When former Ireland and Arsenal full-back John Devine recently addressed a press conference in Dublin he was joined at the top table by Eamon Dunphy and John Giles, the presence of the big beasts ensuring a healthy media turn-out and plenty of coverage in print and on the airwaves the following day.
In fact, what Devine had to say would have merited attention anyway but, let’s face it, a press release headlined ‘SDFL’s Non-Competitive Vision Of Grassroots Football’ suddenly seems a whole lot sexier when it’s preceded by the words ‘Dunphy And Giles Back…’
And not just them — Niall Quinn, Paul McGrath and Liam Brady have also endorsed the player development programme which Devine has been rolling out since his appointment last year as coaching director with the South Dublin Football League.
Before that, the league’s traditional format for kids’ football had involved U7s, 8s and 9s playing competitive 7 v 7 games, complete with league tables and promotion/ relegation structures, on pitches and with goals which Devine judged to be too big for small players.
His new approach does away with all that — and referees too, Stephen Kenny might be interested to know! — in favour of a 3 v 3 format which emphasises the fun aspect of playing football while seeking to hone skills and develop creativity free from the crippling fear of making mistakes.
There’s an admirable ethical dimension too, with Devine’s programme designed to encourage personal and collective responsibility, the better to combat violence and racism and promote social integration in general.
Devine is particularly strong on seeking to eliminate the pressure some parents and misguided coaches apply to fragile young minds which is why, with tongue only very slightly in cheek, I would suggest ‘Get Rid Of It!’ as a nice catch-all title for his innovative programme.
The mini-football format, which has been enthusiastically embraced by the SDFL, has obvious benefits in terms of developing technical skills — one particularly striking stat is that a child playing in this programme will, says Devine, "get 70% more opportunities to touch the ball and solve problems."
While there is everything to applaud in the concept, it would be wrong to assume there aren’t already plenty of enlightened coaches (and, indeed, parents) around the country who are doing their best to develop a love of the ball and promote healthy self-expression in our youngest footballers.
The FAI, to their credit, have undertaken a lot of sterling work in this regard too and also in promoting the wider benefits of football in the community. Still, in the context of an ‘Irish football family’ which can too often behave in an entirely familial way — y’know, squabbling and sulking — it was good to hear Ruud Dokter say this week he would be only too willing to talk to Devine in the context of the FAI high performance director’s task of creating a new technical plan for the underage game. But, while he supports the concept of small-sided games for the littlest ‘uns, the Dutchman also has fresh ideas about how best to identify and develop our more promising older players via the FAI’s existing Emerging Talent Programme.
"That’s the pathway for the talented players," he said. "It now runs from the age of 14 to 17 in the league centres, and from 12 to 14 in the regional centres. I’m probably looking to lower the age because it gives you more time to work with the talented players. Fourteen might be too late. I’m looking at 10, 11."
Coincidentally, it is a point echoed in the latest issue of the magazine FourFourTwo. In a fascinating article entitled ‘Where Have All The Street Footballers Gone?’, Dokter’s fellow Dutchman Co Adriaanse — the Feyenoord U17 coach who helped mentor a young Robin van Persie — observes: "Sometimes you see top-level players who either didn’t play that much on the streets, or didn’t get an academy education, and there you really see the difference in ball control, general skills and technique with both feet."
Over at Ajax, former Nottingham Forest man Bryan Roy, now busy imparting his wisdom to the club’s young wingers and strikers, goes even further.
"You learn every basic skill intuitively by playing on the street," he says. "Without them, it’s impossible to be a professional."
Which makes perfect sense — even the least talented of us at football will recall having to develop something vaguely resembling a decent touch if we ever hoped to control a ball bouncing up hard and high off an unforgiving surface like concrete or tarmac.
The conventional wisdom has it that football has a tough job fighting for the attention of young minds these days when there are so many competing attractions available at the touch of a button. But I only have to look out at the cul-de-sac in front of my own house to see that ye olde business of ‘jumpers for goalposts’ still commands excited involvement.
Indeed, merging the ethos of the street with organised football and formal coaching might well be the key to all this. Certainly, Feyenoord’s Adriannse is singing from the same hymn sheet as Devine, Dokter, Dunphy and Giles, when he says: "Cherish the fun the kids have playing football because that’s where it all starts. Robin van Persie is the living example as that." Anyone for three-and-in?