Own up - we all do it. A well-known figure in authoritygets a fancy new title; we puff out our cheeks and say ‘yes, but what does he actually DO?’
It’s a familiar response for Gareth Southgate, former England defender and Middlesbrough manager and now ‘Head of Elite Development’ at The Football Association. He takes it all in good humour and calmly responds: “I’m not a big fan of titles.”
The difference on this occasion is that Southgate knows exactly what he is doing. More to the point, so too do some very driven individuals who are proposing big changes to the structure of grassroots football in this country. None more so than Nick Levett, the FA’s National Development Manager for Youth and Mini-Soccer, who has masterminded the most radical proposals for youth football since 11-a-side was outlawed for under-10s a decade ago.
The proposals, which are part of the FA’s Youth Development Review, entail scrapping league tables for children below secondary-school age, the introduction of five-a-side and nine-a-side football, summer football and a change in the date that determines which age-group children play in.
Levett has consulted over 300 youth clubs, hundreds of grassroots coaches, over 150 youth leagues and, arguably most importantly of all, 42 different groups of young footballers aged 8-12 from both professional and grassroots clubs.
Southgate has been helping Levett present the plans to grassroots football coaches and administrators across the country on the FA’s ‘Your Kids Your Say’ Roadshow, which will visit 16 towns and cities between now and September.
Sir Trevor Brooking, Director of Football Development, will also pitch in as the FA seek direct feedback on the proposals which are seen as the long-term answer to improving technique, preventing kids dropping out of the game and ultimately raising the standard of English football.
“Trevor approached me before Christmas, looking to bring someone in on the back of the Youth Development Review,” said Southgate. “He wanted someone who had played for England, with managerial experience and who had their Pro Licence. So that quite limited the pool of people who could be involved.
“Trevor, having met me over the years, knew where my interests lie ethically. So for me, having a massive interest in developing young people and also English football, it was a great opportunity.
“When I was growing up, the Cup final was the only match that was on; we now see European football every weekend. I think people are rightly raising the question now, why aren’t we technically playing the same way as the Spanish, Portuguese or Italians? I think there’s a generation of fathers saying that this is what they want for their kids.
“We had done a lot of work anyway but I think last year’s World Cup highlighted it, and deep down people know there needs to be a longer-term plan in place anyway. What happened last summer just maybe has moved things along more quickly.”
Southgate is also refreshingly open about how and where misconceptions have arisen over the years.
“I think one of the fair criticisms of the FA in the past is that people have not been consulted enough about what’s going on. I don’t think it would be right for us to sit down at Wembley, make a load of decisions, implement them, and not explain them to people.
“I think the more we do that, the fewer misconceptions there will be. I think when we talk about not having league tables, for example, everybody thinks ‘non-competitive sport – that’s disastrous’. But we’re not just talking about throwing beanbags into a hoop here, and no winners and losers. There is a difference, kids want to win – put a ball down and kids want to win that game. Where it puts them in the league, they don’t know. We do, as parents, because we are trained to think that way.
“People in every part of the country will have great ideas and we have to be taking those ideas on board, and explaining the vision – explaining that it’s not just something we have dreamed up, it’s something which is based on a lot of research, not just here but across Europe.
“If you are going to lead anything, you have got to bring people with you. Not everybody is going to agree with everything, we will get times when some people will be slightly unhappy with something, but if you look back at when Mini Soccer was introduced – well, I think everybody would agree now that has been a great thing. The process of how we got there people might disagree with, and so it’s important people get the opportunity to say how they feel.”
Southgate’s remit also extends to working with England’s under-16 to under-21 teams, coach education – including the development of the National Football Centre at St George’s Park – and liaising with the Premier League on the reclassification of their academies.
It’s no small job spec, and he is relishing the challenge.
“I honestly think there is a mood for change, and that’s countrywide – not just pockets – and the word is spreading quickly. I’m on Twitter and when you put messages out, there’s a lot of reaction from coaches or Dads, and the same messages keep coming back – we goto 11 v 11 too early, we’ve got to control parents, we’ve got to develop coaches.”
:: You can read a summary of the proposals here http://www.clubnewsletter.co.uk/2011/feb/faproposals.html
:: Involved in grassroots football? Send your feedback on the proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org