way. Both sides ping the ball around pleasingly, with every player controlling carefully, picking a pass then moving into space. They’re tactically disciplined, holding positions on the pitch and covering for each other, but – as is the case in any game – one or two
individuals stand out. The deadlock is broken as a forward skips past a couple of defenders and rifles home an excellent goal. Nothing unusual there, you may think, except that these sides are made up of children, both boys and girls, some as young as five. Welcome to the FA Tesco Skills Programme, a revolutionary approach to coaching football to kids of all abilities.
This impressive scheme employs 106 full-time coaches across England, who work in 1,200 primary schools, run after-school clubs, supervise holiday programmes, and help club
coaches and teachers to run better sessions. Over three million children have benefited since the programme began in 2007.
More after the break
“People blame grassroots football whenever England don’t play well at a major tournament,” says 25-year-old Kevin Baker, one of the coaches running tonight’s
session in Stansted Mountfitchet. “They say there isn’t enough skill being taught to youngsters. It isn’t true. Look at these players – they’re really skilful. We’re going to see the
benefits of programmes like this come through soon. We are trying to develop a whole generation to play in the right way.”
At the core of the programme is futsal – an indoor game using a smaller, heavier ball that doesn’t bounce, encouraging players to develop close control and short passing skills, rather than lumping it long. This approach is often cited as the secret of Spain and Brazil’s success. “The kids often don’t know much about it, but when you tell them that Messi,
Iniesta and Xavi played futsal as kids, they soon want to do it,” says Kevin, a former primary school PE teacher who has been working in the programme for three years.
While one end result may be the development of an English Messi, the primary aim is to
allow all the participants, regardless of ability, develop technically, physically, psychologically and socially.
“The ‘four corners’ philosophy means we want the kids to learn to play, be more active, enjoy the game and believe in themselves,” says tonight’s other coach, Kalam Mooniaruck, 28, who is FA Skills Programme Team Leader for Essex, Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire. “We see a real increase in confidence among all the kids. Only a tiny percentage go on to play at a high level, so we want to raise quality across the board, and get everyone playing the right way – not just have the biggest kids dominating.” Every hour-long session tries to
communicate a different simple philosophy. Tonight, we’re focusing on finding space. The hour is split into three parts, explained as “whole, part, whole” by Kevin. This means they warm-up with a short match, then break down into groups to work on a particular skill. Finally, there’s another game in which they try to apply what they’ve learned.
To teach creating space, there are drills in which points are awarded for completing a pass without being tackled, and a session in which the kids can use their hands – making them more aware of when to move.
“Why are you better at this with your hands than your feet?” asks Kalam, a former Manchester United trainee. “Because you’re more aware of when you need to release the ball. Let’s try to think about that during the game.”
The unselfish passing and movement that results in the next 20 minutes is a pleasure to witness. Occasionally, play is stopped so that a tactical point can be made. “Wait!” says Kalam, as one side’s players cluster in midfield. “Where’s our Wayne Rooney at the top
of the pitch? Who’s Toby going to pass to if we have no forward?”
The youngsters duly spread out into a better formation. The game is back underway within 10 seconds, with a lesson learned – but there’s a palpable sense of players figuring out what works best themselves, rather than through instruction.
“We break them down into small groups and let them decide on their own tactics,” says Kalam. “We ask them questions and let them discuss what might work. If you give them
responsibility, they learn faster. At five you can improve balance, being competent with both sides of the body, co-ordination, comfort on the ball, controlling with your sole – all sorts. Later on, you evolve more tactically.”
The progress that can be made within a year is enormous, adds Kevin. “The difference that futsal has made to these kids’ play on the weekend has been amazing. I can see a gap between those who come here and those who don’t. There’s more sharp passing. When I was growing up, there wasn’t anything like this. Because it is player-led they can also continue with developing these skills down at the park.”
The onlooking parents agree. “This has given my boy Arthur a lot of confidence,” says mum Jane Beanland. “There’s a lot of one-on-one coaching, and they talk to them on their level. It’s great socially and they make friends, but they’re also learning about how football works rather than just running after the ball. It’s different from the training they get
at school or at their club, and he’s developed so quickly. It’s also just £1.50 a session, which is amazing.” As the kids in the shirts of Liverpool, Arsenal, Barcelona, Manchester United, Leeds, Newcastle, Chelsea, Spurs and England gather in the centre circle, it’s also noticeable how much they respect the coaches – there’s no mucking about.
“It’s great to be able to inspire them,” says Kalam. “This is about social inclusion, not being the best. For some of them, this is their one football fix of the week. It’s about making them better people off the pitch, too. If we can improve them in the classroom through what we do, that also has an impact.”
Want to get involved?
The Tesco Skills programme is aiming to be in every county of England very soon, with further coaches spreading the word to other club volunteers and teachers – helping
to up-skill them with session plans for their kids. To find an after-school club near you, or book onto a free half-term course, log on to www.tescoskills.thefa.com/