Opinion

For ten years odd from 2003 all three of my sons put a total of nearly twenty years in playing for their local youth team. The legacy of their doing that for me has been worthwhile as a parent I believe. As I look back on it now especially in the forum I write this for, I’m not sure how deep and meaningful it all was and is to the game in the bigger sphere.

That probably is a bit harsh but I’d rather take the challenging approach to it all. Like many, my involvement stemmed simply from being a supportive parent to eventually taking an assistant manager type role to one of the teams. Never got near any sort of coaching badge simply due to not having the time. That was significant but the biggest achievement as far as I was concerned was actually being able to produce that team as viable for its duration which essentially ended at sixteen years old.

I raise this because if you speak to all involved there would be all sorts of answers and opinions with regard to youth football. In many cases, you don’t even have to ask a question to set people off. That suggests forcefully held and negative opinions but that would not necessarily be true either. It’s easier to dismantle this if one keeps it simple and builds it up. Taking it back to my own experience the bottom line was getting the kids off the settee away from electronic games and into something that would constructively use up energy. As mentioned that was fulfilled to the nth degree and then some. The ‘then some’ being huge lessons early in life about competitiveness, physical and moral courage, camaraderie, dealing with disappointment, working in a team in the general sense, pressure, commitment and discipline. Those lessons were topped off with memories that define their childhood. I don’t doubt that for many others that is the same and they are more than happy with that.

But individual parental thoughts are probably not what you want to read here. The above paragraph is something you can read or hear in any school prospectus. Fair enough so I will try and link it to the bigger game. Remember this is Northern Ireland which many forget where resource, time and money is extremely limited. The top of the game is part-time locally. This is probably a good point to try and link my small experiences into the bigger pathway which is the great current phrase. Every club is different insofar as staff, pitches, training resources and money are relevant. Some clubs are linked to the better resourced senior clubs and some are not.

I write this having recently spoken to a friend who essentially is me ten years back. Some of his conversations disturbed me. In the team I was involved with two lads went across the water and both are still there earning a living from the game at various levels and have played for junior international sides. Another one plays semi-pro and others continue to enjoy the game at an amateur level. That’s not a bad output. Not a bad output if you feel that is the job of youth football. For many think that is their job. Some of the managers of these teams seem to think they are mini Fergusons, Mourinhos and Wengers and that the local youth league is a forerunner to their being discovered.

Don’t get me wrong. My own experience was of people who gave up huge amounts of time to provide a huge outlet and platform for others and took more hassle than the good they got out of it. Hearing stories though of managers calling at private homes unannounced to try and ‘sell’ neighbouring teams to youngsters in the middle of exams and then denouncing the parent for the resulting short shrift is a bit out there. These teams are not Manchester United now….it’s the town down the road. “You can be our marquee signing”.

At this point, you need strong, common sense parents who have an idea what is best. And what is best? Best for them or best for their kid. I can remember parents who literally believed and would tell you that their youngster had been watched by a scout from some English club. A bloke in a badged overcoat on a touchline would cause mental chaos amongst some and then you have the parents who turn from fathers into parental nightmares with kids dreading Saturdays. It’s hard to watch.

By and large, the difficulty amongst coaches and managers is not to start apeing what they see and hear through the media. That’s on a footballing basis and at the other end of the spectrum, you sometimes are stopping short of being a social worker. Sympathy for teachers can come into play here. Invariably the biggest parental mouth and critic on the touchline is the one who is incapable of getting his child to the right place at the right time in a prepared physical and practical state. You learn a lot! God alone knows what it is like with more capable kids at the fringes of the professional game in England with agents, inducements and the money there is in the game today.

I can write all this having observed rather than seen or been in extremes of any general negativity. As mentioned, even within the framework of remembering good times and eliminating bad it was great fun. You, of course, would need to ask all those that passed through but by and large many lads had great experiences and felt part of something. In travelling to international tournaments it was their first time abroad and for all of us, playing foreign teams was a huge footballing benefit.

Several things stick with me. Seeing how a core of four or five individuals in a team (starting at around eight years old to sixteen) with a steady and sensible captain can set the ethos, values and mental template for a team was a massive thing for me. Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness would tell you how strong dressing rooms should self-police and even at that young age you could see it in operation. In essence, that is stronger than managerial guidance and from a sociological point of view, it was fascinating. No matter what type of character or ability of footballer who came into that team they merged into its culture.

I also enjoyed seeing some with huge mental obstacles in their upbringing or character being overcome by being part of the team. Be it accepting decisions, doing whatever necessary to get back into a team or taking huge gulps of responsibility in penalty shootouts, some of the courage I saw in very young teenagers was inspiring. In those sort of situations at that age, those moments are almost life-defining moments. You can only hope that those things have helped them in their own lives in some sphere of their own world. Also seeing individuals becoming part of a team to make that team ‘individual’ is something to observe as well.

By and large, though the youth team was a bit of a ‘keeping plates spinning’ with different and conflicting pressures. Are you trying to produce a winning team or teach kids how to play football? Within that, the kids want to win but don’t perhaps want to do the work and practice what is necessary to achieve that. Break that down further and do they want to do the work needed for them to get back into the team when they lose their place either through attitude or application. As managers, you can get conflicted between principles and practicalities whilst trying to radiate a consistency of behaviour and culture.

The classic situation of course which applies through all ages and walks of life….do you reward the good player with the bad attitude or the plodder who would go through a brick wall for you or the team. Also welding together a unit where some players are deadly serious in their commitment and attitude, to those who just want to talk about their fancy goal in school on a Monday morning. Every team has someone whose nickname could be ‘Tracksuit’ as he just wants to be seen in it. That’s just a few of them.

Yes, standing in the rain wondering if you will have enough to fill a team, or if the right-back has remembered to eat breakfast to sustain him is something that sticks in your head. My favourite moment was probably summed up in a particularly critical moment in a tournament in Spain. Warming up ‘Lulubelle the Third’ as he may as well have been called with specific instructions on getting crosses in he says “Ach sure, I just want to go up and down doing Ronaldo tricks in my new boots”. No doubt he is now the most lively client in his agent’s stable. Whether he is stable…