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A stouter defence of children's football?

Grassroots coaches want a more fitting approach to soccer for the young, writes Paul Cooper

I grew up in north Devon in the 1960s. My parents had a lovely house, with a pretty view of the river Torridge, nestling on a steep valley hillside.

The slope in the garden would have challenged Sherpa Tensing's climbing skills and our nearest neighbours - a retired dentist, his wife and a bedridden woman in her eighties - were hardly the best material for a quick game of three-and-in.

Then there was the Barnes Wallis effect. This was when the ball went down our steep driveway, whizzed out into the lane, rebounded off the wall opposite and began to bounce down the lane. The bouncing ball would move at speeds only reached by Donald Campbell in Bluebird, and by the time I had got to the bottom of that sweeping driveway, my precious Wembley Trophy ball was bobbing on top of the Torridge, being carried out to sea on the spring, no doubt to be punctured, somewhere downstream, by the sharp claws of our only local celebrity and salmon guzzler, Tarka the Otter.

There was no organised football in the area, and the children played it either on the street, in the school playground, the local park or occasionally on Westward Ho beach. It was hardly the Copacabana, but the football was every bit as enjoyable if not as skilful on the north Devon coast.

In 1966, with England's World Cup victory spurring me on, I would get on my bike and cycle off to join in these blissfully happy football experiences.

I was soon spending all my spare time playing with my new footballing friends. We had so much fun and never had any adult involvement. This was truly the children's game.

I became involved in coaching many years later when my son became interested in the sport. The contrast to the fun days playing with my friends in north Devon was enormous. The children are now driven to football by their parents, and they are coached and refereed by adults.

There is no escape for the kids from adult interference and the youth leagues that begin at under-7s. These are an adult-influenced mini-Premiership in which the children are not allowed to be children any more.

The "win at all costs" culture has an ugly grip on youth football. Coaches want to win games, and the easiest way to do that is simply to pick the biggest kids and play a game that is based on hoofing the ball towards the opponent's goal, with little time for the children to express themselves and develop their skills.

When we played on the street, if you were very young or not much good, you might have had the slight humiliation of being the last to be picked, but at least you played. Now, coaches have trials for six-year-olds and if you are not up to scratch, you are on the scrap heap. The late great Alex Stock, manager of Queen's Park Rangers, Luton and Fulham, got it spot on when he said about the modern youth game: "Everywhere I go there are coaches. Schoolmasters telling young boys not to do this and that, and generally scaring the life out of the poor little devils. Junior clubs playing with sweepers and one-and-a-half men up front, no wingers, four across the middle. They are frightened to death of losing, even at their tender age, and it makes me cry."

We must get back to a more child and player-centred game in which the children are free to experiment and learn from each other. The 4v4s are such games, with conditions that bring out a variety of skills. Coaches are restricted to offering only encouragement that allows the players to solve their own problems on the pitch without fear of failure. Also, the children referee their own games. This develops their communication and social skills. The games produce many goals so that everyone has a chance to score and players are not restricted to playing always in defence, midfield or attack.

A group of grassroots coaches have organised a national fun 4v4 day in June next year to highlight the problems that children face on this country's playing fields. It will offer an opportunity for all coaches, clubs and schools to have a voice for the future and introduce the new 4v4 format.

Paul Cooper has been a youth football coach for 11 years. For more information about the 4v4 day see the website:

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