The General’s Death

This content was written for and appeared there first on April 4, 2014. 

The General’s Death

By: Jonathan Townsend


I recently found myself watching a replay of the 1988 FA Cup Final between the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon and a heavily-favoured Liverpool side on late-night television. As the footage cut out, I flipped the channel to see another film lost to history, General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech to Congress where he poignantly proclaimed, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.

Somehow, that FA Cup Final with the grit and grind of Wimbledon battling against the then Kings of English football, Liverpool echoed MacArthur’s words. I watched as Peter Beardsley streak down the left flank only to be confronted by a blue wall of Wimbledon players blocking his advance. Beardsley’s shot smashed off a defender and bounced to John Barnes who crossed to a waiting John Aldridge and Ray Houghton in the box only for a gut-busting run by Alan Cork to put off John Aldridge. In many ways, it was an example of surgical football by Liverpool against defiant football by Wimbledon. A team of magicians versus a team of gritty grinders. Grit won that day.

Watching modern football, one realizes the game is now a lithe blend of speed and fluidity on the pitch. Today’s game requires smoother movements combined with a higher level of requisite technique across every position on the pitch. Today’s footballer has to show some degree of dexterity as the game continues to rely on interchange and technical ability with increased speed of play.

Defenders need to be technically adept rather than masters of hoofing the ball out of the stadium, midfielders must combine finesse and fitness, and strikers are required to be the embodiment of athleticism with an assassin’s aim. But, regardless of what team is playing and in what league, there’s something, or rather, someone, missing in the modern game; the on-field general.

The man who urges his teammates on when all seems lost, the team’s soldier, the man who demands that his teammate pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fight to the end. These gladiators of football are the ones who look up at the scoreboard – realize the result may be lost – and then look through the others on the pitch and fight past the final whistle. For them, the losses aren’t purely statistical – they’re engrained on a man’s character and absorbed in his eyes. To this legionnaire of league football, regardless of level, there is no giving up. They wear defeat like a shroud on Tuesday morning’s training session and let everyone know how unacceptable giving up is at their football club.

But are these types of players nothing more than glorified cheerleaders whose enthusiasm and toughness make up for their lack of technique and finesse on the pitch? Has the modern game changed the modern player to the point that only internal motivation and individual reward pushes them onwards as they are not programmed to compute any external on-field instruction?

Would a Roy Keane-like figure have saved the Red Devils from the apathy choking Manchester United at the present? Does Arsenal need another Tony Adams, someone to lay the boots down and grab players from off the delicate Emirates pitch surface and hurl them back into battle? Does this type of player still exist in an age where diving and simulation, feigning injury during a capitulating defeat, and a lack of personal accountability are a normal sight for the supporters? Do we value the battlers, the grinders, and jacks of all trades in football anymore?

For all their faults as men and sometimes, as teammates, there’s a nostalgia associated with the no-nonsense footballer. The uncompromising tackler who snubs doubt and stares down defeat in a tragically heroic way as to suggest to his opponent, “You may win the game, but you won’t defeat me”.

One can argue that these players still exist, but they’re better versions of this archetypal on-field general. Liverpool have Steven Gerrard and Manchester City have Vincent Kompany; two gifted stalwarts whose talent is only eclipsed by their rejection of anything less than total commitment from their peers. For all his personal issues, John Terry has shown a proclivity to lead his Chelsea sides to great heights, but he’s also been known to flop and show far too many inconsistencies when many suggest he’s a better footballer than that.

The aforementioned types of leaders are also captains of their respective sides, which many might suggest is a prerequisite for such displays of leadership and regular impassioned performances. But there has to be more to it than wearing the armband. Players like Tony Adams, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and the like of yesteryear were not saints. Surely, they battled their own demons off the pitch as well as on it.

Tony Adams, for example, has fought his way through a harder battle than any football match in his struggle with addiction and alcoholism. Roy Keane, for all his bravado and midfield presence qualities, has brought the game into disrepute and can’t seem to check his ego at the door. The Irishman’s fiery temper and willingness to publically criticize his teammates at United and expose the inadequacies of the FAI have cost him dearly, in a sense. Steven Gerrard was fortunate to escape harsher punishment for a nightclub punch-up in Southport in late-2008. Perhaps what makes these men quality leaders also accounts for their enigmatic personalities. Football is not a sport for the angelic and the professional player is not a commoner.

Leadership is a quality that surely ostracizes the trailblazer and forces him to swim against the stream lest he risk drowning himself in the waters of mediocrity. The problem with having leaders in modern football is the game is bigger than it was a decade ago. The world, in many ways, has grown overly-sensitive as have its players. Egos are bruised with any public criticism and the hairdryer treatment is often seen as a lack of control instead of a motivating call to action. Modern football doesn’t want soldiers; it wants magicians and wizards. Supporters must balance whether they want battlers or exhibitionists.

Where is a player sans the skill of a Steven Gerrard or the quality of a Vincent Kompany, but with their leadership qualities factor in a present-day Arsenal or Manchester United squad? Would they even be picked? Have football academies and attitudes shifted and evolved in such a way that a team’s ‘hard man’ is not only far from being the first name on the team sheet, it’s not even in the squad?

Football is a game of delicate balance. For every flamboyant player capable of dazzling the world with the magic in his boots, there should be an unwavering presence to defend the bulwarks. Quite frankly, the evolution of the game has been so rapid in the past decade that many of the tackles and confrontations on the pitch back then would not be tolerated in today’s game. I’ve often wondered what’s more fascinating: the soft fouls and pitiful theatrics in modern football, or the over-the-top, no-nonsense tackles of yesterday’s football.

Candidly speaking, there will always be ugliness in the game, but there was something more redeeming from seeing the players care so much off the field. In 2005 at Highbury, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira brought the tension to a crescendo in the tunnel before the match in a spat that galvanized even the neutral. Even if the confrontation was overdone for the camera, it provided the world with a front row view of the game within the game. What was the fight over? Two captains defending their teammates. Keane defending Gary Neville, Vieira defending Robert Pirès.

There’d be no pulling out of tackles. The fans wouldn’t allow it because the generals on the pitch wouldn’t allow it. These days, there’s something refreshing in seeing a defender wear black boots instead of neon green or hot pink ones. Players like Liverpool’s blue collar academy product, Jon Flanagan, or Crystal Palace’s less-than-flashy, part-time rugby fly-half (I jest) Mile Jedinak remind supporters and viewers of Premier League football that there is a place for the orthodox, old-fashioned player in the game.

But there’s an ugly side to the on-field general. A selfishness that oftentimes leads to reckless action that costs the team dearly. A personal vendetta gone too far that proves to be more a distraction and hindrance than benefit for the team like Roy Keane’s horror tackle on Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Håland, which effectively ended the Norwegian’s career, and for what? A comment made in a previous match – a chance to physically crush the “enemy” out of personal savagery? One might think that football has no patience for petulance, but if that was the case, the diving and cheating would be punished with more severity instead of being met with more tolerance and regularity.

Every week, pundits argue and squabble over the flair in the game and the controversy surrounding a penalty decision or rash tackle. To advocate for more over-the-ball, knee-high tackles is foolish, but there should also be a place in a side for the general. The impact of great leaders has impacted the best teams in leagues outside of the Premier League.

What Carles Puyol is to Barcelona and Gennaro Gattuso was to AC Milan cannot be taught. The Fabio Cannavaro’s and Paulo Maldini’s of the world have faded into the shadows. Where are the players striving to emulate the likes of Franco Baresi and Franz Beckenbauer? The reality is players with the leadership and consistency of those players is seen less and less in football.

One cannot buy a “leader”, but if it was possible, if leadership was an attribute modern football still valued as a premium, perhaps there would be some solace for the supporters of clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester United to name but a few sides who desperately need a general to rally the troops against all odds.

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

By Jonathan Townsend.

Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Up in the Air

Up in the Air: Is it Time to for MLS to Hit its Ceiling?

Since its inception in 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) has become a league many thought would implode in its infancy. As the 2014 season approaches, the league’s vitality is increasing while the number of teams in MLS has more than doubled. For MLS, the reality is still up in the air. Literally.

The league’s proclivity to introduce soccer-specific stadiums and programming to a once soccer-ignorant country whose denizens once only gained their exposure to the sport through two main channels: first generation immigrants and recreational leagues geared toward children. Of course, the North American Soccer League (NASL) existed prior to MLS, from 1968 to 1984, and introduced North America to the world’s finest players on their way out.

The past decade has seen a resurgence of talent and interest in North America, but the league, which currently follows the NASL modus operandi of acquiring foreign talent as keynote signings, must heed the warnings of the past. The league’s most recent decision to add more teams to the league should be cause for concern. In many ways, the league is still in its embryonic stages of development and talent-based output. Sure, its growth has been exponentially beneficial for the latest generation of aficionados of the game in America and to a lesser extent, Canada, but Don Garber and the hierarchy of MLS and the USSF need to address two main issues.

The league is slated to include 21 teams when the 2015 campaign kicks off with the two newest teams being New York City FC and Orlando City Soccer Club respectively. At this point, the league’s growth must be culled before too many teams are introduced in areas that still lack interest in the league itself. Supporters’ groups are on the rise, but the cause for concern rests not with the passion of these supporters, but with the preference most educated fans and players of the game have to foreign leagues. The glitz and glamor of the Premier League is unrivalled. As American fans tuning-in to watch the Premier League religiously as the television rights being awarded to NBC and the influx of North American-based preseason tours, their preference still rests with one of the world’s power leagues.

For the league to fully hone its talent pool, structural changes need to occur in the lower tiers of the North American system. Relegation should be implemented seeing as many teams in the second tier of soccer can compete with MLS teams in club competitions and friendlies. Where they cannot compete is financially. The structure of MLS is designed to foster parity within the league via the Drafting process, trade allocations, designated player rulings and single-entity ownership. Each element has proven to work wonders to grow the league, but now, the powers at be would be well-advised to think about the sport in terms of “trickle-down economics”, whereby the vitality of the leagues is based on controlled expansion up top. One doesn’t build a house starting with the roof.

The quality of the game will continue to rise in North America — even if most of best young talents opt to ply their trade abroad. With an expanding league, certain necessities must take place such as: a simple relegation-promotion system, single table standings and with it, the elimination of the play-offs. Stability on par with the rest of the world’s leagues will come through drastic changes, but the fact remains that MLS is ironically still too foreign to its own purist fans who follow the top European leagues. The allure of bridging the gap between divisions benefits all participants in each league. The infusion of better talent, more sponsorship, bigger stadia (and with them, bigger crowds), more television money needs to trickle down the ranks of North American soccer. It may surprise many, but eliminating the “Americanized” aspects of the league will bring more continuity to a working formulaic design.

The sky is truly the limit for the sport on North American shores, but the best growth is controlled growth. By expanding the sport back to the state of Florida where the league’s only two defunct teams resided, MLS is taking a calculated risk. The American southeast may or may not be ready for professional soccer. Garnering support from the grassroots level in this area should increase with Orlando City FC’s inclusion to MLS. In recent weeks, David Beckham and LeBron James have both expressed interest in owning a team in Miami, which would increase interest, but what the league needs now is stability and reformatting. The American southwest could certainly benefit from a team in Arizona or New Mexico, where the number of latino players has always been high.

Explosive interest in the league’s growth is both dangerous and exciting and only time will tell how the ball rolls in the coming years for MLS and lower tiers of North American soccer.

Penalized by the Penalty Kick

Penalized by the Penalty Kick

By: Jonathan Townsend

The clocks ticks closer to the 89th minute as the crowd swells with anticipation. The match is close with one goal separating the two sides but as certain as the ball is round, everyone can feel something is about to give way to the ridiculous. The center midfielder takes the ball off his back line, pivots to the right to dodge the challenge of the opposing team’s tired striker, and looks up the field. The wingers are in advanced positions with their boots on the chalk as the target man checks to the ball and the other striker runs behind in the gap the big man created. The libero, slots the ball between two baited defenders now left for dead as the opposition’s centerback lines up the striker as he collects the ball in the penalty area. Contact is made, the striker goes down, arms go up and the collective gasp of everyone in attendance mixes with cheers and jeers. The referee looks at his linesman, who himself wears a mask of uncertainty.

The ref, certain contact was made and the ball was touched, is not sure if it was by the laws of the game. The attacking team swarms the ref like a horde possessed as the striker continues to roll around theatrically on the pitch turf. The defending team pleads their innocence as the referee points to the spot. Penalty kick awarded. The armchair cynics and media box pundits have the luxury of replay after replay — from every conceivable angle. We know the truth. He, the referee, is unsure. The penalty kick is converted. Such is the way hearts break and results are made.

With the pace of the game increasing faster each year, there are really two games occurring simultaneously. One is played in the middle of park, along the sidelines and in the corners. The other, however, is a different game altogether. That game is played in the penalty area. As with any advantage that would and could be gained in a Premier League campaign that is arguably as close as it’s ever been from top to bottom, the decision to award and deny a penalty is the most tumultuous. This decision puts referees in a limelight more aptly made from the refracted rays of the sun. It puts repeat offenders who have been legitimately fouled at odds with their shady pasts and it puts the league’s darlings in the position to con the referee and the game itself.

The solution is simple. Instant video replay. The league is armed with a plethora of cameras at every football ground capable of breaking down the frames per second of the match as accurately as possible in high definition. The axis cameras allow analysts and pundits see what the referee cannot. These decisions do not need to be made based on assumption. And yet they are. Football is notorious for embellishment, both in the actions players take and the embellishment of the “human element” of the sport. There is something oddly romantic about using a referee — a mere mortal who is not a professional by trade as he holds a day job — accountable for the heaviest and most controversial of decisions.

With the stakes so high in the professional game, there ought to be an instant review process made by a fifth official and a team of video analysts who are all experts at dissecting the play in an effort to produce the correct call on the field of play. The problem is football loves controversy and it loves the unpopular or popular call, not necessarily the correct call. To many dissenters, this process would be considered too time-consuming, too intrusive to the natural ebb and flow of the game (as though a player writhing around for minutes at a time only to pop back up and continue play is not intrusive), and too robotic to aid the game. But surely, we live in a gilded age rife with plentiful resource and a bounty of on-the-spot knowledge that can help maintain a sense of balanced fairness in football. In sports like ice hockey, every goal is reviewed and sometimes calls are correctly amended. The same should be considered in football’s most popular league.

Additionally, players found to be cheating should be penalized with sin-bins or retroactive punishments to help eradicate the dishonesty from the game. There is no harm in reviewing a penalty decision and the correct call could be change the course of not only a single match, but an entire league campaign — for what it’s worth.


Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line

By: Jonathan Townsend


March 18, 2014

Football is the physical manifestation of pure passion on the pitch. The modern game’s stakes are increasing at an alarming rate as the season becomes more unforgivable. The pressure on each player’s shoulders is matched by the blood pressure of the managers on the touchline. In recent weeks, a select group of managers have become the actual storyline the pundits and public find themselves talking about ad nauseam.

Make no mistake, every play needs a strong cast of actors and football is no different. The playacting on the pitch has somehow bled over to the charade on the sidelines. Alan Pardew’s moments (plural) of madness notwithstanding, the line is being crossed weekly by the managers of the Premier League—literally and figuratively.

In Chelsea’s recent collapse against an inspired Aston Villa side, José Mourinho proffered an excellent example of elaborate contradictions in his post-match interview. After the dismissal of Willian and Ramires, combined with the abject performance of his team that saw Fabian Delph score a nifty goal late-on, Mourinho found himself sent to the stands by referee Chris Foy. Since 2004, José Mourinho has always been the story—he’s a journalist’s dream as even the most off-the-cuff comment is loaded with fodder for a story. In the dying minutes of a match that Aston Villa were trying to kill off, Ramires lunged in and stamped on Karim El Ahmadi, resulting in a maddening scene of which Mourinho was typically at the epicenter.

Mourinho, surprisingly, refused to comment on any of those incidents. “I prefer not to speak. If I speak, I will be in trouble and I don’t want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to do something that we are not allowed to do. We are not allowed to speak about the referees. I don’t want to be charged with bringing the game into disrepute.”

The Chelsea manager, in saying “nothing” said it all as he commented at length about Chris Foy’s refusal to validate his decision to send Willian off earlier. This is hardly the first time Mourinho has found himself involved in a fracas, but in typical Mourinho fashion when asked whether he expected punishment. “Me? Me, or the ref? No, I don’t expect, because I did nothing.”

Tim Sherwood has also been at the forefront of more than a few criticisms in recent weeks. After his honeymoon period in charge of Tottenham Hotspur after the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas, Sherwood has shown a temperament seldom seen or tolerated in the Premier League these days.

After capitulating against Chelsea, Sherwood openly called his players out for their lack of guile and application on the pitch. Such outbursts were the norm a decade ago, but today’s player has more protection and power than ever before. In the their recent defeat against North London rivals, Arsenal, Sherwood was shown in bouts of fury on the sideline as he threw his vest and stammered in seething rage. Later in the match, as Arsenal began to bleed the clock and it became clear that Tottenham had no fight left in them, Sherwood hurled the out-of-play ball at Bacary Sagna as the Frenchman leisurely walked over to take the ensuing throw not once, but twice. Perhaps it is ironic that Sherwood, a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve wears a garment sans sleeves. For all his faults, Sherwood’s outbursts and criticisms resonate south of favorable for the Englishman. Unlike Mourinho, Sherwood has neither the charisma, experience, nor the media on his side.


All jokes aside, both men are deflecting attention away from their shortcomings on the day. Mourinho is the puppeteer of the media and mind games looking for a playmate now that Sir Alex Ferguson finds himself a silent witness to the collapse at Manchester United. In Arsène Wenger, Mr. Mourinho has found a stale opponent in the verbal jousting matches whereas David Moyes has no room to engage in anything more than trying to prove he can save Manchester United from even more embarrassment. Tim Sherwood is clearly a victim of his own temper, flawed tactics and of a side players whimsically bought with the Gareth Bale money who have shamefully under-performed under both Villas-Boas and himself.

Long gone are the days where managers could issue the public call-outs and hairdryer treatment to players. This generation is different. This Premier League is different. But, this is where the conundrum is most frustrating for many supporters and analysts. Shouldn’t players be held accountable for their poor public performances? Or, should all of the criticisms be reserved for a closed-door session away from the speculative eyes of the media and public capable of smelling a drop of blood in an ocean of controversy? In all honesty, this generation of players would probably quit football if they had a man telling them the brutal truth like John Sitton famously did at Leyton Orient in front of the camera.

Football, in many ways, has changed in ways many of us cannot relate to. Many a reader can remember a savage halftime shellacking at their own expense. Not ten years ago, the Premier League was a hard man’s league. Diving and simulation were present, but not at the rate it is presently. Tackles like the one Ramires committed were common (and still disgusting), but the likelihood a manager would end up on the field arguing the point was less than likely. The modern football manager is just as much a celebrity as the modern footballer. There is no place to hide, no comment goes unrecorded and no emotion escapes analysis and speculation. Some will commend emotional coaches like Mourinho and Sherwood (albeit they are very much different men and managers) for “taking the attention away from their players”, or their flawed tactics; and others will condemn their public displays as those of petulance and petty attention-seeking. But, like Paul Weller’s famously crooned in the 1980 hit, “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam, it surely is entertainment for the football-consuming world—and the show must go on. And where ever it goes, we’ll all be waiting.

The Coach’s Conundrum

The Coach’s Conundrum

By: Jonathan Townsend



The modern football coach is like a home builder. While not an architect, they are tasked with the construction, organization, and management of several pieces that must align to complete the overall project successfully. What’s the best way to build a house? Surely not by building the roof first then framing it and while we’re at it, go ahead and decorate the interior walls with a calming shade of paint. When time permits, go ahead and get around to digging, pouring, and setting a sound foundation for this glorious house.

This nonsensical scenario is a misstep into madness that could go on forever, but you get the point. In recent years, it seems this same wonky logic is how the modern coaching structure has matriculated at the grassroots level. Coaching is integral to the promotion and development of football for any nation. Obviously, without good coaching, the game suffers. But why is the ratio of qualified coaches to unqualified coaching such at such an influx of disparity?

The following are two examples (there are many more) of scenario-based routes to coaching that occur in both Great Britain and the United States – two nations struggling to implement a cohesive style of coaching and style of play at all levels and representations of the game, irrespective of FIFA ranking and league strength. The disparities are not as far off as one might imagine.

Coach A: This father of three children coaches his eldest son’s U10 matches every weekend and runs the training sessions twice a week. He’s motivated by his continued involvement and immersion in his team’s success and genuinely does his best to balance the playing time for every player. Coach A never played the sport at a competitive or high level, nor did he really show a candid interest in the game until his son gravitated towards football a few years ago, scored a few goals, and more importantly for Coach A – won a 4th place trophy.

But, despite his lack of playing experience, Coach A has an unrivaled enthusiasm and zest for each practice session and weekend adventure watching his team proudly and wildly gallivant around the pitch chasing a ball amid the shrieks and screams of the sideline mob rife with overzealous and overreacting parents all shouting, “Come on, Coach, what are you doing?!”, “Shoot the ball, son!”, and “You gotta call that, Ref!”

The excitement is mirrored by Coach A, who shouts the obligatory, “Just like we practiced, team!” while cursing through clenched teeth and holding his clipboard against his torso in the vice grip of his folded arms. Perhaps, due to a profound sense of parental obligation or a genuine new-found love for the game, but Coach A does his best to perform a very important role that requires him to wear multiple hats – both literally and figuratively.

Coach A has taken to reading coaching manuals, paying the requisite and exorbitant fees to earn the first of his coaching licenses (or badges) and has even stocked his closet with football clothing and a multitude of accessories that serve to validate his place on the sideline. The whistle around his neck serves as the shining pendant of parental power; the instrument of assertion and exacting directives culled from the three how-to coaching books that he has duly annotated by highlighting every section.

With any luck, his team will be in contention for another trophy this season. Each training session is a structured drill taken from a book verbatim. He holds the book open on the training pitch and recites the words on the page, telling each player where to go, what to do, how and when to do it. When the whole drill implodes, Coach A steps in and re-explains every detail while the players who aren’t involved in the drill become bored, the ones demonstrating become scared, and all of the players stiffen with inactivity. Coach A is trying his best and should be commended for his dedication.

The parking lot, full of overpriced SUVs and minivans, awakens as training ends. The parents emerge like cryptic shadows cast against the setting sun and halogen headlights as Coach A looks at his watch and sighs to himself, having tried in vain to accomplish something, anything, with his team of rowdy youths. The look on each parent’s face says it all. But it’s their shared murmurs that add pressure to Coach A.

He knows they’re judging him for the lack of playing time, progress, worst of all, lack of silverware they each feel their son is entitled to receive. Coach A collects the gear as the kids trudge off the pitch and then reviews his notes and coaching guides with a furled brow, “I set it up right. Where did it go wrong?” he says to himself. When the parents leave, he decides it’s safe to pack up his son and head home.

“I’m not doing this next season, someone else can…” he says to himself as he walks off the training ground.

Coach B: This gentleman walks up to the training pitch in a pair of old running shoes, a torn pair of sweatpants, a faded hoodie, and a slightly overgrown mask of stubble that he’s calling a beard. If you didn’t know him, you’d never suspect he was the coach of another crop of young players. A bag of randomly collected footballs, a few foul-smelling training bibs, some training discs, and an extra pair of football boots hang over his back – because someone forget their boots last training session. The players run around chasing one another as Coach B calls his flock in from the field. He looks at his left wrist, but remembers he forgot to wear a watch, so he pulls out his mobile phone to track the time.

Coach B was a player. A serious player whose career spanned a multitude of victories at the youth level before he went on to play lower league football becoming a professional journeyman of sorts; traveling from trial to trial, living off per diem allotments, and sleeping in the back of his car when a trial lasted longer than he could afford to stay in a local motel.

He did all of this while putting off the inevitable career trade off of basking in the limelight on the football pitch for tanning under the fluorescent lights of an office cubicle fulltime. Coach B has a network of resources from all around the country ranging from former coaches to former teammates still involved in football at various levels. On Sundays, he wakes up early staving off his mild hangover, to play in multiple Sunday league matches for three different teams.

Every now and then, Coach B measures what’s worse: the physical injuries that railroaded his aspirations of playing at a higher level, or the mental injuries inflicted to his ego and confidence by misinformed coaches lacking the knowledge to help players like him reach their full potential. These days, Coach B loves coaching. He cares about winning, but knows the U10 team he coaches doesn’t really understand what winning means in the larger context of life…yet. In fact, he doesn’t even regard the team as his team; he’s just happy to help.

His training sessions revolve around possession-based drills, competitive and repetitive training of basic skill sets, and small-sided games that his players beg him to participate in. The whole session is off-the-cuff. The exhausted players talk when he’s talking and he tolerates the chatter. There are no sprints at the end of training, but rather a, “Well done today, lads! See you Thursday!”

Coach B can’t be bothered to get his coaching licenses because each license becomes more expensive through progression and requires more classroom courses covering material packaged in hourly increments that he already knows with a standardized test at the end of the course. The aforementioned Coach A, however, has taken the classes. Every so often, the parents ask one another about Coach B’s credentials despite the obvious enjoyment and improvement of each player and their curious concern is valid.

After a defeat against a local academy team, a bold father taps him on the shoulder and tries luring the young coach into a conversation that will undoubtedly force the coach to justify his decisions, but it’s really an exercise in the anecdotal centered on the father’s own playing days. Coach B doesn’t know what to say because this parent isn’t interested in anyone but his own son and asserting his opinion on the young coach.

Coach B knows he’s not armed with a thick-stock paper coaching certificate. Every week, another father asks if the U10 team will play a ‘False Nine’ or a 4-3-2-1 on the weekend. Another will ask Coach B if he needs any help and, “Have you thought about playing my son in the center of the park, believe me, that’s his best position.”

Coach B sighs, knowing full well what he’s hearing is a mixture of ridiculous politics and back-handed reminders that he’s not really a coach without the licenses in their eyes, is he? “What the am I doing here?” he says.

So, who is the better coach? Of course, these two coaches are fictitious. Or are they? One issue with football development is the quality of coaching at the grassroots level. I’ve always considered a sport like football to be the lifeblood of a bleeding world and at the grassroots level, the game is dying. As the governing football federations and associations aim to educate and standardize the coaching models, more and more coaches find it increasingly difficult to stay current with the revolving model up top.

Comparing these two personas is surely an exercise in futility and reveals only what many already know – the route involved in coaching education has become stale and elitist while pricing many younger coaches out of the profession. And it’s not that coaches don’t want to be qualified, but rather they don’t see the system working at the senior levels and therefore, find it hard to validate what’s being funneled down to the grassroots level. Or, many see the popular foreign coaches come in, take over, and don’t practice what the “system” is preaching and selling the country’s coaches at lower levels.

Looking at the standard USSF coaching pyramid and the structure in place with The FA, this paradox is frustrating. In countries with a consistent track-record of success from the senior teams to the youth teams and a strong foundation of player development, the incentive and ratio of qualified coaches to players is evidenced by the quality on display year after year.

Perhaps both coaches are being assessed on the wrong criteria. Coach A is taking the standard route to enhance his coaching knowledge to educate himself with the game he’s learning to love, and performing his due diligence by following a complicated and expensive model. Whereas Coach A is learning how to be a student of the game, Coach B pulls from a wealth of knowledge as a player and has always been a student of the game.Of course, he’s at a different stage in life than Coach A, and therefore, sees little value in taking courses he might consider overly-redundant and in some cases, overkill on the basics of the game.

Plus, Coach B doesn’t have any children of his own yet, so he’s not subjected to balancing his love for the game with his love for his child, as Coach A must at this stage.

Some concessions have to be made to recognize a deeper problem with coaching education and retention: Firstly, coaching education should be rigorous and comprehensive in nature and it must balance classroom education with real assessment on the field. For example, in the US the coaching ladder ranges from the ‘E’ License all the way up to an ‘A’ License, with each tier requiring a waiting period of at least a year, costly expenses, and dedicated hours for each course. A coach may wave the lower levels if proof they played professionally or at an equivalent coaching level abroad is proffered.

The FA requires coaches to attend and go through a rigorous curriculum to earn FA Coaching Badges from Level 1 to the UEFA ‘A’ License. Furthermore, the availability and instances of these courses is sporadic at best with difficult offerings based on time and location making enrollment costly and difficult for many.

Secondly, the best players don’t make the best coaches and the “best” parents surely don’t make great coaches. Coaching is a vocation, one that many approach with expectations misaligned with reality to the point it’s far too late to save themselves and worse, their child, from burnout. Even at the highest level, former players who go directly into the coaching ranks seldom know enough to experience prolonged success. To them, the game is still fresh and raw. To them, it’s an exercise in vicariously living through the players entrusted to their care. To former players, it’s about winning first, development later.

Conversely, to many parents taking on a coaching role, it’s about winning first, development never – especially at the younger ages in grassroots football. Placing emphasis on competition and winning are two different things. Winning refers to winning a match. Competition should reference the development of the competitive elements that will aid a player such as shedding the fear of injury, losing a match or individual battle, getting “stuck-in”, striving to improve individually, and understanding that there are always better players and there’s always something to work on.

Thirdly, as a result of the standardized structures that governing bodies aim to trickle down from the top; coaches try to make kids play as adults. There is a profound difference between players in academies like: La Cantera, (Barcelona’s academy that is pre-La Masia), De Toekomst at Ajax, and La Fábrica at Real Madrid to name but a few of the football mills fostering young talent. These structures play by a different set of rules… literally. But for the kids at the grassroots level to succeed and enjoy the game, they need good coaches. Coaches who can afford and are motivated to continue their coaching education without being dovetailed into a one-size fits all model.

One problem is coaching retention. Many coaches simply cannot see the value in continuing their coach’s education curriculum when they don’t receive the requisite direction and funding from the top tier to the grassroots level. The overall governance of a nation’s football coaching guidelines shouldn’t be a hindrance, but with the vast amounts of cash on the top tiers staying at the top combined with the constant revamping of what works – what’s in and what’s out – coaches have less incentive to stay the course (pardon the pun).

There is much value to coaching education courses that expands beyond the pitch. Covering topics such as diet, concussion testing, learning how to organize and present material in an educative way to name a few, but the federations need to be more proactive with their involvement at the lower levels to explain and highlight these elements of the courses, and it’s simply not happening at the moment.

The game at the grassroots level is being gobbled up by academies attracting the best talent. Good coaches can concede when a player is better off playing in an academy. The route and motivation for coaches at the grassroots level has its complexities, but the fact remains that as more coaches burnout or walk away from the role, it’s the young players at the grassroots level who ultimately lose and the grassroots level is, after all, where the game grows.

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Taking Football to the Streets — Part II

Taking Football To The Streets
Part Two
In part two of a special feature looking at taking football back to the streets, Jon Townsend interviews John Farnworth on his remarkable journey into freestyle football.

By Jonathan Townsend | 4 March 2014

Every footballer has their own story. Some are more akin to war stories of the jaded and faded who claim to have never received a fair shot or shake at glory. Others will tell you that they decided to pursue other avenues away from the sport. Still more will have their footballing fate decided for them through a series of events of glorious triumphs and failures.

John Farnworth, a freestyle football player who holds more than few Guinness World Records and is considered one of the world’s most entertaining and most-skilled freestyle players, has a story worth telling.

Much like Edward Van Gils and countless other street and footballers, skill acquisition for him required an innate desire to be the best player possible. What is compelling about John’s story, aside from his obvious skill, is his acknowledgement that his adventure is purely a result of his dedication to his craft.

He, like many players, harbored aspirations to play professionally, but unlike many of today’s young players, he became a student of the game. By reading and re-reading a skill book and rehearsing the movements and techniques for hours on end, John bridged the gap he sought to fill and didn’t give up on the sport. He simply found an alternative way to continue playing and making an impact as an entertainer and ambassador of the game.

Interview with John Farnworth

How did you start playing football?

I started playing football when I was about 8 or 9. Before that, I wasn’t really interested in the sport at all. It was my dad who took me to Old Trafford around that time that I started showing an interest. After watching Man United play I was quite inspired to go out and start kicking a ball about and it soon became a massive part of my life. Also, having two brothers helped as well and my family has always been interested in football. My Granddad played for Accrington Stanley and was offered a contract at Burnley before pursuing teaching as it was seen as a “proper job” at the time as there was no money in football.

Did you ever dream of playing professional football? If so, do you have a story about what happened that lead you to be the world’s best freestyle footballers?

Yeah I did, when I was younger I used to go to watch Manchester United all the time and literally played football whenever I could. It was always playing on the street with my mates that I enjoyed most, though. I played for Preston North End Centre of Excellence for a few games and Preston Town team for two years, but around 14-15 years old I stopped playing football for a team and even stopped playing for school, as I stopped enjoying it.

A lot of the coaching was about winning and, in all honesty, I wasn’t bothered about winning. I just wanted to play and develop my skills. I started to enjoy practicing alone usually and this is what eventually led me to Freestyle. At around this time, I had seen a man named Simon Clifford on a TV show called, ‘Michael Owens Soccer Skills’ where Simon had a group of children who were better than Michael Owen at skills.

Simon had trained them up through his method taken from the Brazilians (which later became Brazilian Soccer Schools). Seeing this on TV inspired me a lot. These children where amazing! I was shocked at what they could do. They’d been coached in such a different way, what they were doing was exciting; almost magical and I wanted to join what they were doing immediately.

This experience led me to join one of Simon’s Schools in the Bolton/Manchester area, led by Brian Leach. Brian was brilliant, he taught me so much, the session was all about learning new skills and expression, and some of the lads there were amazing. We always did a bit of freestyle in the sessions, even though at the time it was called freestyle we just called it juggling. We’d learn how to control the ball on every part of our body. It was a lot of fun, but I started to get so much better from being inspired to practice every opportunity that I had. Not long after, I met with Simon who had some nice things to say about me.

We used to go over to Leeds where Simon was based and play games of futebol de salao (futsal) and work on our skills. The environment was very good, very much about learning as opposed to winning. Simon would always teach you in a way like a teacher would by actually showing you something that you could learn from.

I carried on practicing my skills, and a few years down the line in 2003 I went to the Nike Freestyle event in Manchester. At the time, I didn’t know what Freestyle was. I just went along, but I was amazed at what I saw, especially by I guy named Mr. Woo who was juggling the ball with his shins, toes, heels and soles in addition to performing some of the most breathtaking moves with a ball that I had ever seen. That was the day I found what I was going to do!

As a young player, how many touches did you get a day with the ball? How many hours did you practice to develop your skills?

Well that is hard to say but 1000’s of touches. I used to dribble to ball to school and back; even when I was younger I was fascinated with getting better and developing. I used to read Simon Clifford’s book cover-to-cover again and again, just in case I missed something, I would practice all the skills in the book every day. My mum and dad used to tell me to rest, but I could never sit still, it was training with the ball that almost gives me peace. I enjoy practicing, I love mastering things.

When I started more seriously training in freestyle I practiced in every possible opportunity, the same is true today. I always have a ball with me, just in case. I practice all the time it’s a never ending journey of refinement and improvement—it never stops. I believe whatever we are training for or doing in life never hits one big goal, you have to go on and see further each time you improve.

What is your goal as a freestyle footballer? Do you want to see this side of the game grow more? Or, do you like the “underground” (hidden) aspect of the game?

My only goal as a freestyler is to be better than I was yesterday; I just want to make sure that I am guided each day by growth. I want to explore every facet of movement that I can to improve my art and transcend it. I’m sure freestyle will continue to grow and I hope it does. I guess the underground side is quite cool, but the more people see the benefits of freestyle the better.

I hope that those doing freestyle or interested in the art can learn to express themselves through the movement, learn from others of course but find within themselves their own style for that is what freestyle really is. I intend to take what I do to a larger audience I would hope that one day freestyle can be a part of the game of football – that coaches look upon what is behind the art to move the game forward. Football should be entertaining; fans and players love to see amazing skills and creativity and the more I look at freestyle, the more I see it connected to the origins of the game we see today.

I feel this type of football, which requires an exceptional level of skill, is not appreciated as much as the mainstream game. Do you agree? Why or why not?

I think it is appreciated, but I think most coaches don’t see it as an activity that can help football. I have been lucky to work with top football players and it’s interesting to see them trying some of the moves. They are really interested with freestyle; it’s almost this new thing that they don’t know what to do with but they are still fascinated with it.

I want to change this and show how everyone can learn from freestyle whether it be for the game of football or to learn new moves for fun. I agree that it takes a lot of skill and practice and it is something that you have to spend time on. I think that mastering something is quite rare and almost overlooked in society as we have been inclined for the short gain or win for whatever reason.

Freestyle for me is about the journey to master something then keep going and going to see how far you can push it, when you do this you create something that is totally unique and it would be hard not for the mainstream to notice.

What can you tell people about yourself? Describe yourself aside from football so I can help build context to who you are as a player and freestyle football icon.

That’s quite hard! Well I guess I am a very determined person, but I would say that my best quality is just curiosity. I am always curious of everything around me. I want to stay childlike and stay connected to that playful aspect within me. I love to read, write, take pictures and spend time with my family. I love to travel and take in new cultures and learn more about the world. I really like films; I want to learn from film in how I can connect more to people through what I do, especially today with the social media platforms and YouTube.

Who and what influenced you to continue to play football and become the world’s best freestyle footballer? Any favorite players or teams? Unique experiences that you would like share?

As mentioned previously, Simon Clifford has been a massive inspiration on my life and still to this day continues to help guide me on my journey. As a child, I was fascinated with Eric Cantona, he was amazing to watch. Also seeing Ryan Giggs as a youngster was inspiring and players to this day like Ronaldo and Messi make football such an amazing sport.

I am a Manchester United fan, since my dad took me to Old Trafford as a child I have always loved going to games. I don’t go as much now as I would like to do but I was lucky enough to see Alex Ferguson’s last game at Old Trafford. It was so inspiring to see what he had built, from the players to all the staff that works at the club; something truly amazing!

I feel like I have had many unique experiences on my journey so far, I have travelled to over 30 different countries so far which has been amazing. It was amazing performing in the townships of South Africa, I have been lucky enough to travel there a few times now and the people are amazing, whenever I did a show there the people went crazy I had never seen anything like it!

Also, performing at events around the world have been great, including a highly embarrassing experience when I went up to Kevin Spacey and said, ‘Hi, my names John’ he said, ‘Hi’ I said, ‘What’s your name?’ without thinking about it! He just said ‘I’m Kevin.’ I was so embarrassed, but he was one of the nicest humblest guys I’ve met.

Another amazing experience was completing the London marathon while keeping a ball in the air the whole way, it took me 12 hours, the day was amazing, but it was a buildup of training for six months that enabled me to do it.

What is your favorite place to perform freestyle football? What country, would you say, has the best freestyle football?

It’s so hard to choose. One place but being at the 2010 World Cup Final was amazing, performing at Old Trafford was a dream come true. Also performing at a private party for Ruud van Nistelrooy was a huge honour.

Do you have any freestyle footballer friends that have helped you develop as a player?

I mostly train on my own. I feel I am most creative when alone, but I train a bit with Richard Braithwaite, John Whetton, Abbas Farid and Dan Magness. They are all amazing freestylers in their own way with their own styles. I have also worked on events with them quite a bit which is always good fun.

What advice would you give young kids who want to become freestyle footballers or just get better at football in general?

The obvious thing to say is to practice! I know it’s what everyone will say but it’s the truth. I wasn’t born with any particular specialness that has allowed me to get good; I just did what I enjoyed. I only became good after years and years of practice when I started I wasn’t that good at all. I would also advice players to be their own coach, look at your own performance, look at both sides positive and negative and find the middle ground where you can develop.

I would say combine play or creativity with more serious training, I feel we [players] need to combine the two, not being too mechanical with a set belief or not being too playful where they will not get anything done. Personally, players should look, review and aim to be open to everything, but attached to nothing in everything that they do; this way you can progress and achieve amazing things.

It has been said that you have taught some famous footballers some of your moves. Can you share what players you worked with? Have you worked with any football companies to help them promote freestyle football?

Yes, I have worked with and met some amazing football players such as: Jay-Jay Okocha, James Milner, Joe Hart, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia, Anders Lindegaard, Scott Parker, and Rafael Van der Vaart. I also met Ronaldinho years ago when I was doing a demonstration for Brazilian Soccer Schools with a few of the players. It was funny as he stopped and watched with a big smile on his face! The players I have worked with have been brilliant, it’s really strange at first but then you just realize that they are just lads wanting to play football.

I have worked with many brands across the world to promote freestyle and use freestyle as part of certain events. A lot of companies are recognizing freestyle as a way of engaging people, which shows its growth and that people are aware of it. I’m doing a lot of work on a regular basis with some big football brands and clubs.

Aside from asking some of football’s underground stars some salient questions, I also aimed to show readers that whether a player takes it upon themselves to get thousands of touches a day, play for hours on end, or finds some other method to improve their game, the onus of their individual improvement should ultimately rest on their shoulders. The end goal is to for young players to enjoy their football and recapture a passion for the game through simplification and, if nothing else, play for the love of the game.

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3