SIR Trevor Brooking, my late grandma’s favourite football pundit (“When a chap’s as good looking as Trevor, he can say what the hell he likes”), gave an interview to the Manchester Evening News a couple of weeks ago in his role as FA director of football development.
In the piece, he talked about developing more English players capable of the tiki-taka football that has helped Spain dominate at international and club level. “For us, it’s about trying to get the skill base in place early,” Brooking said. “So by the time they get to 11, they are comfortable and can keep the ball.”
Brooking’s tone was optimistic. I’m not sure I share it. (Sorry, gran.) You see, I’ll only really start to believe that English youth football is on the right lines when keepers start taking their own goal kicks.
Let me explain: A friend of mine spends a bit of time helping out with his young son’s Under-10s side. When I caught up with him a few days ago, he made a whole raft of pertinent and somewhat dispiriting observations about the state of youth football in this country – for instance, that it’s still common for kids to play on full-size pitches in the wind and rain with parents on the touchline bellowing “Get rid of it”, and that too many pro clubs seem to want 6ft-plus athletes to whom they can teach a few rudimentary football skills.
But there was one observation that really struck a chord with me. He noted that, in a lot of junior football, defenders will take goal kicks. The reason? Because the goalkeeper can’t kick the ball. In many cases, the lad in goal has been put there because he is no good with the ball at his feet. He’s there, really, so that he’s out of the way.
It struck a chord because my lack of footballing skill was the main reason I ended up in goal as a youngster. I couldn’t kick a ball for toffee. I still can’t. (I did score a penalty past former Oldham keeper Jon Hallworth at my high school summer fair in 1989, but that was just luck.) When I played for my school, I needed a defender to take my goal kicks. I wasn’t alone.
As it turned out, I wasn’t terribly good at goalkeeping either. So I stopped playing in 1992, when I was 15. It was the year the back pass rule came in. I figured the writing was on the wall.
A junior league goalkeeper unable to kick could just about get by in the late 80s and early 90s. But now? Almost 20 years after keepers were banned from handling back passes? Well, it’s difficult to know whether that’s funny or sad.
You can see it sometimes, even much higher up the football food chain. In July, I watched a pre-season friendly involving a Conference North side. They had a keeper who had, relatively recently, been on the books of a League One club. Midway through the first half, the keeper received a back pass on his weaker left foot. I say weaker: He clearly just used it for standing on. Unable to work it on to his right because he was being closed down, the keeper took a panicky air shot with his left, then scrambled to the loose ball and poked it out for a throw-in. It was hopeless.
Teaching youngsters to play like Barcelona is a laudable aim for Brooking and his team. But perhaps first, it might be a good idea to teach them how to kick a ball properly. And that includes wannabe goalkeepers.
Actually, I’m of the view – as is my friend with the Under-10s side – that kids shouldn’t develop a specialist position so early. You want to be a keeper? Fine, but you should also spend some time playing outfield, to develop your ball skills. Ambitions to be a striker? Might do you good to spend a bit of time in goal. Naturally right-sided? Play at left-back for a while, and practise using your weaker foot. Yes, you might lose a few games, but who cares at that age? I mean, can you tell me who won the Central Lancashire Junior League in 1992? I can’t, and I played in it.
I do despair that it’s still common for the goalkeeping role to be treated so lightly in junior football, that it’s too often seen as somewhere to stick a duffer so they’re out of the way. As long as that keeps happening, we’ll struggle to produce top-class goalkeepers, and our Premier League clubs will have to carry on importing from overseas. If you want an example, cross the border into Wales and look at Swansea’s Michel Vorm.
Last on MOTD: Newcastle 0 Swansea 0
Commentator: John Roder
Vorm has kept eight clean sheets in 16 Premier League games this season, saving two penalties as well. Yet even though his dad was a decent amateur keeper, the Dutchman claimed recently that he hated playing in goal as a kid.
“I enjoyed playing outfield,” he said last month. “Whenever the boys were in the street, kicking the ball about, I would make sure that I was not stood between the posts.”
In Holland, youth players don’t have positions imposed on them as early as in England. And so when Vorm finally succumbed to family tradition and put on a pair of gloves, he was already comfortable with the ball at his feet.
According to Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers, those ball skills were just what he was looking for when seeking a keeper to replace Dorus de Vries, who quit during the summer in order to spend all season on the bench at Wolves.
“We like to start from the back,” Rodgers said, “so our keeper has to be a good footballer too.”
Don’t get me wrong, though. Being a great shot stopper is vital as well. Vorm proved that by denying Demba Ba from six yards at St James’ Park yesterday. It ensured a clean sheet as Swansea earned a third away point of the season.
It was a sombre afternoon, preceded by a beautifully-judged tribute to the much-missed Gary Speed, once of Newcastle and always of Wales. Gwyn Hughes Jones, the Welsh tenor, gave a breath-taking rendition of Bread Of Heaven from the centre circle. There was a minute’s applause as fans held up black and white cards to pick out a giant No. 11, Speed’s shirt number. When the match reached its 11th minute, supporters rose from their seats in tribute.
“The Geordie faithful loved Gary Speed, and they showed it like only they can,” Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said afterwards.
In the circumstances, the match seemed something of an irrelevance. It did, though, demonstrate just how important Swansea’s defending – and the goalkeeper – will be in their attempt to stay in the Premier League. At home, they have the top-flight’s best defensive record, with just two goals against. Away, they have one of the worst, shipping 18 goals.
A clean sheet on their travels, then, was very welcome, as chiselling out away points is going to be key for Vorm and his team. Swansea’s record at the Liberty Stadium this season may be excellent, but no team can expect to stay up on home form alone.
So although Vorm’s ball-playing skills will come in very handy over the next few months, so will his ability to command his penalty area and keep his defenders in check. Oh, and to take his own goal kicks.
1. Fulham: 4 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
2. QPR: 4 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
3. West Brom: 3 (2L: 4, 3L: 2)
4. Aston Villa: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
4. Swansea: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
6. Sunderland: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
7. Wigan: 2 (2L: 5, 3L: 3)
8: Wolves: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 4)
9: Liverpool: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
10. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
11. Bolton: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
12. Norwich: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
13. Blackburn: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
14. Tottenham: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
15. Everton: 0 (2L: 3, 3L: 3)
16. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
17. Stoke: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
18. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
19. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 2)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
2L = On second last (Everton 1 Norwich 1)
3L = On third last (Wolves 1 Stoke 2)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)