Saturday, 3 January 2009

Catching the spirit of youth

First published in The Grecian, 03 January 2009, Exeter City -v- Port Vale

It hardly seems possible that the 2008-9 season is now half over and that the New Year is upon us already. But here we are back at St James’ Park anticipating a serious push toward the third tier of English football, when a year ago the challenge was getting out of the Conference. How time flies and fortune shifts.

Part of the natural optimism of a fresh start, in spite of woes and recession in the world around us, is the energy of youth. When I’m watching the Grecians at home I am usually seated exactly opposite the section of the old stand where the school aged fans, youth team members, their teachers and families are gathered. The noise and energy they generate in support of Exeter City is an inspiration, and perhaps a gentle reminder to those of us who are inclined to wheeze and moan what it really means to get behind your team.

The same level of enthusiasm is produced when youngsters get out on the pitch themselves, too. Or it ought to be. City are among those clubs who have a ‘progressive youth policy’, recognising what are sometimes called the players of tomorrow as the players of today too, and not just ‘kids’ to be patronised and occasionally chastised. This happens through proper coaching, support, encouragement and structure.

There’s often a fine line to be drawn between offering young people, perhaps especially the 9-13 year olds, an opportunity to flourish and grow as players, and putting too much pressure on them or draining the joy from the game with a plethora of over-serious leagues and over-enthusiastic adult guardians.

This is probably one of the hottest topics in youth football at the moment. Trevor Brooking, the director of football development at the Football Association, has made some passionate observations about what can sometimes look like lack of accountability at club level. He has also pointed out that at an early age youngsters need to have their enthusiasm for the game enhanced, not inhibited. It can be really sad to see a 10-year-old ‘on the bench’ week in and week out because his team are desperate for results and he’s ‘not good enough’.

Trying out different roles, positions and styles is extremely important in your formative years. There are quite a few top class players entertaining us in stadiums and parks across the country today who would not be where they are if someone had decided too early what their ‘best position’ was. Flexibility and fun isn’t a luxury when you’re learning football, it’s essential.

Last summer there was a cringe inducing comedy show about youth football which you may have caught on telly. It was called ‘The Cup’, and it copied the spoof documentary format of ‘The Office’ in charting the progress of a school-aged team to a regional final in the Midlands. Not exactly classic viewing in the Ricky Gervais mould (the series was received without much enthusiasm by the critics), but it scored a few palpable ‘hits’ on the caricature front.

The joke, of course, was that the parents were as frightening as they were appalling, forcing a life of pressurised misery on their kids by trying to live out unfulfilled fantasies through them and behaving in ways that were hugely more infantile and absurd than those in their charge. I must admit that I thought it was way over the top until I took a wander through a park a few weeks ago (fortunately not in Exeter) and heard some touchline junior coaching which would have made Joe Kinnear blush!

Thankfully, the scenes were very different during the local half-term Football in the Community (FITC) roadshows played out over two days at Crediton earlier this season. There young players had a fantastic time showing off their skills, learning new ones and generally getting covered in mud. Those young lungs were well exercised on the field of play. Today many of them will be cheering on the Grecians to victory. Let’s tickle our own tonsils in supporting them.

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