GoPlay looks at the blockages England coach Gareth Southgate will have to overcome if he is to take England to the next level…
Gareth Southgate’s England were one of the surprise packages of the World Cup, but returned to Birmingham airport to little fanfare.
England were 22 minutes away from their first World Cup final since 1966, before Ivan Perisic equalised and Luka Modric took control. It was much more than the nation had envisaged; a young team – the youngest at the 24-team tournament were only supposed to get to the quarter-finals at the very best. But after cruising through the group and seeing off Colombia and Sweden the hopes of a nation were raised.
The Three Lions restored pride in the national team and Southgate has instilled a belief that England can be great again. But no way will England’s revival go to the head of Southgate, the muted, low-key homecoming shows that. It could have been exactly the opposite, but Southgate played it right.
“When I was a player I had a very simplistic mindset — I was good when we won, but if we lost I was an idiot.
“There was nothing in between and bizarrely I felt the need to punish myself for that.
“I’m a lot more rational now, I can see what we have achieved. But when you are so close you look back at what we might have done.”
After a de-brief at St George’s Park, Southgate will be heading off on holiday – thinking about his September games against Spain and Switzerland – and how to develop his young team to the next level.
The general consensus is that to do that England need to find a couple of midfield players and a No.10 who can create on the international stage. Southgate needs to find his own Modric – a player who is comfortable taking the ball under pressure, dribbling past opponents and killing off world-class teams with precision passing.
And he will no doubt have been looking forward to seeing how the likes of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Ryan Sessegnon and Ademola Lookman would have got on at the U19 European Championships.
The knockout tournament gets underway this week, but none of the names above will participate because UEFA’s scheduling of the competition is outside a FIFA window. UEFA’s short-termism is astounding – arranging an international tournament where all of Europe’s young prospects should be present – during a key time for clubs.
"I think we've got to be proud that we've come this far and got to a semi-final"
England will have as many as 10 young players missing – all on pre-season with their respective clubs and none will feature for Paul Simpson’s side in Finland – which incidentally started with a 3-2 win over Turkey on Tuesday.
Southgate has been silent, but FA technical director Dan Ashworth has taken a swipe at UEFA’s organisation.
“This tournament is scheduled outside a Fifa window, which forces clubs to make such difficult decisions,” said Ashworth.
“We understand the dilemmas the clubs face around release of players during this particular time of the season and it’s our view, and that of several other countries, that Uefa should take this into account when scheduling tournaments of this magnitude.
“We all want our teams to be facing the best players in the world to really provide the greatest developmental impact,” he said.
“That said, I am confident in the players that we have at this tournament and it gives them all a brilliant opportunity.”
Southgate though has been denied the chance to see the likes of Foden – a player who is being schooled to become David Silva’s replacement at Man City – take part in an international knockout tournament.
Foden, 18, scored twice in the U17 World Cup final last October as England thrashed Spain 5-2 in India. He had a taste of action with the Premier League champions last season and Southgate is understood to be keen to develop Foden into a player who can make an impact at the senior European Championships in two years’ time.
It’s a road block that must have Southgate secretly fuming. He is well aware that his talented youngsters already face a tough time getting game time in the Premier League such is the talent that is drafted in from all over the world.
Former England coach and Man Utd full-back Gary Neville told ITV’s World Cup podcast: “If you are a 21-year-old you have not broken through to the first team you move.
“Twenty five years ago they used to say: ‘If you’re good enough you will get in the team.’ I don’t believe that any more because there are blockages along the way. Eventually you might get there.
“We’ve got to get these lads football, and if we don’t we’re not looking after them.
“By 20 you have to have played 100 to 120 senior games.”
To see Foden and winger Sancho et al would have been a great indicator for Southgate and may well have helped him decide whether any of Simpson’s starlets were ready to get a go for the seniors in the newly-introduced UEFA Nations League.
As Southgate points out “the experiences of the wins and the defeats that we’ve had will make us a better team” – but a whole bunch of England’s most thought of will miss out on that in Finland.
But England and many other European powers will have to develop their players in spite of UEFA’s actions, when surely the European body should be working hand-in-hand with FIFA to schedule tournaments more carefully to give young players the best chance to become the world’s best.
England’s World Cup 2018 team are the first of an almost embattled breed. A side raised in the lower echelons of the English game; a team hardened by moving up through the ranks. GoPlay investigates…
Quarter-finals at best said the experts ahead of the World Cup in Russia, but already England have surpassed that after breezing past Sweden in the last eight on Saturday.
Gareth Southgate’s new England have been vibrant, expansive and brave and while former England defender Southgate can take most of the plaudits for the style of play and mentality, a closer look at the backgrounds of the starting XI tells a story.
Forget the ‘Golden Generation’ of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, the class of 2018 are en route to World Cup glory via a very different pathway. Those players of yesteryear may well have been perceived to have been more talented individually, but Southgate’s young guns are a team, focused on success and have been given the platform to play in a way which no England team has done, certainly in GoPlay’s existence.
And one telling characteristics is that the majority of them, in fact all but two, have been schooled at grassroots level down the English football pyramid. They have played their football way down the English league ladder and in some cases in the non-league game.
Even someone like Manchester United’s midfield dynamo Jesse Lingard, who you might be forgiven in thinking has been a one-club man and played all his football at Carrington and in the United youth ranks, has played almost 50 times out on loan at the likes Birmingham, Brighton (before they were in the Premier League) and Derby.
Harry Maguire, who scored the opener in the 2-0 win over Sweden, played over 134 games for Sheffield United in the third tier, before moving to Hull City.
Meanwhile, Jordan Pickford, 24, now at Everton has had a grounding on loan with Darlington, Carlisle and Bradford City among his loan clubs, accounting for almost 100 appearances.
Only Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson have not experienced life outside the bright lights of the Premier League – just two players from the starting XI, who started against Tunisia, Colombia and Sweden that have played all their football at the top level in England.
In short this England side that face Croatia in a World Cup semi-final – for the first time since 1990 – have generally experienced the ‘not so glamorous’ times. Their football development, under the meticulous eye of Southgate, has been very different from England teams on recent times.
They have learnt their trade coming up through the ranks and experienced the hard times and most probably received a grounding that they can now appreciate.
The Three Lions are two games away from legendary status. Despite being the youngest and least experienced squad at the World Cup, averaging just under 26-years-old the majority of them have international tournament experience at youth level under their belts.
Many have played at England level from Under-16s through to Under-21s and been involved in knockout football and now they are just 90 minutes away from reaching the World Cup final – a feat which the Three Lions have done only once before when they were victorious on home soil in 1966.
Whether they can manage it or not, their performances in Russia have been a vindication that the grassroots pathway exists and England are finally doing things the right way to produce a successful side at senior level.
Jordan Henderson, 28, (Liverpool) – Started at his hometown club Sunderland, making 79 appearances before moving to Liverpool. One of just two players to have never experienced life outside the top flight.
Dele Alli, 22, (Tottenham) – Played over 60 games for MK Dons in the English third tier before signing for Spurs.
Harry Kane, 24, (Tottenham) – Loan spells at Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester in the Championship and League One.
Here are a few extracts from the playersm whose trip was truly memorable.
“After many movies and the inevitable struggle of sleeping on a plane, we finally made it to Argentina. It wasn’t long into our drive from the airport to the hotel that we passed the training facility of the Argentinian National Team.
“We even caught a glimpse of some players on the field. It was hard not to imagine the kinds of goals Messi has scored on those fields…”
“Today was our first full day in Argentina and it came hard and fast! Waking up at 6:30 was a bit of a challenge for some of the boys as we still were feeling a bit of jet lag from the eight-hour flight.
“We had the privilege of playing against River Plate’s academy comprised of players aged from sixteen to eighteen. The field was next to the River Plate stadium, Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti, which was an amazing spectacle that holds so much history.
“The match presented a different complex to what we were used to as River Plate had very technical players all over the field who were all comfortable on the ball. The game ended 1-1 against River Plate and was the start of a truly momentous day!”
“Yesterday was our last day in Buenos Aires. As always during this trip, we decided to make the most out of our time in the Argentinian capital city.
“The alarm went off at 8:30. Waking up early was not hard because we all knew that on planta baja (“ground floor”) the tables would be filled with great breakfast choices. With our bellies full, we then left the hotel. Destination: Casa Rosa (the “Pink House”), the building where the Argentinian president works.
“It is still unknown why the walls of this building were painted in pink. The tour guide explained that there are different explanations for the characteristic color of the presidential house. However, none of these explanations is fully accepted, and many embrace the idea that the color pink is simply for aesthetic purposes.
“The main attractions of the house were the Presidential and Vice Presidential offices, the “Salon Eva Perón” (Eva Perón was the First Lady of the Argentinian president Juan Perón in the post-War World II period, and she is an iconic figure for the country still today), and the room where the president takes the oath at the beginning of his tenure.”
“After a few busy days immersing ourselves in Argentina’s storied soccer culture and competing against some of the countries best young academy players from River and Boca, Friday offered us the opportunity to explore the city of Buenos Aires, dubbed the “little Paris of South America” because of its wealthy French influence from many decades ago.
“We strolled only a few blocks from our hotel and proceeded to spend the entire morning slaloming through the neighborhoods of Palermo and Barrio Parque on a bike tour.”
“I would like to thank Ruben for welcoming us to his country with open arms. Because of him my teammates and I were able to share some truly unforgettable experiences.
“It was a privilege to spend time and learn from a true football legend like Ruben.”
“Today was our third day in Argentina and it was another early start. We had an awesome time last night enjoying the Boca game at the Bombonera and we got to wake up this morning and play the U-19 team. We were really excited for the chance to play Boca and I think because of it we played a lot better and were a lot more confident on the ball.
“We started off pretty well in the first half but conceded a goal before halftime. We responded well after the half and Daniele [Proch] scored a good goal to bring us level before Boca scored two goals near the end.”
“As a whole, the trip was one that would not be forgotten soon and undoubtedly will be a highlight of everyone’s time at Duke and as part of the men’s soccer team.
“There was never a dull moment with such unbelievable experiences in countries and cultures so dedicated to the sport we all love so much. From the Boca Juniors game all the way to just learning about the history of Uruguay and Argentina, there were so many memorable moments and lessons learned throughout this trip.
“First and foremost, on behalf of everyone who got to be a part of this amazing trip there is a huge appreciation for GoPlay and their organization and management of our trip, and I would like to express how thankful we are for family, friends and alumni, that without their generosity and donations this trip could never have happened.
“With such a once in a lifetime experience provided by them, these things do not go unnoticed by the players and coaches.
“While talking and interacting with THE Rúben Sosa, another lesson that really sunk in with me was that high class soccer isn’t about what you have but what you put in. I
“It’s easy to get comfortable with the luxuries and resources that are readily available within the United States but what Rúben Sosa harped on during our time together was that although Uruguay doesn’t have as much resources and money to provide for their soccer players, the Uruguayans have such passion and dedication to the sport so much that it doesn’t matter to them what they have because they will work until they get to where they want to be.”
“I can’t scout the way he does,” said Jose Mourinho.
That’s some compliment coming from a manager who has managed at the top level for well over a decade and won Primeira Liga, La Liga, Serie A, Premier League and Champions League titles and been the first manager to spend an accumulative figure of £1bn on transfers.
Meet ‘master scout’ Piet de Visser, now 83, who discovered the likes of Neymar, Kevin De Bruyne, Ronaldo and David Luiz.
Forced to retire from playing earlier with a heart problem, de Visser became a successful manager before turning his hand to scouting in where he has made a real name for himself.
De Vissier developed a tactical code to analyse players from all over the world, scoring players’ ability in five stages: their skill, their vision, their physique, their mentality and their character.
De Vissier maintains that the good players ‘discover themselves’ and that he scouts them, but acknowledges that his job is not as easy as some may think.
De Visser said: “All my life was football. The good players discover themselves. But I scout them.
“Scouting is a very difficult job. It was in me when I was a young boy.
But the player makes his career, not the scout.”
“I see the game. You have to concentrate on every action of the players.
“I see the mentality. That’s why I not only go to games, I go to training as well.
“I want to smell the grass. I see all the things that a player does well and does wrong.
“I love football and I will tell the world I love football.”
De Visser was instrumental in signing Brazilian defender Alex, forward Jefferson Farfán and goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes at PSV in what was his firs professional scouting role.
However, it was his love of travel which helped him discover a real passion for his work and a certain Ronaldo, the Brazilian version.
After retiring as a manager in 1992 De Visser headed to Saskatchewan in Canada to watch a youth tournament and there he laid eyes on a 15-year-old Brazilian – Ronaldo.
De Visser was so impressed with the striker, who eventually played for Brazil and became one of the world’s greatest, that his passion for nurturing young talent became evident.
“Then I saw Ronaldo in St Brieux, in a small tournament. And by the movements of him – I got a new life. I said ‘hey’ I wanted to be a scout to find players like Ronaldo.
“He (Ronaldo) was phenomenal. He had the ball in the move and dribble in the move and he passed the player in full speed and full skill.”
Dutch talent-spotter De Visser also lays claims to sending former Man Utd striker Ruud van Nistelrooy to PSV.
Holland international Van Nistelrooy went on to score 35 goals in 70 caps for the Oranje and scored 249 goals in a 19-year career, but it was as a 17-year-old playing for Den Bosch that he caught De Visser’s eye.
PSV, who had Ronaldo in attack, were not keen at first but when the Brazil star left for Barcelona, Van Nistelrooy was then able to step into the fold and he went on to score 62 goals in 67 games.
De Visser said: “I scouted him and I brought him to PSV. But at first, they did not want him.
He (Nistelrooy) did not know, but I thought he could be a very great player.
“We eventually took him to PSV and they sold him for a big amount of money to Manchester United.
“He played fantastically with David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Roy Keane.
“He was always scoring goals, he was one of the greatest strikers.”
De Visser, who is a personal adviser to Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, also scouted Man City midfield schemer Kevin de Bruyne and rates him as almost a 10/10.
“The best players I ever scouted – Ronaldo, Neymar, great player, David Luiz and Kevin De Bruyne,” added De Visser.
“One of my best scoutings ever, Kevin De Bruyne, came from the youth to the first team. And from the first touch of the ball, I was in love with him.
“He only wants to win. His passing, his vision, left foot or right foot it doesn’t matter.
“He is almost a 10. And I never give a 10.”
Current Manchester United manager, Mourinho, has also acknowledged De Visser’s successful method of scouting.
Mourinho said: “I can’t scout the way he does.
“His desire to know everything about players in the four corners of the world is invaluable.”
England will host the U17 European Championships this month and they will be looking to add the European crown to their World Cup win last year, but winning the tournament will not be the only measure of success for the young Three Lions.
That may seem strange on the back of the recent success of England’s youth teams. The U17s were brilliant en route to glory in the World Cup in India last year, the U19s also tasted glory in winning the European Championship, while the U20s were crowned World Cup winners in South Korea and the U21s reached the last four of the European Championships, but more glory on home soil this month is not the be all and end all for England under their progressive guidelines.
England U17 coach Steve Cooper will of course be aiming to win the 16-team tournament.
“We obviously want to be as successful as we can but we are building for the future and whatever returns we get from the games will be learning experiences that will take us and the players forward,” says Cooper.
‘A sole focus on winning can be detrimental’
Crocker though explains that winning is not their only barometer of success and the FA’s website notes that ‘a sole focus on winning can be detrimental for the long-term progression of players’ who are still involved in England’s ‘development’ pathway.
“The objective we set for the U17s isn’t to win a major tournament, because history shows that if the only objective is winning then teams tend to only pick the bigger, stronger, quicker players,” Croker told the FA’s website.
The framework for England teams from U15-U20 is the necessity to qualify for major tournaments and with that comes ‘exposure and opportunity’ against some of the best teams in the world.
“The reason we don’t say our younger age-groups should win the World Cup or win the European Championships, is because it’s the experience of being in the tournament which is the key for development. Qualification is always the major objective,” says Crocker.
“A tournament gives the players exposure to a variety of challenges and different experiences. For example, last season our U17s were away in India for 35 days playing in intense humidity.
“They played in front of 75,000 people in huge stadiums against some of the best teams in the world. They also had a taste of taking penalties in a big competition. All those experiences will prepare them for the future.
“We need to get to the tournaments for them to have the exposure and opportunity for different experiences.”
What does success look like for @England’s Young Lions? The @FA’s Matt Crocker previews the upcoming U17 European Championship
Crocker also explained the ‘development pathway’ which is broken down into youth development (15-17s), professional development (18s-20s) and the senior professional stage (21s and senior side).
“The reason we call it a development pathway [before 21], is that it’s about ‘development’ – it’s not a ‘winning’ pathway.
“Our hope is that the pathway provides the players with a number of building blocks so when they do get to the senior team they feel as prepared as they possibly can be to produce a successful performance,” adds Crocker.
Crocker also explained how it’s now normal for England to take players to tournaments who have not featured heavily in qualifying, simply because they possess the greater potential.
It’s an interesting concept and one which may well be argued it shows little loyalty to players, especially those who may find themselves missing out on a place in the finals of a tournament, despite playing in the majority of the qualifying games.
‘Highest long-term potential’
But with the emphasis on development, Crocker says it’s crucial to give players who show the “highest long-term potential” the chance to shine on the big stage.
“Sometimes your qualification squad might look different to your finals squad, because there are some players – those with the highest long-term potential – who you feel might benefit from going to those tournaments. However, they might not have been involved in all parts of qualification.”
Head coach Cooper also highlights the opportunity his youngsters are getting on home soil and says it will only stand them in good stead for the pressures that come with senior football, when the emphasis switches to winning.
“We’re doing a lot of work with the players to make sure they know who they’re representing.
“They’re representing their country as a home nation. They’re standing up for youth development in England, from the grassroots game right up to the professional academies,” says Cooper.
Steve McClaren highlights five key pointers when preparing for a cup final.
Ahead of Manchester City’s League Cup final success over Arsenal in February, Sky Sports asked former England, Derby and Middlesbrough boss McClaren to outline five key points required to be successful in a big game.
Some of his points are interesting, others not so much…
It’s worth pointing out that McClaren’s coaching career has not been quite what it promised to be after the 56-year-old guided Boro to League Cup glory in Cardiff in 2004. Big things were expected from McClaren but he has flirted with success rather delivering consistently. However, he did taste glory with the Teessiders with a 2-1 victory over Bolton via two goals in the first seven minutes of the match and he won the Eredivisie title in Holland with Twente.
McClaren also spent two years as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant manager at Manchester United between 1999-2001 – and was part of the backroom team in 1999 when they claimed the famous Double.
He went on to take the England reins for 18 months and was axed after England failed to make the 2008 European Championship, but he still has a proud record of almost an 45% win ratio and is still a well-respected coach worldwide.
And although his pointers are most evidently from his experience in Cardiff from over a decade ago and some of them can be glossed over, the ideas on preparation and inspiration are interesting.
“Always play your strongest team. When I was at Middlesbtough the first year I played a weakened team at Ipswich and we lost 1-0 and the chairman Steve Gibson went ballistic at me. So from there on in I always played my best XI.”
“All games are won in your preparation Monday to Friday and big games are all about preparation. Get your media work done, sort your final tickets for your family and friends. In big games you have a tendency to over coach with all the information about the opponents. In fact its about not over coaching. My staff said we had too many sessions and so we halved them and had some fun and relaxed and made sure they were ready for the final. So don’t over coach, just keep going with momentum.”
“The players are all motivated to win but what is key thing is inspiration; giving them a purpose together which is greater than what the individuals want themselves. We picked a speech from Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday’. That is a speech on how you win big games and how it is won by inches and we played that one hour before the final in the dressing room. And after the film everybody was motivated and emotional and in the right state. There were some tears and it really was inspiring and I knew then we were going to win the game.”
“You get all the preceding three things right. I was actually changing from my tracksuit into my suit and just saw the penalty to put us 2-0 up (after 7 minutes) and I said to my staff ‘we’re definitely ready to play’.”
“You need it. There are three or four defining moments on any game and in big games they have got to go your way. For example our penalty from Zenden was with his left foot and he slipped and it hit his right foot – a double touch and they have been disallowed for that since, but we got away with it. That was the biggest slice of luck we got.”
Pep Guardiola, in a exclusive, passionate interview, revealed part of his football ethos regarding youngsters earlier this month.
Man City’s shock exit from the FA Cup gave Guardiola chance to take his squad away to the Middle East to get some warm weather training and while in Abu Dhabi, Man City’s Editor in Chief Chris Bailey caught up with City head coach Guardiola and part of the 30-minute chat was dedicated to Pep’s thoughts about developing youth talent.
It’s a fascinating listen/read…
How old should we start kids at competitive football? Do we start them too young?
“Lionel Messi started when he was six years old, but of course he is an exception,” said Guardiola.
“You have to let each player’s body develop. Nature is more intelligent than us and it really decides and it’s no good putting them in the gym to develop. The guy who is going to be faster will be faster, the guy who will be taller, will be taller and the guy who will be stronger, will be stronger.
“It can go year by year depending on the player. But the important thing is the talent. If they have the talent, they have it regardless of their physique.
“Sometimes it’s a big problem with players who have been told they are good enough by their manager, social media etc. They have to know when they are not good enough.
“I was manager with players who were 28-years-old and they improved dramatically to the age of 32 because they were still able to learn at that age.
“Sometimes when when we say players are good and they are 17, we say they are ready for the first team, but no, no, they are just at 10% of where they need to be.”
What about younger players, can they play too much competitive football at an early age?
“At that age they have to play and play as much as possible. Play in the street – in my day we could and now maybe it’s not possible – but play and play and play and that’s all and let them play day and night and let them make mistakes,” added Guardiola.
“Some advice to help them understand how we play the game is good. As quickly as possibly they need to understand tactics and why we decide to play the way we do.”
Do you get more pleasure out of winning a trophy of seeing a player develop to his full potential?
“With the type of players you win titles, so both.
“In a professional way I understand completely why we have to win titles, that is why we are here.
“Of course the pleasure is help a player reach his potential, but in reality they deserve the opportunity. But of course it’s a big pleasure if they think that you have helped them in their careers.”
Will we see a Pep Guardiola Academy when you finish managing?
“Maybe I would like to finish where I started. Maybe I will finish there, but for the moment I have a few years in front of me as manager at City.
“I take pleasure from seeing players learn, you’re like a teacher of mathematics in a school. When I was in the Barcelona Academy just seeing the players training trying to fulfill their dreams was amazing.”
In 20 years can you be an influence as great at Johan Cruyff?
“I don’t think so because Johan Cruyff’s influence was huge. His influence is not comparable. He was the most influential person in the world of football for the last 50 or 60 years.
“He influenced a lot of players and most of those are now coaches. We can never pay a big enough tribute to him.”
Any parent of any sports-mad kid will have witnessed it, and this week the problem was met head on.
South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin, incensed by a recent incident at his son’s basketball match, voiced his thoughts on the parents who continually berate officials and try to coach from the stands.
In a survey of 2,905 grassroots soccer officials, 91% believe the apparent lack of respect for elite level referees is a “big or fairly big problem” for grassroots officials and the behavior towards them.
Also, 78% felt parents’ criticism of refs was a “big or fairly big problem” – and that leads perfectly on to the point that Martin made in his recent press conference – a clip that has gone viral.
It’s a must-watch couple of minutes for any parent on the damaging effects their actions can have on the very ones they claim to be helping.
Doesn’t fail, I walk in to a gym to watch my son’s 5th grade team play and the game b4 is going on. It’s a 4th grade game, a parent ran on the court losing their mind. Then we wonder y young kids don’t act right.#pleaseDontBlameKids
Spurred by seeing a parent “losing his mind” in a 4th grade basketball game, Martin – a fiery presence on the sidelines when coaching – highlighted the problem head on and urged parents to keep quiet.
“I know this: I’m probably the most animated coach that you’ve probably ever seen when my team’s playing. I go watch my kids play, I don’t say boo. I don’t wave my arms, I don’t try to coach my kids,” said Martin in a news conference transcribed by The State.
‘I sit in the stands and I don’t say a word’
“With all due respect to most parents out there, I probably know more about basketball than most of them, OK. But I sit in the stands and I don’t say a word. There’s two guys refereeing a fourth-grade game on a Sunday morning. What could they possibly be making? 20 bucks a game?
“I used to do that. I used to make 12 dollars for 10-and-under, 15 for 15-and-under, and 17 or 18 bucks for high school-age kids. OK, so on a Sunday morning instead of being at church, those guys are out there trying to make a couple bucks, to pay their bills, feed their families.
“Do you think they really care what fourth-grade team wins? Do you really think that they like sat at home and said, ‘Oh I can’t wait to officiate that game tomorrow, because that one team, I can’t wait to get that 10-year-old kid and embarrass him in front of people.’
“Do you really think that’s what they’re doing? I don’t try to tell my kid how they should play. You know what I tell my two boys when they come at me, ‘Why are you asking me, man? I didn’t run your practice, go talk to your coach.’ ‘But ah —’ ‘don’t talk about your coach in front of me, because if you are then you’re not playing basketball.’
“You don’t understand why you didn’t play better? Go talk to your coach. I’m not your coach, I’m your dad. Somebody disrespects you, then I’m here. If you fail, good, deal with it, I’m gonna help you get up. But don’t come talk to me about coaching. I do this for a living, man. I’m not going to criticize a guy that’s trying to help you.
“And then the other part — so that’s the officials. Do you think those coaches coaching fourth-grade kids are making any money?
‘Yelling at the kids – they’re 10 years old, man!’
“So there’s someone that’s giving up their personal time on a Sunday, for free, to help other people’s children, yet, we’re gonna have the adults in the stands yelling obscenities at the officials? Criticizing every decision the coach makes?
“Yelling at the kids, like the kids — they’re 10 years old, man! Like if they’re a LeBron James and Dwyane Wade playing in the NBA Finals, like they know how to handle their coach over here and their parent over here yelling at them. Then we wonder why kids get confused man, why kids rebel, why kids don’t know how to listen. How can you listen when you’ve got so many voices in your head at the same the time. You know what life teaches you? Shut things off.
“And that’s the part that’s frustrating to me, if someone wants to be so animated when there’s a basketball game going on, then go coach the team, go run practices, show up everyday at 6 o’clock at night and run an hour-and-a-half practice.”
Martin’s concerns are obviously not limited to basketball and the results from Sky Sports’ survey, referred to earlier, is a prime example of the damage that is being done in soccer by over-zealous parents.
Martin though believes that questioning authority is a problem in society, and certainly not limited to sport.
“It’s not a basketball thing, it’s a societal thing — where we’re always questioning authority,” Martin said later.
“We feel it’s our responsibility to get loud and create a scene, especially in front of young kids. When kids see that, they think they can question authority as well.”
Martin, who has extensive coaching experience, and says he has witnessed parents facing off on the court in front of children, believes it will eventually lead to a serious incident occurring.
“And something really scary can happen,” he added. “That’s my biggest fear. Kids deserve better.”
GoPlay Sports met up with Celtic Under-16 coach and International Soccer Academy Manager Willie McNab to discuss work-rate in football. And he explained that the focus and determination needed to work hard, consistently, is a talent and should not be taken for granted or devalued.
“When you play against a guy like Ashley Barnes, it’s perpetual motion, he’s non-stop, always on the move.
“Thierry said something on commentary, it should be a pre-requisite of what you are looking for in a centre-forward. Run around, chase lost causes all game, and he did that and we’re congratulating him for that, but it should be the case for everyone.
“Why doesn’t every player do that? That’s want you’re asking for from a centre-forward.”
The above was an extract from Jamie Redknapp’s post-match comments after the recent Burnley v Everton fixture at Turf Moor. The subject was Clarets striker Ashley Burns, who had, as they say, ‘put a shift in’ to help the hosts to a well-deserved 2-1 win.
Redknapp was referring to something Thierry Henry had said in commentary – essentially that the work-rate Barnes had shown should be a “pre-requisite” for every striker.
It’s worth noting that Redknapp and Henry are not the only two pundits to have taken on this subject down the years. It’s an emotive topic that is discussed by players and coaches from grassroots to elite level.
I often hear it takes zero talent to work hard. But not everyone has it in them to work hard, to have that focus, that mindset, that determination. So for me it is a talent to work hard. So if you have a hard working player you are telling them what they are doing isn’t a talent?
But should we really expect high work-rate from every player?
Would we expect every player to be able to dribble around three players and find the top corner of the net? No, because the ability to do that is a talent and McNab argues that hard work should be treated in the same manner.
It’s clear from watching any game, anywhere in the world, that not every player has the same drive and focus to be able to work hard in every game.
Why not congratulate Barnes for working at his optimum?
McNab told GoPlay Sports: “With young players we’re never really questioning the tactical and technical ability. They are always willing to take that on board and you can see them improving on that, but it always seems to boil down to hard work.
“Even when I was a young player, there were always players better than me, but you realize that if your’re willing to work a little bit harder than the man next to me then you have always going to get that opportunity.
“We’re always telling our players at Celtic that and we tell them to watch the best – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – but I like Marco Verratti and when Celtic played PSG recently I told some of our boys, who were ball boys, to watch him.
“His work-rate on and off the ball was phenomenal and our boys were blown away by him. His attutide was an eye-opener to our players.”
The discussion about hard work is not entirely new and it’s not only restricted to football.
McNab adds: “There’s a famous NFL video of Benjamin Watson coming from nowhere in the final game of the season to make a touchdown-saving tackle. It was astounding and afterwards he said his old college coach said to him: ‘Hard work like that does not take a whole load of talent.’
“That got me thinking. It’s not in every one to work hard. Not everyone has got that intrinsic motivation. Even out of football not everyone has got that desire to get up at 4am and go to work.
“I believe hard work is a talent. ”
McNab is passionate about the subject and not alone in his theory, n fact he stands in fine company. Sir Alex Fergsuon recently echoed similar thoughts in a motivation speech at Salford City FC.
“To achieve in life you need something extra inside – a dynamo. You need a work ethic in life. Working hard is definitely a talent,” said Sir Alex.
McNab admits talent and work-rate go hand-in-hand for players at the very top of the game, but he says in youth development at Celtic they are always looking for the players who have the drive to work hard and improve.
“You might give praise to a player who goes past four players, or a player who sticks it in the top corner, but what about the lad who runs 60 yards to get a block in? Not everyone has got that in them.
“I think it is a pre-requisite of being at the very top level. There are not many world-class players who make it without hard work. You may get the odd anomaly with a player who is just phenomenal on the ball, but you need to have talent and hard work to make it at the very top.
“We’re always speaking about our players working hard and taking responsibility for their own development,” said McNab.
McNab also believes that the coach can only take so much responsibility for motivating his or her players.
“When I put this idea out there I was asked: ‘Was it not the job of the coach to motivate players?’ And to an extent yes it is,” said McNab. “But if you have got a player who is constantly needing motivating then you wonder if they are going to get to the next level. Players need to have that intrinsic motivation. They need to have that dedication and drive.”
Growth mindset v fixed mindset
McNab, who has 18 years coaching experience under his belt and is a respected clinician worldwide, also believes the notion that hard work comes easy to everyone can also be detrimental to the grafters in the squad.
“It can be a little bit disrespectful to hard-working players also. If you are always saying, ‘work doesn’t take a lot of talent’ to three or four players who know they are not as talented as some other boys, but they work tremendously hard then they are probably thinking to themselves ‘maybe the coach doesn’t think I’ve got something’,” said McNab.
“I try and put myself in the players’ shoes and if I’m a hard-working player and the coach is saying it doesn’t take a lot of talent to do that and everyday in training they are working hard are being the hardest working player, then it can have a negative effect.”
Sweeping the sheds
McNab uses the famous New Zealand rugby union side of recent times as a fine example of a committed, hard-working, but technically talented squad.
“If you look at a team like the old All Blacks they had a terrific work-rate ingrained in them. They would ‘sweep the sheds’ – leave the changing rooms spotless home and away and unload the kit off the bus, they were just so disciplined and hard-working and it showed on the field.
“It takes an unbelievable growth mindset to be able to do that.
“The players that come to the coach and ask how they can get better are the ones that are taking responsibility for their learning. You want players who are committed, that’s the player you want to work with because they have a chance of being a success not only in football but in life.
“If you have got a player who is talented and they are not applying themselves then you would give them a rocket to try and get them to work hard, but if you’re having to do that all the time then they’ve probably got a fixed mindset.
“The people who can develop furthest and quickest are the ones who have that growth mindset.
“It takes a special type of player to work hard every game and not every play is capable of doing that.”
As far as role models go, McNab says he was hugely impressed when he saw David Beckham play live for Manchester United.
“David Beckham is probably the hardest working player I’ve watched live at Celtic Park. He was unbelievable for Manchester United that night. He dedicated himself to the craft,” added McNab.
“The goal he free-kick he scored for England doesn’t just happen that was hard work and dedication, that was staying behind for hours and hours after training practicing.
“Scott Brown at Celtic is a brilliant role model for our players. His focus and determination is fantastic, but he can play also and he is underrated. He is technically very good and his Champions League stats are good.”
GoPlay Sports caught up with Florida Celtic Technical Director Johnny Burns to ask him about his coaching career and life after moving from Glasgow to Orlando.
Burns, the son of Celtic legend Tommy Burns, was given a fabulous opportunity to work in Florida in August 2016 and the former Celtic Academy coach has grabbed it with both hands and not looked back – apart from the occasional glance back at Parkhead.
After a solid coaching grounding at Barrowfield, we asked him about the differences in coaching in Scotland to the US.
“Obviously I was lucky enough to work back home (Scotland) at pro youth Academy level where everything is focused on development,” said Burns.
A Change In Mindset
“The biggest difference for me coming to American is the change in mindset. At club level in America it can be very difficult to change the mindset of a lot of people. A lot of people are focused on winning instead of development, which can be really detrimental.
“I’ve been really lucky to join a club in Florida and be able to given a chance to try and change that mindset and I’m lucky enough to have people who buy into that.
“It really is the mindset of the players and the parents which is the biggest difference. The quality is great, we have a bigger pool to pick from and here you are competing against other sports.”
Asked whether Burns finds it hard to keep his Celtic players away from the clutches of America’s more traditional sports, he says his players, like himself, are ultra committed.
“When you grow up in Glasgow it’s football or nothing. Here we are always fighting with American football or basketball and there is competition there.
“We are fortunate enough to have kids that are very dedicated to soccer at our club and they put all their efforts into soccer and that’s great for us,” said Burns.
‘Females Are Very Coachable’
Following in the footsteps of his late father, Burns came through the Celtic Academy and when his playing career came to and end at 18, he stepped up into coaching. And after learning his trade at Parkhead, Burns, who had been running Celtic’s summer camp in Florida for four years, was offered the chance with Florida Celtic.
“I wanted to broaden my horizons. You can get stagnant if you’re in one place for too long and I just thought it ws a great opportunity to see a different style of soccer and work with boys and girls,” said Burns. “And I’m incredibly fortunate to work with some very talented kids at Florida Celtic and the move has made me a better coach.”
Burns believes he is now fortunate to coach both girls and boys – and he says he coaches them in exactly the same way.
“I treat them exactly the same and I think the girls buy into that. One of the biggest surprises for me is the quality of the female game here. It’s outstanding. And the females here are very coachable, they try and implement everything you say, whereas with boys it is much tougher.
“They take what you say on the training pitch into a game and that for a coach is great,” said Burns.
“It’s also trying to broaden their horizons, so that they know to use their brain and express themselves when they are on the field as well.”
We could not let Burns go without a word about our tours and the benefits of travelling as a group overseas.
“I’m taking the 2002 girls’ group to Glasgow later this year with GoPlay, who have been unbelievable with regards to accessibility – allowing parents to contact them. And they have designed a tour around what we want and that has been fantastic,” added Burns.
“We’ve been planning this for a year and a half and it’s all the girls have spoken about. They can’t wait to get there and there is a real togetherness about them, knowing they are going to be exposed to international level players.
“It will develop them hugely to play against a different style.”
The English Football Association enforced a bizarre rule earlier this week and kicked Reading out of the FA Youth Cup for fielding an under-age player.
Read that again –AN UNDER-AGE PLAYER.
The Royals were not trying to gain an unfair advantage by using a player too old, although that is permitted in Under-23 matches and in fact 32-year-old Charlie Adam has featured for ‘Stoke’s U23s’ in the Checkatrade Trophy earlier this season.
So, over-age players are allowed in England, under certain rules, while under-age players are also allowed week in week out in U18 Premier League action. But for reasons we will explain later, the FA enforced a rule which has penalized an Under-15 side from facing Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the competition and taken away what was probably the biggest game of most of the the lads’ lives.
Fifteen-year-old left-back Imari Samuels is the unfortunate lad, whom Reading fielded by mistake. The Championship club blame an “administrative error” and contacted the FA immediately to inform them in the hope of replaying the tie. A outcome which seems logical.
Can u believe that @ReadingFC got kicked out of the #FAYouthCup for fielding a player who was too YOUNG? Why block the pathway of a talented youngster? And all this when ur allowed to field an overage player in U23 matches. Something doesnt add up…
All players competing in the tournament must have turned 15 before midnight on August 31 of the current season, and Samuels, although 15 now, was only 14 at that cut-off point.
That led to the FA Youth Cup ‘Sub-Committee’ holding a hearing at Wembley, at which they upheld the decision to remove the club from the competition. Reading are pondering an appeal, but why does such a rule exist?
According to the club’s statement, they believe the rule was “initially introduced to ensure the competition would be played on a level playing field in earlier rounds which pitted league clubs against non-league clubs”.
Reading themselves point out that their infringement of the rules was made in a fifth-round tie and not in an early round, and they were also up against another league club in Colchester.
With that in mind the rule has not protected the intended parties, but simply punished the progress of a talented youngster and his team. A 15-year-old, who Reading deemed talented enough to play with lads three years older than him. Why should he be punished and his team-mates for a rule that is not fit for purpose?
Reading are a Category One Academy and their mantra is to “extend and consolidate” youngsters – pushing them beyond their comfort zone and then maintaining what they have learned. The club were doing exactly that when they threw Samuels into the fold.
Reading point out that the “Academy proudly continues to offer the invaluable experience of competitive football to talented players who we feel can benefit from game time ahead of their respective age groups”.
And in fact they included four Under-15s in their Under-18s squad, all legitimately, for a league match earlier this month and they are not the only club to do so, it’s common practice.
Let’s just forget the rules here for one minute. We are talking about a 15-year-old, who was playing against boys three years older. There was no unfair advantage gained, what Reading did was try and develop a talented youngster in a competitive environment with boys older than him. They should be commended not penalized.
Let’s hope Reading see enough optimism to appeal and the FA see the light and apply some common sense.
Arriving in a city in the week of an NFL play-off game, the excitement was palpable, the welcome warm.
The natives of Philadelphia were excited. From the exuberant Uber driver, who delivered us safely from the airport to Downtown, to the buoyant concierge, who informed us day-by-day that this was the year the Eagles would fly.
And they did. After a crushing win over Minnesota on the Sunday of our departure, they made history two weeks later with a historic Super Bowl victory over the fancied New England Patriots.
The city has since celebrated in style and street poles were climbed, despite the City really applying grease to them. Their success though brought wry smiles to the GoPlay Sports team, and even those at our HQ in deepest Boston.
It was four years ago that GoPlay made their first venture to the then NSCAA, and now United Soccer Coaches Convention. Philadelphia was the perfect host city then and what an eye-opening experience it was too.
A confirmation that North America’s soccer sphere was a marketplace full of opportunity.
The GoPlay team numbered just three in Philly 2015; Philly 2018 the team hit double figures.
This year’s event felt bigger and in fact over 10,000 attended, setting a new record, while some of the speakers included Thierry Henry, Bruce Arena, John Harkes and Stuart Holden.
But from our very first trip to Philly four years ago it was evident that the United Soccer Coaches event presents an unrivaled opportunity to connect. And with three years’ experience of the event under our belts we have developed countless relationships. And we were determined to reach out again this time around; starting at our legendary Wednesday night social, which was the best attended and most successful to date.
The 2nd Story Brewing Company hosted us once again and did not disappoint with a delightful range of real ales, IPA’s and selection of tacos.
ACIS and GoPlay President Peter Jones provided an expert welcome and run down on the progress over the last 12 months, on a night which went until the early hours, as we caught up with old friends and welcomed new ones.
We invited our travel partners from Italy and Spain to come and experience the whole event and they were not disappointed. Taken aback by the sheer scale and size of the event they were astounded by the opportunities that were present and the connections we already have in place.
Our man from Rome – buoyed by bubble-wrap inspired inner soles purchased in the exhibition hall – took everything in his, now comfortable, stride and loved the fine food at Estia, a nearby Greek restaurant.
Our Madrid-based associates took in some field-based coaching sessions and were mightily impressed with Celtic’s International Soccer Academy Manager Willie McNab and his hour of Scanning: Awareness to play away from pressure.
The Celtic clinician is a well-respected coach in North America and GoPlay were delighted to develop our relationship with Willie and Celtic last year by partnering with the Scottish champions. We are now Celtic’s North American travel partner and our rapport with Willie and the club has gone from strength to strength.
GoPlay are also delighted to be working with New Balance – another new partnership, which we hope will be prosperous for both ourselves and the innovative sports brand. And what a party those Boston boys put on. Spin in Downtown Philly proved to be a magnificent venue as New Balance’s Friday night bash set the bar high.
Bath tubs of ping pong balls, branded with New Balance and GoPlay, table-tennis experts to refine your technique, a DJ, spray-paint artists, along with unlimited refreshments and not to mention the give-aways, made for a fantastic evening.
New Balance it was a blast!
We also met up with our like-minded friends at Iconz Experience, developed a new coaching relationship with Manchester United Academy coach Tom Statham and added Johnny Burns at Florida Celtic to our network, whilst we once again hosted the New England Intercollegiate Soccer League coaches annual social.
GoPlay Sports caught up with Duke central defender Markus Fjortfoft, who told us about growing up immersed in soccer, life in the U.S. at Duke University, his famous father and his recent gaffe…
Endearingly Markus Fjortoft tells me about his recent faux pas at the Red Bulls.
“I had a bit of a scare in one of my first sessions,” says Fjortoft. “I f***** up.”
After a summer in the PDL with the New York Red Bulls U-23s, I ask the 23-year-old what is was like getting a glimmer of his dream. ‘How was his experience mixing with the pros in Major League Soccer?’
“I was playing centre-back and Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is a really nice guy, was playing and I went for an interception. I thought I was going to get the ball before him, but I didn’t and I caught his heel and he went down,” Swindon-born Fjortoft tells me.
“It was my first session and I said to myself ‘this can’t be happening, I can’t be injuring their best player three days before a game’. I was like ‘s***’ this is not good. I said sorry to him. ‘I’m really sorry I had to go for it,'” he adds, with real concern in his voice.
“After the session he (Wright-Phillips) came in and he was limping and I was thinking ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ and he was like ‘I’m only joking’.
“I went to practice the next day and I came out of the weight room and he was a bit ahead of me and he looked back and he shook my hand and said ‘are you ok, are, how are you doing?’
“He had not forgotten, he was good about it and was a proper nice guy. I respected that.”
Fjortoft tells me his taste of playing with the big boys in MLS, bar the scare, has whetted his appetite for more. His ultimate goal is to play professionally in MLS, a league he believes has improved immeasurably over recent years.
As a child, he modeled himself on David Beckham, literally. Copying the England man’s hairstyle for years after the soccer pin up arrived at the LA Galaxy. Beckham was recruited by the Galaxy in 2007, on a five-year contract to raise the profile of the sport in the US. And Fjortoft is now a believer, a convert from Europe, a by-product from the Beckham era.
“Since I have been here MLS has experienced radical growth and more and more people are interested in it,” Fjortoft enthuses.
“I got interested when Beckham went to the LA Galaxy and had his jersey and a Thierry Henry one when he went to the Red Bulls. Those players just grabbed my attention and now I like watching the league and I follow it and the quality is getting better.
“What is unique about Americans is the amount of resources and hype they invest into their sport. There is no better country to hype of a sporting event than Americans.”
I ask him about his summer spell with the Red Bulls and he confidently tells me “the level is manageable”. The towering centre-back has his sights on January’s MLS Draft and believes his time in New York helped raise his profile.
“Yes, I was there over the summer. It was great and a way for me to get my name out there with the Red Bulls. I lived with a mate, who also plays for the Red Bulls, for two months, and basically I just played football and got the taste of a professionals life,” says Fjortoft.
“I played a lot of games and got the chance to captain the U-23s and I also got a stint training with the first team a couple of times and played against the second team.
‘It was the mental aspect that was a surprise; I hadn’t given that much thought before’
“It was cool playing with players that play for the national team, Sacha Kljestan was there and Shaun Davis who was my captain at Duke. Mike Grella was there, who played for Leeds.
“The lesson I got from it was that this level is manageable, it was a higher level than I’m used to but it is attainable.
“But the big lesson was that it was as mentally exhausting as it was physically. You have to be so concentrated all the time and after those sessions I was so tired. It was the mental aspect that was a surprise and I hadn’t given that much thought before.”
Fjortoft can cope though, that’s the overriding impression I get. Duke expect him to go big too. The midfielder turned defender is highly-regarded by all at the North Carolina University.
“The main goal of the PDL was to get my name out there and I got a lot out there in terms of performance and the people that I met,” Fjortfoft says. “For now I have one season left which will hopefully finished in December when we (Duke) win the national championship. After that there is the MLS Draft in January, which I hope to make and then we will see,” adds Fjortoft.
‘I was done with it’
“I’d love to play in the MLS and live out the dream of being a professional player. But I know I have a good education behind me to fall back on if things don’t work out.”
It’s that education which was just as big a pull to America for Fjortoft as Beckham was 10 years ago. Playing in the U-19s for his local side in Norway, Fjortoft made a big decision to leave.
“I was at Baerum in the U19s, I had a few stints with the first team, but I was done with it,” says Fjortoft eloquently, in a manner which belies his age.
“Norway and especially Oslo has become a growing market for players to go to the US. There was been a radical shift in the way the American college soccer was perceived. American soccer had that stigma: ‘You’re going to play in America, why?’
“But over time, players have chosen to go there and combine what I believe is the perfect combination between academics, athletics and the social network that you create. It’s an ideal mix, especially for a growing adult, it helps lay the groundwork for what will come in later life. I prioritised that ahead of signing first-team contracts in Norway.
“I had an honest conversation with myself and my father and I said, ‘what is the best case scenario if I make it in Norway? If I make it in the top tier in Norway, how much will that give me?’
“So I said I want to try America and get myself a brilliant education and I’d love to play in MLS, I just set myself that goal. And I think it has worked out alright so far.”
His father, Jan Aage Fjortoft, 50, has supported him all the way and continually demands text reports on his son’s progress at all hours of the night.
Fjortoft senior, now back in Norway, had a sterling career in his homeland, England and Germany – a career which Fjortoft junior has immense respect for. But the respect is definitely a two-way thing; I get the feeling father and son are close.
Asked if his father was proud of his decision to move to America, he says: “Yes he is. With the time difference between the US and Norway he will be asking me to send summaries after the games, and say our games finish at 9.30pm, if I haven’t sent him a text he will be contacting me and it will be the middle of the night in Norway and asking me how I did.”
One-time striker for Swindon, Sheffield United, Middlesbrough, Eintracht Franfurt and Barnsley to name a few, Fjortoft senior bagged 20 international goals for Norway. He was a bustling archetypal English centre-forward. Now though, it’s his his social media presence which has all the hallmarks of his blood and thunder approach to playing.
“Definitely, that’s an under statement. He’s created quite a name for himself on Twitter and it’s cool to follow,” chuckles Fjortoft.
“I’m proud of him and when we go back to England people recognize him and there are no fan groups in the world with a better memory than English fans.
“He benefited from these clubs when they were in their peak – he was at Swindon and top scorer when they were in the Premier League and he was at Middlesbrough at The Riverside reopening. He was part of a lot of clubs in exciting times in their history,” he adds.
It’s no surprise Fjortoft developed a passion for soccer and he admits he was almost “addicted from birth”.
‘Dad didn’t want me to be a striker to avoid comparisons’
He was born in Swindon and lived there for five years, during his father’s time at Swindon, when they were dining at the top table, and he admits it was glaringly obvious he would get heavily involved in the game.
“It’s kind of inevitable isn’t it? Because when you are with your dad who takes you to everything you’re kind of addicted to it from birth. Being around him on the field, being a mascot and being in the locker room it really just made football part of my blood from very early on.
“I lived in England for the first five years of my life because of my dad. I lived in Swindon, Middlesbrough, Sheffield and Barnsley, forgive me if I’ve got the order wrong. That really shaped my relationship to England,” Fjortoft tells me.
“I have always had this inherent connection to the UK and it’s somewhere I’d like to go back to a some point and live.
“I’d love to play in the US but for some reason that doesn’t work out and maybe if my circumstances change then I would love to live in England and continue in football because that’s my ultimate passion, whether it is playing or in some administrative role.”
At 6ft 5in and over 90kg, the atheltic Fjortoft is in the ideal modern-day centre-back mould, but it was his dad who ultimately shaped him from a midfielder to a “ball-playing quarter-back”.
“I didn’t hit puberty until I was 16, that may be a slight exaggeration,” he quips, “but I was the smallest on the field and I was a centre midfielder. I loved scoring goals and going up front.
“Dad didn’t want me to be a striker to avoid comparisons. I was a central midfielder until I was 16 and I loved David Beckham and he has been my hero throughout. I copied his haircuts for five years straight from 8 to 13 and I also loved Frank Lampard and all those box-to-box players,” says Fjortoft.
‘There are times maybe when coach Kerr’s heart skips a beat’
“But when my dad took over the U16s he said ‘I’m going to move you to centre-back’. And at that time I started growing and now I’m 6ft 5in and 93kg and I kind of grew into the role.
“There was a transition period but I’m now a centre-back, who is comfortable with the ball and I envisage the position as like a quarter-back who can control the game from the back.
“It was definitely the right move. There are not enough ball-playing centre-backs around; there are so many central midfielders who are all competing. With age and experience I have picked up defensive learning.”
With three goals from defense for Duke so far this season – his latest last week’s match-winning strike on the road at Syracuse put the Blue Devils in a tie for second place in the Coastal Division – Fjortoft’s cool finishing has not left him and he believes his midfield grounding has helped him develop into the centre-back he is now.
“Yes, definitely. There are times maybe when coach Kerr’s heart skips a beat, when it may not be the right time to play out from the back but I feel very comfortable in doing it, but I believe I have found the right balance between being cynical and trying to play.
“We currently play with a back three who are all comfortable with the ball and we want to leverage that.”
‘Go big or go home attitude’
Fjortoft continues to detail Duke’s three at the back – a system which only became popular again in the EPL last season – and I get the impression he can talk for hours, passionately about systems and tactics.
“It’s a tricky formation to play but if you get it right it can prove so successful. It enables you to overcrowd areas defensively and to be able to engage people in the trapping zone. But also offensively it gives you numbers further forward. It’s a dynamic system,” he adds.
It’s obvious Fjortoft’s love of the game is all-consuming, but in between classes, I ask him how he found the change in playing style from Norway to the U.S.
“It’s definitely different and people say when they move to a new country there is a transition period and for the first few games it was difficult and I had a hard time trying to adjust,” he admits.
“Their (U.S) playing style reflects their overall mindset, they have a ‘go big or go home attitude’ and they go for it. It’s a very intense game here and a lot of back and forth, there are good players, don’t get me wrong and especially in our conference. It’s intense and in my first few games I had never been so tired as a centre-back.
“It was attack, defend, attack, defend…Which was different but now I know the ins and outs of the game.
“There are a lot of good American players and in our conference there are five or six teams that are in the top 10 of the country so you are measuring yourself against the best.
“You have European players and South Americans in there and I’ve played against several English kids from Premier League Academies and the quality is there.”
Resurgence in motivation
He is a firm believer that his experience, both socially and soccer-wise, in other countries has given him a solid footing.
“I am big believer in stepping out of your comfort zone and with that comes growth. Staying in that comfort zone does not allow growth and there is no diversity of challenges to encounter,” he says.
“I was at a good school in Norway and a lot of the kids are doing good things in Norway now, but coming to America has allowed me to not reinvent my career as much, but to give my a resurgence in my motivation. It’s given me new motivation and offered new challenges.
“Chasing a professional contract and being drafted as well as experiencing everything that goes with it very much motivated me.”
After half-an-hour, I have no doubt about Fjortoft’s motivation and drive and I ask him which players have impressed him along the way and who made him hungry for success.
“In my first year I played with Shaun Davis who is now a starter for the New York Red Bulls. He scored a couple of goals against Chelsea in pre-season a couple of years ago. He was our captain and I said ‘this guy is something special’.
“It’s so motivating because you see where the benchmark is at and you compare yourself and you see your’e not that far away from it,” says Fjortoft.
After just a brief chat, the affable Fjortoft leaves an imprint of focus, supreme confidence, but also of self-deprecation – a quality not often seen in young athletes. His drive and determination are obvious and it would not be a surprise to see his name on the roster of one of the MLS franchises’ early next year.
Had an article in the Daily Mail not emerged earlier this month the decision would have come as huge shock, especially when you factor in Huddersfield’s promotion to the top table and the riches that come with it.
Last season Chelsea banked in excess of £150m from their share of TV broadcast money, while rock-bottom Sunderland claimed almost £100m. With that in mind you can assume Huddersfield will claim in excess of £100m this time around just for being in the top flight and so on the face of it scaling back their Academy seems bonkers and short-sighted.
The Terriers claim their Academy, that runs from Under-8s right the way through to the Under-23s, costs £20,000 a week or £1million a year to maintain – a drop in the ocean when you factor in their income. But GoPlay Sports understands their decision is not a financial one and nothing to do with cost-cutting and more about being able to develop players into their first team. Fans, parents and local businesses have accused them of putting finances before youth development, but when the facts are laid down on the table, it seems a move that makes sense.
Only one player since the HTAFC Academy opened 18 years ago developed into a Premier League player – Jon Stead, who played for Sunderland, Blackburn and Sheffield United.
The likes of Jack Hunt and Alex Smithies have forged decent careers at Championship level, while current players Philip Billing and Tommy Smith were brought into the Academy at 17 and 20 respectively. They weren’t nurtured by the Terriers from age 8, but picked up from Denmark and Manchester City and then brought through into the first team and that indeed will be the aim of the new set-up.
Huddersfield plan to axe every team from under-8s to Under-16s and will keep only their Under-18s and Under-23s as they move from a category 2 to a category 4 Academy. That means they will now only be allowed to recruit and develop talent from the age of 16 and over with the current youth sides being phased out within the next month.
If any criticism is to be lodged at Huddersfield and Hoyle it is the timing of the decision – just over a month into the new season. And after the euphoria of promotion to the Premier League, the club’s Academy coaches and young players will be packing their bags with just a month consultancy period offered to them.
Huddersfield though are now “focusing on creating a clear pathway to the first team for players with the ability to thrive” with chairman Dean Hoyle happy to implement the change, which he has described as “the hardest” he has had to make while at the helm.
Hoyle, who made his fortune from greeting cards, pointed out that the ethos of the Academy was failing.
“Our Academy system must provide a strong and obvious pathway to the First Team for players who are good enough, whilst also representing value for the Club. Upon review, this is not something that we could claim,” he told the club’s website.
It’s a move which Championship side Brentford made in early 2016 and one which they were criticized for for being “short-sighted”. The Bees have scrapped all but their Under-23 side or B team and are now solely focused on developing players aged 17 or above.
They aim to pick up released players from Premier League Academies, while also picking up players from “undervalued markets” overseas. Their Academy was running at a cost of £2m a year and owner Matthew Benham decided it was not worth the while.
And one of the major reasons why these Academies are failing is that Premier League clubs, with category 1 status, can simply cherry-pick the best youngsters and pay a nominal compensation fee. Under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) the biggest clubs get to swallow up the best talent, while other rules under the plan are restrictive.
Brentford’s head of football operations Robert Rowan told The Guardian last year: “It allowed us far more flexibility on how we do that because we are not as restricted by regulation or rules. It was the most sustainable and effective option. It’s a lot easier to assess something that has got a turnaround of three years than over 10 years. ”
It’s widely understood that elite youth talent in England is actively encouraged to attend the category 1 academies and so a team like Huddersfield with Manchester United and Manchester City almost on their door step are always vulnerable to their best youngsters being recruited.
The best youngsters who have been scouted by the FA and already recruited by England will be actively encouraged, if not told, to join the elite Academies – leaving the likes of Brentford and Huddersfield kicking their heels.
It’s a failing model for non-elite clubs and we will likely see more English clubs follow in the footsteps of Brentford and Huddersfield as they look to develop talent that can make an impact in the first team, rather than trying to nurture an 8-year-old that will get picked off by the big guns if he shows anywhere near the talent that’s required.
Aligning the MLS calendar with Europe’s top leagues is a idea that has been proposed for some time, but now seems the right time to implement it.
There have been well documented concerns about the development of MLS for some time, but now is the time for MLS Commissioner Don Garber to act. Aligning the calendar with the European schedule, starting the season in July or August and finishing in May or June is a must if the league is to improve. Introducing an international break and aligning with the international transfer window would then fall into place and would be hugely beneficial.
There is of course an issue with the cold weather in winter in the northern cities, but the increasing number of franchises in the south makes it workable. And such is the opportunity to attract top overseas talent at the current time, that a change must be made.
There were an unprecedented number of young, talented English players that moved out of the the Premier League this summer, all of which slipped the MLS net.
Thirteen Premier League clubs broke their transfer records this summer, spending a combined £1.47bn and many of those players were brought in from overseas.
Such was that spending that more English youngsters than ever before decided to take their chances away from England. It’s becoming almost impossible for good, young English talent to make the grade in the top flight. And as plenty of Europe’s League’s have benefitted this season, so could MLS.
A move to the European schedule now makes complete sense, add an international break and English talent and other European talent would find the move across The Pond more alluring. Playing MLS matches while international action takes place is crazy. It not only penalizes teams who cannot call upon their best players, but it also turns imports off from moving to America.
Jadon Sancho, named player of the tournament as England Under-17s reached the European Championship final, moved for £10million from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund. West Ham defender Reece Oxford and Liverpool’s Ryan Kent went on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach and Freiburg respectively.
Chris Willock, Matty Willock, Kaylen Hinds, Mason Mount and Charlie Colkett have all moved on loan to European clubs. All highly regarded youngsters in Gareth Southgate’s England set-up, but unable to get game time in the EPL.
Would they have considered a move to MLS – a league that is out of sync with Europe – and that runs from March to October? No.
Align the league with Europe and introduce a break while internationals take place and some of those youngsters may well have opted to take their chance in MLS. That would mean talented, hungry European players willing to play in America – a move that could only be a plus for the league.
There are however a few talented English youngsters already plying their trade in the league. Jack Barmby, Anton Walkes and Jack Harrison are all carving out successful careers in MLS and Stoke-born Harrison thinks MLS could become a destination of choice for more of his fellow countrymen.
Asked if there could be more players following him across the Atlantic: “Definitely, yeah,” said Harrison. “I think the way the game is changing now, you get these clubs that are just buying top players.
“They are paying so much money for them as well and it makes it that much harder for the academy kids that have been there since six-years-old to try and make it to the first team.
“It’s that much harder so I wouldn’t be surprised if more players were to venture out and try different options.”
Harrison, who has scored nine goals in 28 games for New York City FC, is making an impact. And the 20-year-old former Man Utd youth academy player is starting to make some Premier League clubs sit up and take notice.
He left Carrington as a 13-year-old and joined Wake Forest University via an American boarding school and in January 2016 he was the first pick in the MLS SuperDraft, aged 18.
Harrison has almost been a pioneer for young English players looking to make it big in MLS, but a few key changes to the schedule could see dozens more players following his path across The Pond. It’s a decision that needs making and an opportunity that MLS cannot afford to pass up.