When Paul Cooper (PC) met Chris Green (CG) the whistle blew and a kick off ensued without any violence, agendas, marketing or referees. The two NCFA founder members talked about ‘Every Boy’s Dream’ and the growing support for a football culture more in tune with their children.
PC. The ground breaking BBC Radio 5 broadcast and your subsequent book – Every Boy’s Dream caused much debate in football circles and beyond, what was the catalyst to produce these fine bodies of work?
CG. Every Boy’s Dream was the combination of many years of research into the English football academy system for several radio programmes, reports and newspaper & magazine articles. In the end I just felt I had to put it altogether into a book.
Unashamedly, I put the interests of children first and foremost rather than results and the success or failure of clubs or national teams or the overall production line of talent ‘ but in a way they are combined because if you don’t take care of the players you tend not to produce good footballers.
I had already spoken to many players, parents, coaches and people within football but the fresh research was fascinating. At the same as I was collating some shocking stories of boys and parents who felt they had been treated shoddily by clubs ‘ the governing bodies were enmeshed in a bitter turf war for control of aspects of the youth development system and the last thing on their minds was the welfare of children.
I was also able to summarise the views of respected coaches who, in many cases, couldn’t publically express their opinions for fear of losing their jobs ‘ but their frustration was palpable because in many cases they were being asked to deliver a system they didn’t have faith in.
The sad fact is that the introduction of academies in the late 1990’s led to clubs scouting for kids who had barely left the kindergarten and the result of their coaching wasn’t success but failure. No one, it seemed, was questioning whether football clubs are appropriate institutions to handle this huge responsibility ‘ or whether boys would learn more by playing local games that met their needs rather than trawling around the country copying the fixtures of professional senior teams.
I also tried to offer an alternative vision. I was hugely inspired by Give Us Back Our Game which seems to offer a simple but realistic ethos of allowing children to develop their skills in an environment that suits them best and is geared to their learning.
In many ways having looked at the subject from many angles, Every Boy’s Dream was to be my final word on the subject… but the response meant that somehow couldn’t be the case.
PC. How was the book received within the football family?
CG. Extremely well. Even now, more than two years after the book’s publication, I still receive emails and social media messages from people within football and many more from players, parents, coaches, students and people at grassroots level who were touched by some of the stories within the book.
The tone of some comments has been amazing. When people post social messages like “the best book written about football ‘ FACT” and critics urge the book to be on the desk of every club owner and manager in the country it makes you feel quite humble. There has even been talk about protest and manning the barricades at academies until things are changed or improved. Heavy stuff. I think I was able to condense some of the simmering anger without naming names or people putting their jobs on the line.
I have heard that one or two people within football have accused me of sensationalism but they haven’t had the guts to tell me my face or dare to challenge the broad thrusts of my arguments in the book or any of my other reports ‘ largely because they know, that like any investigation into this sort of subject, I only scratched the surface of some of the behaviour that has been so detrimental to the development of children in sport.
Of course it would have been nicer to have written a book about the unmitigated success of football youth development in England and lots of really upbeat positive stories but it isn’t really like that. There are too many boys playing in professional academies sacrificing too much of their childhood and their free time who don’t stand the foggiest chance of ever becoming professional footballers and they end up heartbroken.
PC. Has the booked changed anything?
CG. Not really. It was the only non coaching book quoted in the recent EPPP so it must have had some influence, albeit probably quite minor.
I am not stupid or arrogant enough to think that a mere book will influence the thinking of the multi millionaires and billionaires who own our major clubs. They just want the best players and the ethics of how they procure them doesn’t seem to enter into it.
Every Boy’s Dream seems to be a publication that people have rallied around. There is a community of people who contributed to it or have been inspired by the tone of the work who share much common ground.
I keep getting asked ‘what next?‘ and that is a good question. I don’t want to be on the outside shouting anymore. The next project I’d like to be involved in with this subject has to be something more proactive that can improve matters – because there are too many heartbroken children out there chasing elusive dreams and confused parents who need help.
Ideally they need independent advice ‘ because it is an unbalanced relationship when a major football club knocks on the door of parents of a seven-year-old kid and tells them he is a special talent. Parents are readily accused of being ‘pushy’ but for most parents whose children are approached by professional football academies they know nothing about the industry or what they are letting themselves and their children in for.
A body of comments from readers ‘ football youth development’s consumers, if you like ‘ sits on my PC waiting to be used as research. Overall, it is a fairly damning indictment of the way the game has failed the aspirations of these people and in many cases stolen their innocence and childhood.
PC. Who do you feel is looking out for the welfare of children on football today both in the professional and grassroots game?
CG. That’s a very good question. The answer should be everyone in a position of responsibility and each of the games’ authorities ‘ but there is no one body charged with that specific remit. The NCFA is the only one that seems committed to promoting the interests of children in football above all else ‘ that is why I wholeheartedly support it.
PC. Do the FA have any influence on how the academies treat children?
CG. Not really. As the governing body for football in England they should be in charge of all aspects of youth development ‘ after all they devise rules – but the academy system began to fall apart after the FA handed the power to inspect academies and centres of excellence over to the leagues ‘ principally the Premier League and Football League.
Later, when the FA wanted to conduct their own inspections of academies they suspected weren’t up to scratch, the leagues prevented them from doing so.
Writ-large, the leagues defend their member clubs ahead of the best interests of children playing in them.
The FA has been historically weak which makes governance over the rich and powerful Premier League in particular virtually impossible.
The sad fact is the welfare and interests of children playing in football academies isn’t the highest priority for the warring factions and until that changes I don’t see things improving.
After all, look at the reason for the FA wanting to do those independent inspections. It was to ensure that they meet the required standards and are fit for purpose.
When the leagues say the FA cannot see what goes on inside their academies they are effectively saying no one should question their right to coach children however they deem fit ‘ which cannot be right. The fear must be they are protecting failing academies or centres of excellence and therefore, in turn, failing the children who play in them.
In my view football academies should be OFSTED inspected and if they fail to meet those standards they should be closed down. At present the clubs via their leagues are marking their own exam papers.
PC. To what extent is your son an influence on your opinions of grass roots football?
CG. My own son is a great influence on me in many ways – we are lucky to have such a bright, lovely, generous boy who always tries his best at everything he does.
However he’s only nine years-old and he’s small for his age and already on three separate occasions since we took him to our local junior club three years ago he has been left heartbroken. The last time was a couple of months ago when the coach of his under 10’s team reduced the amount of playing time he was getting to a few minutes each match. He was even shouted at for asking when he would get on the pitch. Eventually, we had no option but to withdraw him from the club when he was given just two minutes out of a first half of 20 minutes. He was the only substitute in the team so the only boy treated this way and he came home in floods of tears.
When you are a parent you realise that most children simply want to have fun ‘ whether it is playing sport or any other activity. Fun sometimes means learning and being encouraged to take part and, yes, to win because they love competition and scoring goals and trying to do their best is all part of it ‘ but that should never be the be-all and end-all.
Experiencing my son’s involvement has made me deeply question the value of organised football in the UK.
Virtually most children who play football in the UK play competitive football in organised leagues run by adults. It starts too young and adults bring too much personal baggage to the touchline.
My son currently derives more enjoyment playing for fun at a local church hall once a week. The coaches are good quality ‘ it is just around the corner from where we live so he skips there rather than us needing to get the car out ‘ and he gets a small moral lesson at the end of each session. He plays with a smile on his face the entire time, there are no results leagues or teams involved or coaches wanting to push their own children ahead of others.
We need more spaces like that and fewer formal structures it seems to me.
PG. Lastly the seven year old boy you wrote about at the end of chapter 11 is now 10 and still turns up every week to play football for fun. He has never been a member of a team or club but thoroughly enjoys his football. Do you think children’s informal football is in danger of disappearing altogether as junior clubs expand and increase and society gets more and more competitive?
CG. That is the major problem. It is all too serious. Why can’t we allow children to learn to love sport before sifting them into leagues and clubs with coaches stalking the touchline trying to eek results out of them.
There is a fundamental problem with academies being too serious too soon ‘ although there is also lots of really good work going on that should be championed ‘ but at grassroots level I think the problems are more manifest.
Yes, the FA are getting more people onto coaching courses than ever, but most people coaching at grassroots level, understandably, want to coach their own children’s teams. The problem then is that too many get rose tinted glasses when it comes to their own children’s ability and seek to push their own kids ahead of others. The best coaches I have seen at grassroots level coach other groups of children. Trouble is, how many people want to do that when their own children are playing elsewhere?
How do we inspire people to want to become coaches ‘ but not just to coach their own children’s team? That’s a tough one.
Maybe we just don’t need so many leagues. We need more festivals and mini tournaments and mixing kids up so they don’t just play in rigid teams.
How often do you hear someone say of a pre teen child: ‘what’s his position?’ The answer should be ‘none’ ‘ they should be switched around so they all get to play in different positions but you get kids who are typeset before the age of 10. It is daft.
If we let the kids decide what they want to do and where they want to play they would enjoy it more and there would be no need for RESPECT barriers, arguing parents and all the other rubbish you see in junior football.
It is symptomatic of our society though ‘ competition and comparison is everywhere.
For more information about Chris Green chrisgreenmedia.co.uk