As the English national football team lurched it’s carcass into another anti-climax, surprise was one emotion that I failed to experience. Whilst the tub-thumpers may be blaming all and sundry for England’s demise – weren’t they the same people who a few night before were calling for us all to get behind the Steve MacLaren and the boys following Israel’s defeat of Russia? – the rot goes much deeper than the level of the MacLarens, Barwicks, Rooneys and Lampards. Go to any local park on a Sunday morning, find the youngest team playing (probably about 6 years of age) and you will see how far the rot has set.
Kid’s football in this country is largely a disgrace, one that people overlook and ignore because we’re ‘passionate’ about the game. Screaming at and humiliating 6 years old on a weekly basis is really tantamount to child abuse irrespective of whether you’re passionate or not.
Having had kids play football for the past six seasons in one guise or another, this season has again opened my eyes to the reality that is English football. five weeks ago, during a game that my son was playing in, the ‘coach’ – I use the term loosely – said to a 9 year old from his team after substituting him, “You’ll never fucking well play for me again after that…you were shit, fucking shit”.
My son, after having tripped over the ball and accidentally treading on another player’s hand had his grandfather shout the following tactics to him, “Take blondie – teach him a lesson”. ‘Blondie’ for your understanding is the highly original name he gave my son due to him having had ‘blonde’ hair. I wonder if I’d have shouted ‘kick the ball at that baldie old git who can’t keep his fucking mouth shut’ whether he’d have felt good about himself? Probably not but hey, he said what he did because he was ‘passionate’ and wanted to bring out some ‘fight’ in the child.
Surprised by some of this? well don’t be, this is just one season and in previous years I’ve heard parents tell their kids to kick mud at other players, to ‘get stuck in’ (which typically means foul the other player), shout abuse at referees, players, managers/coaches and parents in varying degrees. In my own club we’ve already had a fight between two of the same club’s managers on the touchline resulting in a caution from the police for GBH and my own son being shouted at so much by his own coach that I have had to take him out of the team for his own wellbeing. on doing this, the suggestion was made that he was more ‘sensitive’ than the other lads which – in football-speak – reads ‘soft’ or even worse. For most coaches, managing a kids team is a way of them living out their unfulfilled fantasies, remembering how they were on the verge of ‘making it’ having all somehow mysteriously – and mythically – had trials for West Ham/ West Brom/ Walsall/ Port Vale and so on (deleting as necessary)
But it’s not just the coaches and managers, far too many parents with kids of 7 and 8 are already ‘living the dream’ through their kids of one day playing in the glorious Premiership. From a generation of parents who no longer aspire that their children achieve their full potential, we have now a generation of parents who aspire to their children getting the ‘break’ needed that will open the floodgates to fame and fortune: WAGs, Bentleys, driving bans, Hello magazine and Lucozade adverts all de rigeur.
When I myself was coaching a boys team a few years ago, I had two separate parents bring their kids to the team. the first announced that his son was the next Peter Schmeichel (no, he didn’t have a purple nose a la the real Danish Peter). The other told me that his son had the potential of David Beckham for his age. Within a season, both players had left the team looking for another team that would ‘bring them on’ a bit further. Sad I know but even for those parents who stay and don’t air their views to you, when their child is on the pitch, you can hear in their shouts exactly what they’re thinking.
But the winner of the prize for worse football parent that I am aware of is the mother who’s son is now 11 who meets every Thursday at the Starbucks in Merry Hill. For a whole 90 minutes, she talks to her coffee buddy – who must incidentally be either completely deaf or able to meditate whilst looking interested – about her son’s developing football career. She knows exactly why her son should be and/or have been in the team last Sunday; why he did/did not score and/or set up goals; where the coach got it right/wrong normally involving her son in some way; and who, this week at least, was watching him. Of course, they were just waiting for the right team to ‘come in for him’ and that will be it. All hail the new Wayne Rooney.
But completing the jigsaw are the clubs themselves – the Man Utd’s, the Villa’s and so on. From the age of 7, scouts from ALL – yes ALL – the Premier and Football League clubs begin scouting. They attend matches every Sunday and make contact with the parents of kids who at the age of 7 look as though in another 15-ish years will have the potential to be world beaters. With highly polished sales pitches and glossy, badge inlaid business cards, the scouts plant the seeds of the dream whilst reeling in the parents. Yes, your son is brilliant, yes I do admire him, yes he is so much better than the rest of the team, and yes he should be playing for a big club, not some poxy little kids team down the park. With that, the parents are sold and from just 9 years of age, boys from all over the place are signed and taken to various academies.
Bet you think that it must be fantastic for them, eh?
Think again. Irrespective of what team they support, the parents sign contracts to say that they will from hereon in, only wear kit from the club that owns them under contract. They must wear the accessories and training kit that they demand. They can no longer play football with their friends or in the leagues that they have been in previous years. And they usually, cannot play for their schools in case they’re injured. The reality is then that by the age of 9/10, kids are being primed to be prima donnas, excluded from the rest because they merely aren’t good enough. No longer can they play with their friends or just have fun. These kids are – despite their early years – told that they are better than everybody else and that they are going to ‘make it’: they are the elite. I wonder why when fully grown then, most footballers are totally obnoxious?
And of the vast number of kids the clubs sign around the age of 10, by age 13 a massive percentage of these are dropped from a great height by those same clubs because they didn’t ‘make the grade’. Shattering the dreams and aspirations of both parents and children seems to matter not in the business of football and the uncovering of new talent. Given that these kids have not been able to play with their schools or their mates for the past few years at the same time that they have been telling everyone how great and good they were, the eventual drop not only shatters their playing football (anecdotally, many just drift away from football) but also their self-esteem.
Irrespective of who the next England manager is, the rot that is creeping through the dying carcass of this country’s grassroots football is where the ‘root and branch’ investigation into our national game must begin. No longer can we – not if we want to protect our kids as well as our wonderful game – ignore the reality of this situation nor the way in which young, immature kids who desperately need protection are being used, abused and exploited by all. Yes it’s a game of two halves, but only looking at the half where the Beckhams, Terrys, Ferdinands and Owens exist is an extremely myopic and dangerous thing.