Non-League Football: A Negative Environment for Young Players

Shouting, screaming, bullying at half time. The young debutant has given the ball away, only his second poor pass of the half, but it has led to a free kick and a subsequent goal. The player is clearly distraught.

The senior full back has actually been poor all half; he’s allowed his winger to cut inside every time and gave away four free kicks in the process. But a goal didn’t come from any of them. His mistakes haven’t been punished. The goal came from a poor pass from the debutant. And plus, the right back is a senior member of the group, one of the ‘gaffer’s boys’ who has journeyed with him to each of his seven club’s in a five-year spell as a non-league manager. He doesn’t need telling.

There is of course other ways to look at the mistake before the goal. The debutants ten-yard pass hasn’t reached its target. It’s therefore his fault, that’s a simplistic view. Maybe though his partnering central midfielder didn’t make the best possible angle he could for him. Maybe if that midfielder’s movement were better than a passing channel to the striker would have opened up. Maybe, just maybe, if the senior full back had communicated better then a risk-free pass out to him would have been an option. And away from all of this, if the free kick is defended well, if the goalkeeper comes to claim when he should, if the centre-back out jumps his opponent, if the men in the wall jump with maximal effort, then the goal never happens.

But of course it’s the debutants fault; he gave the ball away that led to the free-kick forty-yards out.

One of two things will now happen at half time. One, the player will be boosted, his positives will be highlighted, the mistake will be constructively discussed but a return to the positives will take place. He will leave the dressing room disappointed, but holding a desire to change the team’s position. OR… constructive criticism will be thrown out of the door along with the drinks-bottle and the pile of cones that were left from the warm up. Fifteen minutes won’t be spent analysing the 45 minutes before hand, nor will they be spent offering a solution to comeback from a 1-0 deficit. They will instead be spent hammering the young player, the scapegoat for a poor team performance.

*

The second half begins and the opposition start brightly. They get tight to the young midfielder because they’ve heard the half time hammering. His desire to receive the ball has dropped dramatically; he now fears mistakes above failure. If he hides then he is less likely to get the ball, and that reduces the chance of mistakes. He hates the experience. Hates football, hates everything about it. The pocket money isn’t worth it for this feeling. His love for the game, built up over 19-years, has been sapped from him in just fifteen minutes.

The teammates start to get on at him, start to show similar bully-ish signs that the manager displayed at half time. It’s not their fault; they don’t know how to deal with the situation. They haven’t taken the courses, or studied the mindset of players. Why would they? They are still players. But the manager should have, so should his assistant.

On 65 minutes the opposition get their second goal. Once again the winger has cut inside the senior full back, only this time he has scored. Game over. The reaction: Debutant off, dragged off. Substitute on. Not a word to the senior full back. He doesn’t need telling. The debutant feels a terrible concoction of relief and shame. He takes his place on the bench, dismissed by the manager with not even a glimmer of eye contact. No one speaks to him on the bench, for no one wants to be seen consoling him in front of the manager. They of course want their chance next week.

An extreme story or a regular occurrence in Non-League Football?

In my experience coaching at British University level over the last two years, what has become increasingly apparent is the number of top-level young players who have lost their love for football. Subsequently, the first job of a coach is simply to reinstall this love. It’s not technical or tactical, but it is probably the most important thing a coach will teach to a young player who has suffered in the system.

These individuals fall into the category of ‘close but no cigar’ in relation to professional football. Some may have experienced being a professional for a short period, but most would have been released on the expiry of their youth-team scholarships. There is no doubt they have the ability to earn money from the game at some level, and particularly in England. The problem is that there generally seems to be a disregard for development in non-league football. A bully-ish culture that displays inconsistency, instability and pre-historic attitudes towards managing players. It is school ground bullying but grass has replaced the tarmac.

Of course there are anomalies to the rule. And some managers in the semi-professional level of football are providing fantastic environments for their players. But these clubs are just that, anomalies. And of course, a manager isn’t solely to blame; instead there are clubmen above him who don’t consider ways of implementing a better environment.

So what is the result of all of this? Well, from a brief glimpse I would suggest the ‘no mistakes’ mentality in the game has led to, in many cases, a terrible unattractive culture in non-league football, whereby the bulldog has replaced the technician. Again with reference to my experience with university football, the biggest motivation for the players is the fact they are allowed to play football in a way they enjoy. Playing for passes and not yards. For possession and not knock-downs.

The end result for me is inevitable; too many good young players in England will fall out of football as quickly as they fall out of love with the game. More than 90% of academy players will not play first team at their club, and most won’t play professional football, so where are these players by the age of 20?

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