Jumpers for goalposts

Recent investigations into the state of our youth football (soccer) academies triggered a massive response from managers, coaches and players. Here, TOM STATHAM, who has coached for the last 13 years at Manchester United’s academy and is director of football at Repton School, gives his personal view on where we are going wrong….

Sir Trevor Brooking says we must start getting things right with the youngest children if we are to produce players who are not lagging behind the other major European countries when it comes to technique and skill levels.

I agree, but the question is — how do we do it?

The heart of the problem is that adults run kids’ football in this country and they bring with them adult ideas, rules, values, tactics and pressures.

Many children only experience football at an official club training session where enthusiastic, well-meaning coaches deliver complicated drills, instructions and team talks. These look and sound great, and impress parents, yet they leave kids confused, frustrated, bored and asking: ‘When can we play a game?’

Conventional coaches and coaching are appropriate much later in a child’s development.

Our youngest kids need facilitators and helpers to guide and support their progress.

Why do I hold such views?

Firstly, I have researched what some of the great players did up to the age of 11 and found that, without exception, these early years were free of adult intervention, formal coaching and structured matches.

Skilful, exciting, creative players like Matthews, Puskas, Pele, Best, Maradona and Zidane developed on the streets, parks and waste grounds close to where they lived.

They played with older and younger kids, with balls of various shapes and sizes, many home made. They played on their own, one against one, three on three, 10 v seven — anything. They just played for hour after hour, day after day.

Secondly, by watching and interacting with kids for many years, I have developed ideas about how they learn and have fun. They copy, pretend, experiment, take responsibility and risks, make decisions and mistakes, use their imagination and dream.

They don’t need to be put under pressure, or told what to do and what not to do. Children need to be free to play! The key to developing happy, active, healthy, stimulated children — and the answer to the problem of technically poor players — is free-play.

This produced great players in the past and is still happening in Brazil, Portugal, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, where many of today’s most technically and physically able players come from.

Sadly, free-play, where children design and adapt games to fit their age and environment, away from the influence of adults, is virtually dead in modern Britain.

The real issue and greatest challenge today for all football lovers involved with kids is: how can we get our children to play football freely, without adult interference, for hours and hours every week?

When some of the country’s best under-10 footballers come to me at Manchester United, they bring an enthusiasm and a love for the game that is pure and very precious. If I harm this in any way, I have failed.

So I give them what they want.

I set up — or give them responsibility to create — games and challenges where they can dribble, turn, run, shoot, tackle, score, have fun, get lots of ball contact and, importantly, compete.

So what do I do? I cheer, encourage, congratulate, laugh and enjoy watching fantastic football played by happy, motivated children. I also give them firm boundaries regarding standards of effort and behaviour.

Within these boundaries they can express themselves in a safe, secure, positive environment where they are not penalised or criticised for failing.

They reward me by playing high risk, attacking football. They do incredible things, not because they have been coached and told how, but because they have never been told they can’t.

They have never been told they are incapable and they have never been told they are not allowed.

Each child is at the centre of their learning — not me, the ‘coach’. Their natural instincts are far greater and more powerful than anything I can tell them.

It has taken me many years to reach this point and it is not an easy thing for a competitive adult like me to do, but I would recommend it unreservedly.

Leave your ego behind, chill out, back off and let the kids play!


“I spent a lot of time training at Gremio. After training I went to play futsal. After that I’d play with my friends in the streets and when I got home I played with my brother. My life is football and always has been.”

“Everything I have achieved in football is due to playing in the streets with my friends.”

“I guess we were potrero (waste ground) children more than anything. If our parents were looking for us, they knew where to find us. We would always be there on the potrero, running after the ball.”

“Every time I went away, I was deceiving my mum. I’d tell her I was going to school, but I’d be out on the street playing football. I always had a ball at my feet. In Brazil, every kid starts playing street football very early. It’s in our blood.”

“I’d make for a piece of waste ground opposite our house, where the boys from the neighbourhood gathered for a kick-about. Coats would be piled for posts and the game would get under way. In fine weather it would be as many as 20 a side, in bad weather a hardened dozen or so made six a side. We didn’t need a referee. We accepted the rules of the game and stuck by them. It taught us that you can’t go about doing what you want and if you don’t stick to the rules, you spoil it for everyone else. Those games prepared us for life. When I wasn’t playing football with my pals, I’d play by myself. I had a rubber ball I spent hours kicking against the backyard wall.”

“I am grateful to my father for all the coaching he did not give me.”

“It’s all down to street football.”