final spot for the England senior side in Russia last year suggested progress at the top end. Success for England in the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 similar.

Yet talk to players and coaches at less glamorous levels in England and longing looks to how it is done elsewhere are never far away.

How can Iceland punch so far above their weight in major competition? Why have the French so often found a way? Why have the Spanish got a clearly defined style of football from top to bottom yet few have an answer to what constitutes ‘English football’ in the modern game?

On it goes.

But what is really so much better abroad? And what’s happening outside of England that should really be happening inside?

Even the most cursory of research quickly reveals stories that sound a world away from the experiences of grassroots footballers on these shores.

Take this article in The Guardian, which investigated standards and structure of amateur football in the Netherlands.

The author wrote: “Clubs such as ASV Arsenal, Sporting Martinus, SC Buitenveldert, Swift, AFC, SV Bijlmer and Legmeervogels boast facilities that always include floodlit grass and artificial turf pitches, dedicated medical centres, warm changing rooms, hot showers, spacious clubhouses and adequate car parking and bicycle ports – all of which placed the clubs at the centre of their local communities.”

It goes on to describe clubs that are run by members, governed by a board and supported by 200 volunteers and 120 sponsors.

The football pyramid in Holland is managed by a single body, the KNVB, with the amateur game benefitting from over €1bn a year of investment.

In Iceland, which has attracted lots of love for its commitment to the game despite a challenging natural environment, every child over the age of four has access to a UEFA-accredited coach.

And from under-10s upwards, all children must be coached by a coach with at least the UEFA ‘B’ certificate.

Every football coach in Iceland is a paid professional. In England, most coaches are volunteers without UEFA-accredited qualifications.

How is it elsewhere?

We spoke to two football professionals who started off in the game in England before experiencing coaching abroad.

Kris O’Hare is a psychology graduate who while teaching English in China began coaching football teams there.

“It’s seen as a luxury sport there rather than one for the masses,” he says.

From there, Kris moved to Barcelona, playing in the Catalan League. And it was there the contrast with football in England first became clear.

“Their methodology was constant rondos in training and possession football,” he explained.

“And the fact that they put me, at 5ft 7ins, at centre back says a lot about how it differs to English football.”

After a spell in Korea (“football there is very centred around athleticism and physicality”) he returned to Spain to master the language and begin making some contacts in the Spanish game.

A job with CD Castellon in Segunda Division B, the third tier of Spanish football, followed. The club, situated in the Valencia region of Spain, has almost 13,000 season ticket holders.

“In Spain they have the idea of education within football,” says Kris. “That you need as many skills as possible within a club. Those skills lead to more funding from the government but it’s also the idea that it leads to better players.

“So we have a psychologist for the children, something that is not very common in third tier football in the UK. They wanted to get me on board because I have a psychology and English background, and knowledge of different countries.”

Kris explains that in Spain almost every village or town has a football club associated to it, and most with ‘A’, ‘B’ and even ‘C’ teams.

“They will have a facility with a swimming pool, changing rooms, a cafe…basically it’s a community project, and everyone within that community will play for the football teams, it’s sort of a right of passage,” says Kris.

“You’re expected to play for the team and, if you don’t, you’re expected to support them. Essentially it’s a town ideology. It results in facilities that are much, much better than the UK and leads to a mentality of not only playing football but the community gathering around these centres.

“They will also have a handball team and futsal team. There is a huge cultural difference.”

Kris says the success of the Spanish system – particularly at grassroots level –  is not just down to money.

“It’s the buy-in,” he says. “The buy-in from the people here is phenomenal. Some of the teams are just small towns surrounded by orange fields for miles around. Yet they have a culture of putting social money in, and encouraging people to get involved in social activity.”

In stark contrast to England, local councils in Spain pay for qualified coaches to lead football training.

“It’s not just volunteers,” Kris explains. “For the level one badge, the basic coaching badge, there are 25,000 people in Spain who have that badge.

“They are paid by the local council and expected to deliver not necessarily results but a positive atmosphere.”

Kris says good-quality pitches are plentiful and off-the-cuff games are encouraged.

“It has an impact on the country’s football. If anyone can play football and it’s easy to play football you’re going to get better players.”

Matt Brown played football for Coventry University and at non-league level before leaving these shores at 21 to coach in the United States.

He has worked for Major League Soccer camps in the Midwest and Deep South, worked at the MLS head office in Connecticut and now works for a company called Youth Elite Soccer, which is linked with Chicago Fire and helps to find employment for qualified coaches from all over the world.

“It’s going back a few years for me now,” says Matt. “But the pitches were never great in England.

“I never really played at a high level so I was never really coached as such – there were no paid coaches then unless you were in the youth professional game, which I wasn’t. I played non-league and then at university.

“For youth soccer in the United States, the fundamental difference is that you’re trained by someone that is licensed, someone who has invested in themselves. They can make a career here and earn decent money from youth development coaching. You can’t really do that in the UK unless you are involved at a high level of the game.

“You see it on job boards – you’ll see a head of sports science for a Championship club, even Premier League, for some of the academies and the wages are shocking when you consider candidates will have spent thousands on ‘A’ or ‘B’ licenses, and they are probably graduate calibre, too, so they will have been to university.”

In the US, soccer is a middle-class sport with a pay-to-play model the norm.

“That means in turn that the facilities are generally better because people are paying for that level of service,” says Matt. “You’re paying for a professional coach, a 3G pitch, and facilities that are looked after by the local parks and recs.

“They’re mostly in fantastic condition; when it rains you’re not allowed to play on them. That has a trickle down effect, although there might be some disadvantages as well. People who can’t afford to pay for that level of soccer won’t have that experience.

“I’d argue that’s changing too though, a lot of the pay to play clubs have scholarships and bursaries for those that can’t afford to play.”

What about the identity of US football?

“US players have often traditionally been seen as a bit robotic; very organised, hardworking. It was also traditionally a white team,” says Matt.

“That is changing and coaching is going through a revolution here. There is more pro soccer now and youth international teams now reflect the melting pot of many cultures which the country is.

“The coaching is allowing more freedom now and resulting in more technically proficient players.”

The debate of what England should do next to improve the standard of football will undoubtedly rumble on. What is clear is that there are plenty of lessons that could be learned by looking outwards as well in.

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