Football on the Orient Express

I am now in my third year of visiting China working in schools, soccer camps, coach mentoring and professional football clubs. So what have I learnt and what is the future for football in China?

Well we are all now aware of the Chinese Super League and the amount of money being invested in these clubs. Teams like Shanghai, Evergrande and Guangzhou are becoming household names and known throughout the world. Top names in the game are being lured over to play for big sums of money and its not longer just the older players on their way down to pick up their pension money.

Being involved with newly formed Chinese 4th tier club Shantou Lions brings exciting times to the players, coaching staff and the city with a population of just over 5 million people. Watching them play and train you begin to realize that the football culture and history is a million miles away of what one is used to in the English game. Football in schools, clubs and throughout the communities has been regenerated to help improve the standards of ability of the up and coming footballers. Player and coach development has been introduced to cultivate a footballing strategy to improve the players technical, physical, psychological and social ability. It will be interesting to follow the course of what has been created over the years to see how it develops and hopefully blossoms.

With a population of around 1.4 billion, the chances of China being a dominant footballing nation should be high if the infrastructure is implemented correctly. I often get asked the question of whether or not China will ever win the World Cup. Some experts in the game predict they will win it within the next 6 to 10 years! Whether or not there will be a correlation between the successful Chinese Super League and that of the Chinese national team I wait with great anticipation.  I think I would not be alone in saying that the success of the English Premier League has not resulted  in having a successful national team. Although the Chinese F.A. ruling of only allowing to field 3 overseas players in the team to allow local players to develop is a great idea for players to develop alongside top players. This learning experience and giving players opportunities  to play at the highest level can only be for the good of Chinese football and who knows this experience may result in them winning the world cup!

It has been reported that China wants to be a world football superpower by 2050 and aims to win the World Cup with the national team. President Xi Jinping, a football enthusiast, wants the country to have at least 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches in place by 2020. In order for there not to be a boom then bust syndrome, sustainability must be in place for the longevity of the games development that is currently ruled by a Communist party that allows a capitalist economy. Whether or not political interference will change the shape in how this growing footballing nation will develop remains to be seen. At the moment it is actively encouraging the sport and for sustainability is encouraging football in schools and for clubs to develop their youth system. I have seen many basketball courts and concrete playgrounds being replaced with football goal posts and artificial football pitches during my time in China.

From my own experience in China I am seeing young children improve their football skills and technically will soon be as good as what I witness on a regular basis back in the UK. I think though the improvement of the team game will take much longer to materialize. China is learning a great deal from the outside world about the game and football teams and coaches have been enthusiastic in helping the football revolution in China. In a country though where individual sports are dominant, it will take a generation to learn how team sports operate. The most popular sports of table tennis (ping pong), badminton, martial arts, diving, fencing and other Olympic individual sports far outweighs the emerging western teams games of football, basketball and volleyball. In football terms learning how to play as a team, communicate, team tactics, movement off the ball for each other and other team game skills are still lacking and will take longer for coaches to see an improvement than the individual technical skills.

Cultural differences will play a part in how China develops compared to other footballing nations and to see a third world country flourish in football would be great for the country and world sport. Although in modern day definitions I use the term third world loosely as economically one would argue this. The social hierarchical structure is more rigid in China than western countries and informal coaching methods will take time to understand. The way cultures see confrontation and conflict; honour and reputation;  the role of self and morals; celebrating success; respect and punctuality differs enormously. Therefore coaching methods and strategies require modifying to allow for this but at the same time lay down the DNA blueprint in how successful teams operate. It is hard to coach in a way that is the opposite to the way that you have been socialized in your country and its long historical culture. Therefore foreign western coaches in China may flourish as they have been brought up in a society with those footballing philosophies.

As I witnessed at the Soccerex Conference in China recently, football really is a global football business and the eagerness for success is massive. I just hope the desire for instant gratification does not put off the enthusiastic crowds that have started to emerge and the love of the beautiful game does not dwindle and patience is given to all those that are involved in putting down football foundations in China. Only time will tell.

3G or not 2B – That is the question!

With debates in the game regarding the style of play of English football and the great British weather playing havoc to most grass roots and local amateur football over the winter and even spring periods, is there a call for more 3G pitches to be created up and down the country?

Lets start with the English culture of football. Over the decades the national team and many clubs playing in the top division of English football have been labelled as lacking in technical ability, overuse of the long ball, deploying a large big strong number 9 to hold the ball up and to win battles up in the air and to ‘get stuck in’ with the physical aspects of the game. The stereotypes and perspectives of the English game are often justified with only 1 major trophy coming in 1966 from the national side whilst our European counterparts Spain, Germany and Italy have flourished with many World Cup and European Championships to their name. The top teams in the premiership do play great attractive football, but the players are mainly foreign imports so can hardly be credited to the English system of players coming through.

At the professional level, modern day pitches are more like bowling greens with the grass on the pitches cut short and rolled to shade the grass into various shapes. Gone are the days when one watched Match of the Day on television in the 70’s and 80’s with the pitch brown with mud all the way down the middle from one end to the other and the ball bobbling across the uneven surface. The clubs have invested in  modern technology of combining natural grass with artificial fibres in their pitches. This hybrid system follows strict guidelines from the Football Association has artificial 3G pitches are not permitted in the football league. For 3G guidance the FA are there to help players, coaches, clubs, referees, leagues and grounds staff. The pitches have contributed along with other advances in technology, diet and fitness in the change of the modern game making it faster and more technical since the turn of the century.

So with the pitches at the top level being like a carpet to play on and many non-league clubs just outside of the football league installing 3G artificial pitches at their stadiums, we have seen a change of footballing philosophy on how the game is played from the national team down to the lower levels of the football pyramid. A 3G pitch takes about 65 days to be installed.  The quality of the pitches has created a purist approach on how the game should be played from building the play up from the back with quick accurate passes through to the midfield and into the forwards using skills and creativity that thrill the crowds. Also the success of other European countries in major competitions with their style of play and the influence of foreign players in the premiership has had a effect on the way English football culture is heading and striving to be like.

We have seen success in recent years with the national team at youth levels winning the World Cup at under 20 level and the European Championships at under 19 level. So one could say that advancements in the modern game are suiting our young English players to compete at the highest level. The surfaces that these players train and play on though are worlds apart from that at grassroots level playing on muddy and uneven council or school pitches. That’s of course if the matches are on, as with grass pitches they are often waterlogged and called off during the bad weather periods. Some children’s teams often not playing for up to 3 months due to the pitches not being playable. Grassroots teams for children and adults do now have access to train on 3G pitches as schools hire their facilities to the community. With such high demands for these pitches to train on availability can be limited and hire costs can be high.

So is there a case for children developing their football skills at grass roots to play and train full time on 3G pitches! Matches would hardly be off due to waterlogged or muddy pitches, therefore keeping the children motivated in the game all year round. The surface would suit the technical players to be skillful and see true passes across a even surface rather than bigger stronger players that are more adaptable to playing in the mud and have the strength of kick to play long balls up to the forwards. This would in turn create a footballing philosophy in children’s football that would keep them in good habits further down the line in the footballing career whether it be in the professional game or at amateur level. So if more 3G pitches are to be created should they be at the local primary and secondary schools, local clubs or council pitches!

Well  most secondary schools, academies and colleges have now built 3G to use for P.E. lessons during the day and to hire out the community in the evening to train. The amount of teams wanting pitches at the weekend to play their league fixtures though far outweighs the amount of pitches available. Therefore clubs hire council pitches that are sloping with uneven surfaces, rusty goalposts and grass that comes up to your shins or when it is cut leaves piles of grass like hay bales. So this is one area where these grass pitches can be ripped up and replaced with 3G pitches. They do not necessary require floodlights or fencing off to keep the costs down. This would reduce the cost by nearly half to construct a 3G pitch, but you would still need around £250,000 for a senior pitch and less for junior and mini soccer pitches or even under £30,000 for one in your garden! Although to put it into perspective to the modern game, the average professional football player in the premier league earns £50,000 per week and the highest earners up to £500,000 per week! Could this money at the top levels funnel down to the grassroots level to build these pitches?

The other area in which 3G pitches can be built are at amateur and non-league clubs. Many clubs like Harrogate Town and Tamworth, see the benefit of ripping up their grass pitches in favor of artificial ones as they see a business and community benefit. Although clubs like Maidstone United and Sutton United may have a problem if they get promoted from the non-league system into the football league as 3G pitches are not permitted! Full time non-league clubs would use the pitch every day for training and those that were not full time would use it in the evenings. Clubs would not lose much needed revenue on match days due to the games being called off and beer and food preparation would not be wasted. The day use would also see clubs with full time education programs and academies use the 3G pitch on a daily basis and in the evenings used by the youth teams ranging from anything from under 6’s to the under 21’s. The community at large would also benefit from using the facility in the evenings with vets teams, ladies and girls teams, walking football and multi disability teams. Then at the weekend be used for matches both in the morning and the afternoon on a Saturday and Sunday with all the teams fulfilling their fixtures without cancellation. Other community events such as grass roots youth festivals, schools tournaments and other events could be used on the main pitch to feel part of the football club whilst generating money in the clubhouse with food and drink sales.

So the advantages of a 3G pitch at your club’s home ground seem to be:

  • Fewer matches called off therefore maintaining gate receipts and food/drink sales
  • Save money hiring training facilities at schools and leisure facilities
  • The home ground used for training on by the first team, education programs and youth teams
  • Getting the community to use the home ground for matches and training for the ladies/girls, vets and multi-disability teams.
  • Hosting events and festivals for the community’s local schools and businesses
  • And in my opinion a more technical and skillful game to watch on a even surface

So what are the disadvantages of installing a 3G pitch and used regularly by adults and children. Well first there is the cost. We are talking about half a million for the installation, fencing and floodlights, although less at a ground that already as a stadium built and floodlights present. Then there is the maintenance, with the pitch requiring regular servicing and a expected life span of around 10 years. Research has also shown that players are more likely to gain injuries to the knee with studs of the boots holding one way whilst your body is moving the other way. Also with growing and developing children is the impact on the bodies tendons and ligaments going to cause more damage to the body than being on natural grass? And for senior players will there be an increase in recovering time with more aches and pains playing on a harder surface than grass – although it can be said that pitches at the beginning of the season in August and at the end of the season in May are like concrete anyway! As more scientific research is done the more will will know. Of course some research sounds alarming with some scientific claims that the rubber crumb used in some artificial pitches is linked to cancer!

In conclusion I think more clubs will go down the line of installing more 3G pitches for as it makes more financial and business sense. As for local councils changing there third rated grass pitches and facilities in place of artificial ones, I think will take a little longer unless the Football Association heavily invest and work with the councils. Schools and now called academies are building more artificial pitches and maybe clubs and councils need to work together more as a group approach to share resources. As in most debates there is often no right or wrong answer as clubs, councils, schools, leagues and footballing institutions will do what best suits them and they all have different agendas and future objectives. But for me, build them everywhere: clubs, schools, playgrounds, council pitches, the lot. The more there are, the more opportunities children and adults are getting to play and love the game and feel like a real professional. And for mums, it saves on washing muddy football kits!

For more information on wanting to get involved in a football club just click on the link.

What makes a good football coach?

My stance on this question has changed over the last 30 years in coaching football to boys and girls, men and ladies, elite and development players, from the young beginner to the experienced pro.

The simplest and most purest answer is – the end result in working with the group of players or individual coached. Not just in the short term after one session or from week to week, but in the long term over a season or over a career of the player. But there has to be a means to an end!

So how do you judge success to gauge whether or not the end result in working with your players. Well after one session a coach can see for oneself if a player has improved from the start of the session to the end by demonstrating and showing an understanding of the coaching points you have put across during the session. This can be monitored from session to session and from match to match over the course of the season to evaluate performance progress.  To track the coaching for player and coaching development I recommend using football management software to monitor progress.  So if the individual players have improved from point A to point B then that is success ! If the team has improved from the beginning of the season to the end or from one season to the next then that is success ! If the players you coach go on to play a higher standard than the league you are in then that is success ! If you are coaching young players and they go on to play senior football into adulthood whether it be local Sunday league or plays as a professional then that is success as you have given them the enjoyment of continuing playing the game and maintain a healthy and social active lifestyle.

So if you are able to produce all or some of the above then you are a good football coach! My memories of coaches whilst I was a young player have stayed with me forever so they make a lasting impression. Some of the coaches taught me great technical ability and were recognized professional coaches with lots of coaching qualifications whilst others were just unqualified dads that ensured you had a good time and had fun. Both equally has important as each other looking back as I went on to play the game until my legs went and maintained my love of the game in coaching and managing football at many levels. Therefore the coaches that have taught me over the years must have been good coaches ! Well they definitely game me the love for the game and I appreciate the good ones as equally I can remember some awful ones as well that made you feel you want to quit the game and resort you to tears. For some players though its just in your blood, but the nature – nurture debate is another story.

The football coach and the culture has changed over time and now you cannot coach a under 7’s team without a level 1 coaching certificate. I think this as weeded out many coaches that think they are above taking a qualification and have fallen away. At the same time though the culture has produced coaches that think just because they have their coaching badge they know it all and are only doing it to feed their own ego and failed playing career rather than the development of the team and the individuals. This normally coincides with the win at all costs attitude and thinking winning 16-0 makes them a good coach!

So going back to the original question – What makes a good football coach? From my experience as a player and as a coach here are my key ingredients that come to mind. They are not in order of importance, but all play an integral part of the make up of a good coach.

  • Can recognize the strengths and weaknesses of a player/team and coaches them to maximize their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.
  • Creates a fun learning environment whilst installing discipline and good long lasting habits.
  • Can adapt the practice to the needs of the group and can differentiate players within the group.
  • Use their own style of coaching that has derived from their own personality, learnt from coaching courses, observed from other good coaches and knowledge from their own playing experiences.
  • Can recognize when they need to adapt and refine their coaching and takes on board advise from other coaches and feedback from the players.
  • A good coach is always learning and looking at ways to better themselves through watching others coach, CPD events and online courses, and reflecting on their own sessions for improvement.
  • A good understanding of subject knowledge is required and a appreciation of  technical ability, psychological, physical and social attributes of the game.
  • For coaches working with younger players, gauges success on player development rather than results or league positions. Unfortunately coaches in the pro game will not be in a job for too long if results and the league position is poor!
  • Embraces modern technology to improve player performance and uses this information to back up their coaching strategies.
  • Can communicate in a way that inspires learning and encourages creative thinking.
  • Combines a mixture of coaching styles to suit the needs of the individual and blends old and new methods of delivery, although you cannot reinvent the wheel.

I hope this has been useful and has made you think about your own coaching or coaches that you know of at your club ! If you feel I have missed anything out and wish to contribute to the debate then please get in contact and leave a message.

For young players and coaches that want to get involved in a football club go to  Kettering Town Youth FC for more information.

My Football Hub

Welcome all football coaches, players, parents, clubs  and supporters of the beautiful game. I hope you enjoy reading my blog and follow me in debating the issues in today’s modern game.


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