Ray Lewington speaks highly of his time as manager of Watford. Now forging a path with England alongside Roy Hodgson, the Fulham coach reflects fondly on his time with the Hornets and their conveniently placed training ground.
It just so happens that Watford’s training ground at London Colney is where Arsenal used to hone their skills before they moved to a new newly built facility just next door.
All that separates the two training grounds is a matter of metres, some bushes and a gentle stroll. It is a journey Lewington used to make regularly.
“(Our training ground is) a great place and Arsenal literally moved in next door and built a training ground from a blank sheet of paper,” he said back in 2005. “Arsenal's training ground is marvellous - possibly the best in the country.”
However he didn’t go just for the newly sculpted architecture or the ample tea and coffee facilities – it was what was going on in the bowels of Arsenal’s training ground that interested Lewington most.
He and assistant Terry Burton used to watch Arsene Wenger’s first-team sessions hidden behind the trees - Lewington tells the story of how he loved watching the Arsenal manager insist that his players had the ball at their feet, and how it was all about small-sided games.
Wenger has sculpted the best passing team in England during his time with Arsenal based on his particular methodology – and now it appears that finally someone in the FA has listened and this country’s youngsters will reap the rewards.
The FA shareholders’ decision to give the green light to Youth Development proposals by an overwhelming 87 percent majority yesterday heralds a major change in the way in which the game is approached in England.
The key changes which will impact on the way that youngsters are introduced to the game involve a gradual progression to 11 v 11 matches on full-size pitches, going from five-a-side for under-8s to 9 v 9 for under-11s and 12s – with the pitch and goals sized to fit the respective game.
Also included in the changes is a new rule which sees the regular eight month long season broken down into smaller sections to encourage increased learning for developing youngsters. The changes will be phased in by 2014-15.
Most men of a certain age will recall playing for a youth side on a full size pitch and struggling in vain to even get the ball to travel any great distance while those more physically advanced specimens at a tender ages thrived. It was as pointless an exercise as any.
The crux of the issue revolves around the way in which English youngsters approach the game, and the knock-on effects that has on the senior and professional ranks.
The changes are designed to encourage a more technical style of play, where youngsters are urged to cherish the ball, rather than display contempt for it by lumping it long. Those countries who have displayed their superior technique on the world stage, namely Spain, adopted smaller sided games years ago.
“This is about grass-roots football but also a 15 to 20-year programme for long-term player development, ultimately to help produce players to support the professional game and England team,’’ said Nick Levett, FA National Development Manager for Youth Football and lobbyist for change for the last two years.
“It will mean more touches, more shots and more dribbles for young players and therefore improving the kids’ technique.”
But the changes aren’t just designed to flick a switch on the great production line of English Iniestas and Xavis, it’s hoped that the emphasis will now be switch to enjoyment from bawling fathers (and mothers) barking orders.
“We want there to be less pressure on kids,” Levett adds. “There needs to be a climate change – this is kids’ football, not the World Cup final.”
It is almost unbelievable that children as young as ten and possibly even younger are exposed to full-sized pitches at such a tender age; especially with other leading European countries making the switch some time ago. It is very much a case of better late than never.
Of course the winds of change never breeze through easily and there is some opposition to yesterday’s vote.
Some state financial hardship in changing goalposts and painting new lines for smaller pitches as good enough reason to stifle development although financial help is on offer from the FA.
Others may resist the change in philosophy after years upon years of an ensconced singular idea, while complaints about pitch quality must he heeded if the FA are serious in their aim of introducing a more technical passing aspect to English younsgters - but anyone with a passion for the game and how it should be played will embrace yesterday’s vote lovingly.
Long term there is no guarantee of a direct correlation between these changes and the performances of the senior national side but it is wonderful to see English football awake from its long slumber in the dark ages and embracing new ideas that could fundamentally change how the game is played here– first the building of a National training centre (St George’s Park) and now the Youth Development proposals being given the go ahead.
Even if the changes do not yield an international superstar it is vital that the game is fundamentally altered from the bottom up in order to shift the tactical emphasis that hinders young players wanting to take up the game. There is no telling how many have fallen by the wayside in years gone by - and for the next decade or so there is no saying about where the changes may take the game. If it all goes to plan however, England’s bright future begins here.