Such is the monumental reach of the Premier League, such is its ability to absorb almost total attention at all times, it’s very easy to forget that it is but the tip of the footballing iceberg, with the vast majority of its structure lying beneath the waves caused by goals, gaffes, scandals and transfer windows.
By Dave Bowler
Much of that is made up by the rest of the footballing pyramid in the shape of the Football League, the semi-pro game, the local leagues, Sunday football, schools matches and the rest. But even inside the Premier League itself, much goes on that does not get its due time in the spotlight simply because first team football captures every last watt.
Youth football in particular tends not to get its due, yet it is the cornerstone of the game’s future, be it at professional level or in the schools. All over the land you will find coaches putting in the hours, often unpaid, working with the youngest children in after school sessions, using poor facilities in the worst of weathers.
When these people talk about the game, it’s worth listening, because they experience it at the sharp, unglamorous end. But just as important are their thoughts on helping the young footballers in their charge grow up as young men, not just players.
We sometimes forget that simply because a youngster can put on a football shirt for a professional club, it does not mean he’s yet a grown man. We are talking about lads barely out of school, who have hardly entered the world of work and yet here they are playing top class football at a time when they still need an education in life, not just in football.
These boys need good teachers, men who continually remind them of the values of respect, responsibility. Of course there will be times when those calls fall on deaf ears – we all did plenty of daft things as youths did we not, despite the best advice – but the right standards must be set if our youngsters are to grow.
The endless talk among youth coaches these days is about hunger, desire and mental strength when it comes to their young charges making a career out of the game.
It seems that this is the fundamental issue, one as big as talent, and one where sport in general seems to be slipping. But sport is nothing if it isn’t a reflection of society and it may be that a softening of the world around us is seeping into the games we play.
Many years ago, in his great book on cricket, “Beyond A Boundary”, CLR James asked, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” I know we’ve changed games all of a sudden, but bear with me because that question and this summer’s Ashes series in England speak to the heart of a crucial issue.
From an English perspective, the summer could not have gone much better as an unfancied team somehow put together some stunning results to win back the Ashes 3-2. But the series as a whole asked some wider questions, more disturbing ones, not just about sport but about society.
Each Test was won by massive margins, an increasing feature of games these days. The closest run thing was the First Test, which England won by the historically huge margin of 169 runs. In each of the four games that succeeded it, one team got into a strong position and simply steamrollered their opponent.
There were no hints of any fight-backs. No suggestion of the “over my dead body” approach to going down fighting. Instead, there was simply meek surrender.
We are seeing it all too often in other sports too. Germany 7 Brazil 1 strike a chord? Or tennis players seemingly tanking at Wimbledon just to get off the court? Or great golfers happy to miss the cut after a poor first round?
All of these look symptomatic of a growing trend where too many sportsmen and women no longer seem to know what to do when things go wrong. Of course, the majority do still fight back from adversity and, even in defeat, retain their dignity and display their moral courage. Sadly though, too often the white flag is being flown to easily and too early. If we are to produce better footballers – better people – in the years to come, that is an issue that needs to be addressed.
By society, not just by football.