Sunday 22 March 2015


I had just celebrated my 5th birthday, can’t remember it one bit to be honest but something happened the day after that again I had no idea about. Wayne Rooney was born. 24th October 1985. I hadn’t started playing or being interested heavily in football at this time; that was to come the year later with the 1986 world cup which I can remember everything about. Strange really. The bug started, no the obsession.

I had no formal playing of football until the age of 9. This was an indoor 5 a side league for under 9-11s. From this I was selected for the school of excellence aged 9. This consisted of skills coaching, no matches until 11. I had to play up a year, sometimes 2 at my junior club. Straight into 11v11. I was then selected for Bradford Schools and we won the treble at under 11. Not previously achieved.

During this time what was Wayne Rooney doing? The same probably. Playing on the street with kids of different ages and abilities, playing in the playground, taking a ball to school and playing out until dark or even in the house at any given opportunity.

There was no coaching. No one telling you how to pass, play a position, when to cross, when to shoot etc. We never heard of qualified coaches apart from the ones at the school of excellence. Why was I chosen for this? People clearly saw something but we were never told what it could lead to.

Wayne Rooney cites playing on the street with older kids; his older brother’s friend’s etc. players of my generation have included Steven Gerrard who also cites the street and the informal environment as being key. Others a bit closer to my experience was Alan Smith who signed for Leeds United.

1990 was a boom in English football. The world cup with Paul Gascoigne really set everyone football mad, kids were out in force with their England hero t shirts and so on. It led to kids playing football, wanting to emulate Gazza who had the lot. Similarly the impact David Beckham has had on young children, with everyone copying his hair style and wanting to be a right winger for a period. In 1990, it wasn’t just Gazza; we had Waddle, Beardsley, Lineker, Barnes et al. Where did those players learn their trade? They didn’t have schools of excellence. Lilleshall wasn’t invented as a coaching programme for elite players yet. How did Paul Gascoigne learn to be so good? How long did it take him? We had to be him.

Wayne Rooney as a 5 year old see Gazza in the world cup? Probably not; I don’t know. What I do know is the impact carried through to the next generation. England haven’t had such a player since.

I got to Under 14 level and was signed on schoolboy forms. Michael Owen signed for Liverpool. Alan Smith signed for Leeds. Many of my team mates from Bradford Schools signed for various clubs from Sheffield Wed, Oldham (who were sought after), Bradford City etc. Many of the boys were from the indoor five-a-side league from 5 years prior. So were the lads signed in the 3 or 4 years above such as Dean Richards, Des Hamilton etc. So, from a mix of street play, field play, playground play and not much coaching at all several premier league standard players were found via an indoor 5 a side league for kids in city centre Bradford with a fluffy yellow ball where you could play off the walls. There was a balcony for people to watch but no one said anything, you couldn’t hear them anyway. After every game you worked so hard the 5p ice pops were a blessing.

How come then with no formal academies did so many footballers come through? There must have been a scheme behind it. Where did it go? Why did it stop?

I don’t know if Rooney played in such league format but the small sided football clearly worked for us. The fact the ball was on the floor clearly worked for us. Goalkeepers had to roll the ball out which clearly worked.

So why oh why did we stop such environment of street/ semi organised football and start mini soccer?

On a personal note at 14 I was made captain of Bradford Schools. We went to Holland and beat several professional Dutch sides, losing narrowly to a French team in the final who I don’t know who they had playing but I’m sure many made it. We now hear of Dutch teams beating English teams comfortably. They were technically excellent. But, so were we. Sheffield Wednesday came in for me and offered me to sign. Looking back, stupidly I stayed at Bradford however an England trial came calling which I didn’t know at the time would feed into Lilleshall. I got to the last 32. Not bad but not great. Disappointed!

The Lilleshall group included some excellent players. The environment was full of coaching, testing and tactical coaching. Much the same for me at the pro club. I had gone from a wide player in a 4-3-3 to a central midfielder in a 4-4-2. I was good at keeping the ball. I understood the game. I knew not to go bombing on and sit and how to receive from the full back and dictate play. I was then played right back (left footed) because we didn’t have one and I did well but I hated it. The problem – unknowingly I was limiting myself. Released at 17 for not having enough pace, not driving forward with the ball. Change of coach half way through. Usual stuff you here.

Why the background information? The question from the above is was Wayne Rooney and the children born between 1980-1985 the last generation of street football and informal layers? Rooney made his debut for Everton in 2002. He was 17. No one produced him. Coaches may have helped him and it may have sunk in more than others but no one produced him. If you could produce Rooney you would have a whole batch of them.

Joe Cole as a 17 year old is shown on FA courses as running games single handed. What happened? How did he make the level he did? Pigeon holed by coaching out of position but even when he was stuck wide left to solve the problems of no left sided players in England good enough to play (not his fault) he did well.

So the question was to the twitter faithful.

In your opinion who is the best young player currently playing in the country? Answers consisted of Kyle Walker (spurs), Jarvis (wolves), barkley (everton) and OxladeChamberlain (Arsenal). I'll add Wilshere to the list, possibly the best of the lot.

Are any of the above as good as Wayne Rooney, Gerrard, Scholes, Cole (when younger) etc? Or more importantly, Gascoigne, Beardsley, etc.

One thing I do know is that none of the afore mentioned were from leafy areas with lots of financial backing, something that certainly helps these days with travelling to academies 3 or 4 times a week. Have academies led to the best players being missed? The single parents with talented kids, the talented kids who can’t afford the travel? The inner city boy that used to walk to the 5 a side league?

Back to my schoolboy forms aged 14. Bradford City played the likes of Newcastle, Leeds, Sheff Wed, basically the closest clubs to you. There wasn’t an academy hierarchy system. Oldham produced players but they played all the north-west clubs. Now the lower clubs only play the lower clubs. How do players improve? By playing and testing against the best players. Average vs average = average.

All the best Under 8 boys from across the country sign age under 9 at the club that takes them. They leave their peers behind. 20 boys into each club training 3 times a week plus a Sunday game. Their peers if they play are playing v the other peers left behind. The odd one may come through. Who improves? The kids left behind never play with the signed kids whether formally or informally. The signed kids must find it hard to play street environment football and they can’t attend junior club or school holiday activities or play schoolboy rep football. They’ve moved on. If academies aren’t recreating the street then what will happen? Can you really develop everything you need playing on perfect surfaces? Or is it better to play on the uneven surfaces behind Steven Gerrards house? The best players of this generation of street to stadium players have come from Liverpool, Manchester and London. Not from leafy mansions but normal abodes. Hungry young people, playing football.

Street football isn’t about freestyling. It’s not about organisation. It’s the missing part of the coaching programme. The bit that when the ball bounces of the wall at different angles, help our agility and touch. The bit where the, kid jumps over and off the wall and climbs under the car for the ball back. The bit where the old woman next door shouts at you for hitting her plants again. The heads and volleys game with people 3 years older than you. The game of cuppy where you dribble past four players because you can’t see your partner. The bit in the playground where no one has bibs on so you have to look up to see the faces of your teammates.

I blame the spectrum 48k. That’s where computer games began. Now we have the wii which is seen as a substitute for playing outside. Everything happens indoors. Everything is simulated. Nothing is tangible; you don’t have to work at it. A computer does it for you.

So where are the next street/ playground players coming from? Here’s hoping Jack Wilshere can prove me wrong. There are some fantastic kids in academies. The pathway is set for them. There needs to be freedom however. There needs to be self-decision making not over coaching. Not a commentator describing and telling kids what to do on the pitch. Let children be children and let’s see if we can win back the streets from the cars and lazy parents and schools banning football in their playground.

Please stop telling your goalkeeper to kick the ball as far as he can. Please allow defenders to have time on the ball. Let kids dribble. Do force them in one direction of how to play the game. From the 5 a side league mentioned over 60 kids went to professional clubs. Several played premier league football and many more played professionally. The rest played good level non-league and only a few never progressed that far. There was no selection.

It was play.

It’s important. Thanks to all the twitter contributors. Here’s to changing the game.

Mark Senior

Managing Director Pro Skills Coaching

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