Grassroots in England: Finding the next Rooney – Interview with academy coach

A new ‘Golden Generation’ is said to be building in the country, even considering the high amount of foreign imports currently plying their trade in the British Premier League. Key members at the top clubs are coming through their academies and among them are several young Englishmen.

Theo Walcott has recently extended his contract at Arsenal after much speculation over where his future lies, but Theo turns 25 next year and is still to reach the potential he showed in brief glimpses against Croatia and Barcelona. In the top flight players are often built up to be the next big thing, more recently than Walcott are his compatriots at The Gunners, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who will be targeting the World Cup in 2014. Then you’ve got the ball-playing centre half Steven Caulker at North London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, who has impressed since his return from Swansea City. Further North you have the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck all looking like regulars for years to come at perennial champions, Manchester United. Amongst others – Sterling, Bertrand, Rose, Rodwell et al. – these youngsters featuring in the top flight provides an excellent base for the future of the English game, can it continue?

Due to the amount of foreign players currently playing in the English top flight (64.8%), key to the development of home-grown talent is grassroots football and the Football League. In recent seasons players like Nathaniel Chalaboah and Ravel Morrison have excelled after being loaned to lower league clubs, but it is the development of youth through their own academies that has been great to see over the past few seasons. Wilfried Zaha has justified his mega-money (£15m) move to Manchester United this summer by helping a cash-strapped (and youthful) Crystal Palace team into the Championship play-off places, scoring 6 goals and laying on 8 for his colleagues along the way. Jack Butland will be looking to challenge Joe Hart for England’s ‘number 1’ spot for years to come as he showed skills beyond his years at Birmingham this season, earning him a move to Stoke City in the summer. The youngest of the group is the blonde bombshell at Derby County, Will Hughes, playing 35 Championship games before his 18th birthday and being touted as the future of England’s midfield creative problems. These players, among others, have excelled at a young age and provide a perfect example of what a solid football academy (EPPP) can achieve with The Football Association finally investing in a national football base in Burton upon Trent (St. George’s Park) to rival French (Clairefontaine) and Spanish (La Masia) development schemes.

Beyond the media spotlight there are few major up & coming alternative grassroots options: Sunday league football is available for adults, but no outside investment is there with the idea being that you can’t make the grade from amateur football. However, grassroots football is not just there to provide clubs with future stars, few have made the grade from amateur football, it is designed to create a connection between the stars and the fans, allowing them to feel like they have common ground and breed the next generation of fans and players alike. A child might see their father playing on a Sunday and that child could, be, the next Wayne Rooney. Talking to The Anfield Wrap in 2012, former Accrington Stanley boss and prolific non-league striker, John Coleman, states how things have changed since he was a kid.

“On any given day I could walk over the road from my house and there were six or seven school pitches where I could play,” the former Accrington Stanley and Rochdale manager recalls.

“I’d use their goalposts, me and my brother would play against the crossbar and have shots against one another and stuff like that. If I was to go there now there’d be houses to the right, I’d have to climb over a massive fence and there would be no fields. I think there would be one pitch over the far side and an AstroTurf pitch but you do not have access to them.”

Coleman talks about the facilities being there, but kids are unable to access them, questioning the point of their existence in the first place. He suggests that the youth, who have no income, should have free access to the facilities for a set amount of time a week, allowing them to develop their game and most importantly, have fun whilst exercising. Without a chance to just kick a ball around with their friends, kids become armchair fans who don’t contribute to the game, just consume it, and this could contribute to the demise of grassroots football.

Trying to get further insight into the role grassroots plays in the development of our much loved game, we spoke to Jack Gillibrand who runs Blackpool Elite Soccer Academy (BESA) for all types of kids. Blackpool FC, now in the Championship, has struggled in the past to establish youth team players in the first team and we asked how BESA would try to change this.

Kevin Blundell: What age groups do you cater for?

Jack Gillibrand: We cater for age groups 8-16 years old.

What is your academy’s philosophy?

The philosophy at BES and the programmes we run which include the academy, is primarily focused around repetition of the basics of football up to the ages of 12 as far too many players can only do some things rather than all things. Ball mastery is a major part of our philosophy. From 13-16 we focus more on tactical and technical aspects of the game and develop player understanding.

Do you have links with professional football clubs? Blackpool have been pretty poor at bringing through youth team players in the past, do you help them?

I primarily started BESA to start developing more players in the area to drive more local based players into the Blackpool FC setup. We also created good links with the local Manchester United, Manchester City, Preston and Accrington scouts, which meant we could send players into them, too.

Have any of your kids signed for, or joined a clubs centre of excellence?

Yes, we had Ben Southwell sign for Blackpool FC in 2012, which was great for him and also for us and the work we are doing here [sic]. We have had several players’ trial at Blackpool FC, Preston and more impressively at Manchester United in recent months, so as well as providing an enjoyable environment we are allowing the boys to progress.

How much time goes into discussing tactics, do the children have a chance to be creative and add their own input?

When taking sessions with the younger ages, we allow them to take control of the sessions and ask them how they would like to progress throughout the sessions, which is great for them as they are gaining more understanding on how they develop and can also challenge themselves. With the older age groups we will talk about positioning, the demands that position has and then they are the elements we would work on during the training session: developing a specific position in a player creates focus and decision making.

A lot of media attention has been given to racism in recent months, with some suggesting it is worst at grassroots level. Do you educate your players on these sorts of incidents, and what experience have you had with racism at grassroots level?

Fortunately we haven’t had to deal with any of this within BES and no player should ever need to experience that. It is something that I think everyone is aware of, even the younger age groups like you say. I am sure it would be something we would like to educate players on in the near future, yes, as it is vital that the future generations are adapt in social situations as well as technical and tactical.

The FA have finally completed to National Football Academy, how much of an impact do you feel this could have on the success of English based players?

It means an increase in football for English based players so it has to have some sort of impact and I am sure it will be a positive one. We need to keep up with our rival nations as competitiveness is key to the development of future generations.

Is this structured environment (rather than relying on clubs) key to the success, like in Spain/France/Germany, of consistently producing the next generation of footballers?

The FA finally getting a grip on producing players is what I think is needed to create a pathway to success rather than just leaving it to clubs to produce and develop.

What support and structure do you offer the kids playing at BES?

We offer what we can to kids in the area wanting to play football. Hence why offer the academy to both the better standard of player and those just wanting to play for fun.

Is too much pressure put on players by parents?

We have experienced some parents in the past who are placing obvious pressure on their children to do well. We have had a few scenarios but the main one is where an independent academy like ours is a fall back/plan b if a child can’t get into an academy. A popular one is:

These children may have entered into a development centre at a young age and have since been released from there as they haven’t developed as well as they had hoped, try several other academies to try and get into. The thing is, academies speak to each and will know the player already, and what the player is capable of, therefore parents get in a position where they will boast about how well they have done at previous clubs when its completely different from what the academy have told you.

It’s hard for parents as they are so keen for their child to carry on playing with the best players as possible, grassroots can hamper a child’s development if they go back as they are playing less and playing with weaker players, which is why independent academies like BES are great as we provide a bridge between academies and grassroots. If we can turn these players who are not yet ready for academies and develop them for a short time until they are ready then we are accomplishing what we want to achieve.

Where do you see BES further down the line (5 years): what are your short and long-term goals?

Hopefully we will still be going strong both short and long term. We hope to expand and develop further links, which will see us get more players into the academy system.

It was clear from the passion Jack showed in providing a service to the next generation of talent in Blackpool, that the future is bright for the Tangerine Army. With the television right for the Premier League reaching £3billion next season, it would be great to see The FA and Premier League executives team up to invest more in the development of the game at grassroots level; helping people like Mr Gillibrand out with grants to fund a better standard of facilities and equipment. Without grassroots football then, sooner or later, the footballing world would crumble, as the failure to develop a connection between fans and players would die out, leading to alienation. An organisation is only as strong as its foundations, and The FA need to nurture theirs.