As featured in the Guardian -

As Isco squeezed the ball through a helpless Tom Heaton’s legs, Spain did the unthinkable and completed a stupendous comeback to steal a draw against England after being 2-0 down in the 89th minute. Though this was a friendly, tackles were late and tempers were fraying. Both teams wanted to win. With the England managerial post still officially vacant, Gareth Southgate was desperate to beat the country that has dominated world football for the past decade. He was a few seconds and a few bad decisions away from doing so.

The grief on Southgate’s face was clear to see as he questioned the fourth official about the amount of stoppage time allocated. Even after so many changes to personnel in the second half, the leading candidate for the job was devastated that his team couldn’t hold on to the two-goal cushion with seconds to go – but it wasn’t for a lack of opportunities to do so.

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In Martí Perarnau’s newest book, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution, the Manchester City coach explains how a team should react after conceding a goal: “What’s really needed in moments like these is the midfielder’s mentality: ‘Win the ball, move the ball around 50 times.’ With that, you lower the heat of the match, the team which has scored against you loses a bit of heat and energy and you can then work out how to tip the game back your way. But if you take the ball and bomb forward you’ll lose it and then have to keep chasing back. If that’s happening when your rival’s buzzing from just having scored then there’s every chance they’ll catch you again. No, that’s not the way. Win the ball, pass it 20 times and lower the temperature.”

England had possession a total of eight times between Spain’s two late goals. Four of those resulted in hurried clearances, three were anxious attempts at playing the ball out from deep areas, all of which were quickly thwarted by the pressing Spaniards; and one was a driving individual run from Andros Townsend that resulted in an ill-timed central pass. None of the eight resulted in England having the ball for longer than six seconds. Spain punished a wasteful English team for these sins.

After growing up playing in the north of England and completing my first few coaching licences through the FA, I decided to see how things were done elsewhere. Over the past eight years I have worked with coaches from Germany, Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil and Peru. Despite their different mindsets, methods and coaching philosophies, they all share one main focus: to win.

In 2014 I was lucky enough to land an assistant coaching role at the youth team of a club on the outskirts of Barcelona. I was astonished by the ideology and settings I encountered from day one. As I was under contract elsewhere until September, I missed pre-season and first met the players, staff and coaches in the dressing room before the third game of the season.

My first session was 24 hours later. Before the players took to the training pitch, they gathered to watch a 20-minute video prepared by the head coach to show them critical tactical moments from the match and key areas where they could improve in future. The boys were just 13 and 14 years old.

The youngsters were then led out to the centre-circle, where the Mister debriefed them further on the 1-1 draw the previous evening. The learning points from the short tape were emphasised and individuals were singled out, both to be questioned on their mistakes and also praised if their work was deemed sufficient. After a quick mention of next week’s opponents and areas in which they could beat them, the players were sent off to do laps of the half before completing their routine passing drills in squares. Eleven minutes into my first session in Spain and the “no lines, no laps and no lectures” rule had been breached by a man who went on to coach for FC Barcelona.

As the week continued I learned that my mentality would have to be altered if I was to learn in the home of the then-European champions. Sessions were played out in game situations with the pitch segmented into thirds and wide channels, where they would attack the upcoming opponent’s preferred 3-5-2 formation.

It’s not uncommon for coaches to discuss techniques and gameplay issues with their students. I can hand-on-heart say that I’ve never once witnessed play-acting being condoned or encouraged but, while studying on coaching courses and for Uefa licences in Spain, I have seen tutors advising aspiring coaches to speak with referees about decisions – and this mindset is eventually sieved down to impressionable players. I’ve noticed juniors as young as eight speaking to officials and crowding them in the hope of swinging the next 50/50 decision their way. If an opposing full-back is on a yellow card then youngsters are prompted to run at that defender and drag him into the penalty area as soon as possible as he’ll be reluctant to tackle and will make a mistake.

Sport strips us all the way back to our most natural animal instincts. Wanting to win and be successful is the most instinctive impulse a person can feel and, if somebody is in between you and your goal, then you must find their weaknesses and leap upon them immediately. This is sport. This is life.

By the third training session, the players had watched five scouting videos and each individual was prepped on how to help his team win the next game. I spoke with coaches of younger groups from various clubs and ultimately realised that winning is the top priority for juveniles from as young as seven. Was this short-sighted? Was this really the best way to improve young players? Was this an old-fashioned, uneducated approach? Was it just a cultural contrast?

The FA’s talent identification manager, Nick Levett, recently gathered results from a survey given to more than 55 groups of English children of both sexes, aged 8-12, who play for professional and grassroots clubs. The top three statements given from the youngsters were: “Trying my hardest is more important than winning” (this statement was in first place by a significant distance), “I like playing because it’s fun” and “I like playing with my friends”. In another piece of research based on a poll of 10,000 children aged between 10 and 14, Levett revealed that over 80% of them would prefer to play in a team that loses than be a substitute for a winning team.

I found conflicting attitudes when working in Spain. Last season I worked with an Under-14s outfit. They were at the elite professional level, with their senior team playing in the top flight, and my group was fixed in a title race against the likes of FC Barcelona. During an eight-hour bus journey to play in the Copa España in Guadalajara, the club psychologist handed out questionnaires to the players, asking their main purposes and aspirations from the games that followed. The results, in order, were: “win the tournament”, “execute gameplans well” and “give the image of a united group”.

When I think back to my days as a young child playing in England more than 15 years ago – when most techniques were not particularly broken down or taught correctly – I remember that coaches wanted us to enjoy success and improve as individuals. When playing, I wanted to win.

My opponents also wanted to win and the players who wanted it more would often earn the victory as they had trained harder, practised in their own time and prepared themselves to be better than their counterparts. Playing for your club, where results mattered, was the real deal and fun football was played with your friends at lunch-time and in the streets after school – and, even then, school trousers and dress shoes were ripped and left in tatters from last-ditch slide tackles that tried to save you from defeat.

I never once remember walking into school on a Monday and asking a friend “did you try your best this weekend?” or “did you have fun with your friends?” The only inquiries were “did you win?” and “how many did you score?” Nothing more, nothing less.

Fast forward a few years and I was playing in a regional semi-final for my college team as a 17-year-old. After going down to two early strikes, we managed to claw our way back into the game and I scored (a rarity for me) our scrappy third with a few minutes remaining. A moment after scoring, we had another chance on the counter-attack; this time I chose to carry the ball to the corner flag and waste time, much to the fury of my usually placid coach. In an enraged fit, he subbed me off and screamed at me on the touchline.

I assumed he was angry that I had wasted a four-against-two breakaway but later realised he was upset due to my gamesmanship and “bad sportsmanship that represented our college’s fine reputation in an ugly manner”. The game ended 3-2 and I’m still proud of my actions.

I didn’t understand his reaction. We had spent training sessions working tactically and even went as far as practising penalties before cup games. Was he really so disgusted in my actions? Was he the first of the new breed of coaches that I witnessed who put winning in second or third place in their priorities behind the performance and image of the team?

Back to Guadalajara and the Copa España, where we went all the way to the final to face our old sparring partners Barcelona in front of the television cameras that were broadcasting the game to the nation. With a thrilling first half drawing to a close, one of the senior members of the group – in Spanish youth football teams are put into age groups containing players within two years of each other as it gives each individual an experience of being both one of the oldest and one of the youngest in a team – hit a speculative effort from distance that caught the Barça keeper off-guard but agonisingly bounced out from the underside of the bar. Having been dragged from his knees and into the dressing room, the 14-year-old was distraught. He had made a mistake earlier that had given Barcelona the chance to score and he was determined to make up for it.

The day before, in the semi-final, our striker scored an injury-time winner to give us a 4-3 win that sparked wild celebrations. Among the celebratory pile-on was a 12-year-old boy who didn’t play a single second but had yelled encouragement from the bench throughout. Winning is a monumental part of a Spaniard’s make-up. It is bred into them daily from the age of seven and the results are there for all to see. At the end of last season, Sevilla – who finished seventh in La Liga – won the Europa League and made it seven European trophies in a row for Spanish clubs. By winning the Champions League in May and the Uefa Super Cup in August, Real Madrid pushed that run to nine successive titles.

People argue that focusing on winning too much has harmed the English grassroots game. Nick Levett assures me that the majority of professional academies in England won’t commence opponent scouting or enhance victory as a priority until the players are aged 16 or older.

Have kids changed? The shredded trousers and split trainers have been substituted for iPhones. A National Trust survey found that British children between the ages of four and 14 spend, on average, just over four hours a week playing outdoors, compared to the 8.2 hours a week their parents spent outside.

Receiving bumps and bruises while unshackled by the guardianship of parents or teachers is how youngsters learn to avoid obstacles that may obstruct their path, whether that be the biggest kid in the neighbourhood closing in with a crunching tackle or a car passing through the middle of the street/pitch that is floodlit by lamp posts. Characters are shaped and great memories are made in these environments. However, the best flashbacks of all are moments when you won your three-a-side street match.

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Former Celtic and Scotland international John Collins was recently on the radio discussing winning. He described it as a barrier to the development of young players. Of course we should have a gameplan and methods of coaching, but should these not eventually lead to wanting to win? I have seen clubs and parents go as far as requesting that youth football results are not published to save the embarrassment and pain of the losing players.

This mentality would harm our young players in the long run. Losing is part of the game and plays a huge factor of building our spirit. The most successful individuals and teams in all walks of life are so good because they once tasted the putrid, sickly pit of defeat and sacrificed everything to find a way of never tasting it again.

Sport teaches us to be self-disciplined, motivated and organised, and when more than 99% of the young players we coach won’t ever play professionally, the least we can do is give them attributes to find abilities and strengths within their inner selves to adapt and evolve in order to be successful in the real world away from football that becomes more dog-eat-dog by the day.

As football changes, one thing should never go away, and that is the competitive nature of the game that supplies upsets such as the plucky Leicester City winning the Premier League title or extra-time winners from Portugal’s Éder in the Euro 2016 final. By not developing winners, are we subconsciously encouraging losers?


Alex Clapham