MARTIN LING: Our football revolution will stand or fall on coaching of youngest players
THE FA's new National Football Centre, St George's Park, was opened this week at Burton-on-Trent. And, coming in at £100million, it's a huge investment in the future of coaching in this country.
It was Dario Gradi, who has spent most of his life turning promising kids into top professionals, who said once: "I don't think we're really a coaching nation."
Well Dario, I know what you meant. But maybe, just maybe, that's starting to change.
Facilities are all very well, and I know I've been banging on about improving our training ground at Torquay United for the past year or so.
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But I think where countries like Spain and Holland have got it right, and where we might have got it wrong in the past, has little to do with perfect pitches and nice indoor halls.
It's that within their best centres the pay their U9s coaches as much as they pay their U16s coaches.
Because they realised years ago that the big learning curve for a young player is between the age of nine and 12.
In this country people have always wanted to coach at senior level, but it's at the grass-roots where we have got to get things right if we're going to produce the sort of players and play the sort of football that we're going to need to win competitions at world level.
The change has started, with pitch sizes being reduced at younger levels, so kids get more touches of the ball and don't have to run themselves into the ground covering acres of grass.
The other vital thing is to take results out of the equation until kids get to the age of 13 or 14.
I know that's hard, because kids are competitive and they love winning as much as anyone else.
But you can produce a winning team of nine-year-olds just by playing the biggest, strongest and fastest kids.
It won't get you very far in the long term, but it can put trophies on shelves and pictures on bedroom walls.
You have to find ways of keeping the kids competitive in other ways than just the result of matches.
Once they get to 14, 15 and 16, then the result is more important, because nobody doubts that a winning mentality is a big part of producing successful teams at senior level.
When I look back on my playing career, I was lucky to work under a few special people, one who set me on the right path to becoming a pro and two who made me a better player even though I didn't join them until I was 25 years old.
When I was 16 and away from home for the first time at Exeter City, the head of youth there was Mike Radford.
He's club secretary now, but for many years he was one of the unsung heroes of the Grecians, discovering and coaching and guiding generations of young players who went on to the City first team and beyond.
Then, when I signed for Swindon in 1991, I played under John Gorman and Glenn Hoddle.
Glenn, who was player-manager, had just come back from Monaco, where he'd learned many new coaching techniques.
But his assistant, John Gorman, was really excellent – he'd come out of the Spurs 'system' which was built around 'pass and move' and went all the way back to the days of Arthur Rowe in the 1950s.
John is Karl Robinson's assistant at MK Dons now.
Everything we did at Swindon with John and Glenn was ball-related.
There were people who got the impression that we were 'over coached', but it was just because we played pass-and-move football all the time.
And it did happen to work – we won promotion to the Premier League in 1993.
My son Sam is 16 now and showing a fair bit of promise as a full-back at Leyton Orient. In fact, I reckon he's better at his age than I was at 16.
But if I could give Sam to anyone to be coached and know he'd be in the right hands, it would be John Gorman.
Good luck to the FA, and I hope St. George's Park turns out to be a big success, but if we're really going to have a revolution in football in this country, it will stand or fall on the coaches of those young kids from nine years old and upwards.