Notes from an Everton Football Club U10 Practice - Saturday, November 14, 2015
Undiluted concentration and single minded intensity in practice is not always a hallmark of 9 year old players but these qualities characterized the 9am Saturday morning practice I observed at Finch Farm, Everton Football Club’s youth training Academy in Halewood, Liverpool in mid November 2015.
Mike Dickinson, Everton’s distinguished former Director of Education and Welfare, helped me gain access to the training of the younger Academy players. The teaching and player developmentprogram I observed highlighted why Everton have a Category One developmental academy earning the highest grades from the English FA for training facilities, administrative offices, licensed and approved coaching staff coaching curriculum and player recruitment and development.
The function of the Academy is to identify and train players for the First Team or, if they do not attain the required standard, try and help them get access to another team in the professional game. In times gone by, players who could not find an interested club faced a life outside of football with no academic qualifications. The role of Director of Welfare and Education, Mike Dickinson’s role, established by the FA at the Academies at all professional teams, was to counter the stark realities of a failed Academy life by providing players with a solid education. In former days the participants in youth teams were called “Apprentice Footballers”. These players are now called “Scholars” – thus identifying them as having Academic responsibilities.
The Everton Academy has enjoyed a string of successes producing Premier League and international class senior players. The list of players includes England and Manchester United Captain Wayne Rooney, English Internationals Ross Barclay and Leon Osman and present Sunderland star Jack Rodwell. Credit for their success comes down to several key factors;
Finch Farm is Everton’s club training facility with numerous, meticulously cultivated grass fields, together with a full size artificial field and an administrative building with a large indoor, artificially grassed, practice area, changing rooms, equipment rooms, weight room, academic classrooms and a dining area.
Player practice kit, shoe bags, stationery, wallpaper, glass door panes, scouting forms, session outline forms, towels etc. feature the Everton logo and club motto –
“Nil Satis Nisi Optimum” - “Only The Best Will Satisfy.”
Along with photographs of the players and teams in the club the hallways featured numerous inspirational messages – including one from the President of the USA.
Hallway walls feature numerous framed photographs of various players and teams who have gone through the Academy system successfully. There are also a number of photographs of the First team professional players coaching and joining in practices with the younger players – including soccer tennis. This seems to happen regularly at Everton and contributes to the feeling of an integrated club.
There was complete silence from the players when the staff coach addressed them. When being addressed the U10 group were very tightly huddled together, facing the staff coach. I have noticed that the assistant instructors will, often, stand behind the players as they are being addressed to ensure their focus.
In addition, for water breaks, the players run to the area where their (Everton logoed) drinking bottles are kept and then run back to the coach for their next activity.
To quote the great Arsenal Coach – Arsene Wenger
“We are not teaching a game – we are teaching a way of life.”
Clearly these players breathe the game. They displayed a way of moving that was a soccer way of moving.
Case in point - A ball came in my direction and one of the players came to retrieve it – I passed the ball to him…he faked to take it with his front foot and allowed the ball to go to his back foot. On the way back to the group exercise he did 2 scissors moves and 1 double scissors….passed the ball to a team mate and then got back into the line. You could not help but think that he practiced these moves when walking through his schools corridors.
Session Scrimmage – Winning as a Habit!
Somebody once said – “The more practice games you win the more games you will win.” Score of the practice game was kept and, it was obvious as they walked off the field that the losing players did not like it. On this day the penalty for losing was having to sing Happy Birthday to a player whose birthday it was.
The coaching staff are handpicked experts in young player development. A mixture of full time and part time coaches help and coordinate with each other spending countless hours training teams, discussing player progress, and working with individual players. If a coach, for some reason, has no assistant for a coaching session a fellow staff coach will step in and help out to make sure there are always two sets of eyes at every practice and, at least, two voices reinforcing the same message. They are, also, age group specialists and stay with the age group rather than stay with the team. The U10 coaches shall coach the present U9’s next season.
- The two coaches of the U10’s – Peter Cavanaugh and John Miles, both extremely experienced youth coaches, were softly spoken and never raised their voice. The instructions they gave were organizational rather than analytical and occurred mostly between stoppages between practice sequences to describe the next activity. Only very occasionally did they stop the practice to make a coaching point. The players, on the other hand, were extremely vocal during the practice sessions – demanding the ball and giving advice to the ball carrier.
- Constant scanning. When players move into angles to receive a ball from a team mate – they, habitually, look over their shoulder before the ball is passed to them.
- Pre – Receiving Move. Players had a variety of fake moves prior to receiving the ball to fool the opponent – e.g. fake to take the ball to the left by stepping in that direction and then taking the ball to the right. Another popular fake was to let the ball go between the legs and then, suddenly, pop the ball behind the standing leg with the other foot.
- Lifting first touch. Players lift the ball on the first touch. Handy when opposing players are very close to the receiving player
- Tight first touch. Players kept the ball very tight - between the width of their shoulders on the first touch – almost NO first touch mistakes.
- Open shoulders. Players tried to receive the ball across their body so that they were always receiving the ball facing forward.
- Change of direction. Players who were being closely pursued made highly defined changes in direction to avoid pressure – you had to see it!
- Fakes. Players used fake passing movements and then kept the ball for themselves. An exaggerated use of the arms often accompanied these moves.
- Fakes. Players used fake shooting movements and then kept the ball for themselves. An exaggerated use of the arms often accompanied these moves.
- All of these players seemed to have the ability to drive a ball dead straight.
- Players used a variety of spins when striking the ball including slicing, hooking, fading, bending and back- spinning.
- Outside foot passing. Players used front foot passes to disguise their intentions.
Comfort on the ball
Players looked very comfortable when in possession of the ball – The most comfortable players displayed the following attributes;
- Ability to shield the ball when under a heavy challenge from a defender. Shielding players, under challenge, lowered their center of gravity.
- Players receiving the ball were able to keep the ball very close to their body – very few first touch “mistakes”.
- Scanning helped them to make choices BEFORE receiving the ball.
- Using a variety of pre – receiving moves to gain space and time.
- Pull back moves using the sole of their foot.
- Stop and go moves – accelerating and quickly stopping. Stopping the ball with one foot and accelerating away with the ball using either the same foot or the other foot.
- Heading on goal – Exercise had rotating goalkeepers and servers.
- Volleying on goal – Same exercise except they volleyed ball.
- Sequential passing exercise using various moves before receiving the ball.
- Keep away exercise – 2 GK’s with assistant staff coach.
- 8 v 8 game
Practice time 1.30 hours.
- Visitors. Finch Farm has significant security provisions and Visitors must pass through security guards at the front entrance. Security are notified that a Visitor shall be arriving by a Staff Coach or Everton employee and will have the Visitors name on a sheet. Security has a list of visitors for that particular day. Once they have cleared Security visitors must register at reception upon arrival and must wear a visitor’s lanyard. An escort will, frequently, accompany visitors around the building.
- Session began with a preview from the coaches.
- Big emphasis on various kinds of 1 v 1 – Pressure from the front, from the side, from the rear etc.
- Enormous emphasis on taking people on in the game by dribbling straight at them – even in, potentially, vulnerable parts of the field.
- The English FA do not mandate club squad sizes – The coaches decide on squad size.
- In conversation with the coaches they felt that a ratio of 1 coach to 6 players is ideal. When coaches have to deal with large numbers of players their function changes and they go from analytical teachers to activity supervisors limiting the amount of real teaching they are able to do.
- The rebounding of balls against a wall, very common in Brazil, also features as part of the skill development at Everton when players are in the indoor practice field. Volleying, one bounce and other rebound activities had specific uses.
- An area had also been reserved for yoga which has become a popular training initiative with all the Academy teams. Everton, occasionally, develop physical contact exercises by hosting instructors from various codes of the martial arts.
- Everton and local rival Liverpool’s stadiums are half a mile apart. Staff coaches tell me that having a rival club so close develops healthy competition elevating the performance standards of both teams. The two clubs always support each other in a crisis as when 96 Liverpool supporters were killed in an FA Cup semi- final in 1989. Also when a prominent individual from either club is deceased which recently occurred when Liverpool personnel attended the funeral of Howard Kendall, an Everton icon.