Sunday 16 December 2018

We must not overlook the small, skilful players

Geelong Advertiser, Tuesday 13 March 2007, p. 41

Is it about time we started examining the processes by which we select and develop our young sports people? One concerned coach, Peter Richardson, has been observing the way young players are selected for regional and state junior representative teams in football (soccer) over many years. He has noted that bigger, faster and older players tend to be preferred compared with smaller, younger and more skilful ones. This tends to set up a self-reinforcing process in which the selected ones get the support, training and encouragement denied to those whose talents might warrant encouragement. This, he argues, deprives the children concerned of opportunities and the rest of us of some of the best and most entertaining players to watch.

The sports scientists would not necessarily agree. They argue that games at elite level now are played at such high speed and intensity that if you are not lightning fast and do not have enormous endurance you will be unable to perform your skills. You will simply never get near the ball to play. Yet some of the most influential players of the current and past generations didn’t fit this mould. Gianfranco Zola starred at Napoli and Parma in Italy, and at Chelsea in England where he was voted the best player in the club’s history by its fans. He now coaches the Italian Under-21 side and recently visited Australia for a match between two Sydney clubs, Apia and Marconi, playing one half for each. He is small, nippy but not very fast, and has the most marvellous technique which enables him to score fantasy goals with back heels and curling shots and lobs. Teddy Sheringham won club and international honours for Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, including a celebrated European Champions League win over Bayern Munich with the Red Devils. Notoriously slow, he thought quicker than those around him and is still playing for West Ham, the oldest player at 40 in the English Premiership.

These may be the exceptions which prove the rule, but all the great sides have had players whose abilities were not simply athletic. Jose Mourinho, current coach of Chelsea and former winner of the Champions League with Porto, talks about his ‘miracle players’ the ones who can change a game by their pure skill and technique. He also nominated the Brazilian superstar Kaka of AC Milan as a similar talent. Kaka exploited one opening for his club to take it through against Celtic after 180 minutes of high quality but goal-less action. It was notable that after that game the Celtic manager, Gordon Strachan, another tiny player himself, enthused about the quality of the offering, stressed that his team had the heart and the fighting qualities to match their opponent, but needed to improve their technique. Some readers will remember an iconic moment at the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 when Strachan tried to jump over the advertising hoardings after scoring against West Germany, only to desist when his little legs wouldn’t let him!

There are encouraging signs in indoor soccer (futsal) where games on small pitches with a limited number of players put the premium on skill development. Youngsters under the age of 12 should not be playing on full size pitches outdoors. At the local level too, things are changing. North Geelong’s coach Ian Williamson and Geelong Rangers’ Danny Beranic sent out teams in the Community Shield final at the weekend which had several highly talented teenagers in their ranks. Some are physically imposing specimens already, but others are more dependent on technique rather than physique for their opportunities. Coaches and fans need to have patience with these youngsters when they make the mistakes, sometimes costly, which are part of learning in all walks of life and sport. That way we will not lose the talent on our doorstep and can look forward to some exciting games in future.

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