PlayStations, personal stereos, third-level education and traffic — John Giles’ big four inhibitors of sporting talent. The chief obstacles and distractions standing in the way of the street footballer. Responsible for the underperformance of some European nation at every major tournament since around 1998.
As Gilesy’s contemporary Johan Cruyff once put it: “I trained about three to four hours a week at Ajax when I was little. But I played three to four hours every day on the street. So where do you think I learned to play football?”
But with the battles against gaming, streaming, education and motorised transport slipping away from us, is it time to identify a fresh target? Do we simply blame the parents? Must we carry this can too?
Meath GAA club Navan O’Mahonys made the news this week for imposing a sideline ban on mobile phones at underage training, beginning at ‘nursery’ level.
The club wants parents to “put their phones away for one hour” and watch their child learn a new skill and play, to “live in the moment with their children”.
In one sense, they were fighting Gilesy’s battle: “It’s just about trying to encourage them and keep them interested in doing something that isn’t sitting at home on a PlayStation or an Xbox.”
But it was an unusual request since it seems most sports clubs would happily accept a subdued touchline of mams and dads prodding WhatsApp and swiping Instagram. Because more and more parents are all too present at underage sporting events, the problem being they are living in their child’s future. Micromanaging the development of the eventual captain of Manchester United, Cork, or Munster.
“Parents are a curious breed,” wrote Mike Quirke in his Irish Examiner column recently.
"It’s like they’re playing a PlayStation game and trying to control the people on the screen by frantically pressing buttons and steering everybody into the best positions.”
Mike admitted he even picked up the controls once or twice before checking himself. And the column clearly struck a chord, becoming one of the most read on the Examiner website.
It was notable how many GAA clubs posted it on Twitter or Facebook, perhaps with one or two of their own crowd in mind.
One coach tweeted: “Currently thinking how to post this on the U10 WhatsApp group I coach without causing offence. Because the parents are great to bring ‘em here, there and everywhere. But it’s now at a stage where the noise behind me at a game is unbearable.”
And the U12s coach at Dublin soccer club Donnybrook FC emailed the sports desk to say: “Finally, someone has spoken up about PlayStation parenting and the fact that it has become such a problem at children’s matches. We’ve seen kids actually stay away from nearing the sideline due to the daunting prospect of approaching adults who are shouting.”
Perhaps Mike already knows greater peace — last month, Kerry GAA introduced the increasingly popular ‘silent sideline’ initiative at U12 games, with just one designated coach from each team allowed to issue instructions to players.
The silentsideline.org website explains why this is important: “Children make two conscious decisions per second. Sideline information prevents children from making a quick decision or deciding on one. We now know that when adults scream from the sidelines they’re not just invading the children’s play time, they’re preventing children from learning the game in a natural manner.”
In America, they are convinced this interference, which they call ‘joysticking’, has cost them generations of footballers.
Coach Keith Whitmer says on stack.com: “American soccer players are no less athletic than their European and South American counterparts, but they often lack the requisite soccer IQ. This issue can be traced back to the American youth soccer experience. At the youth levels, coaching teeters on diabolical, as coaches are often telling players what to do and how to do it at all times. Joysticking is a byproduct of the win-now mentality that’s become extremely prevalent in youth soccer. We live in a world of instant gratification. Parents and coaches want their kids to win every single game that they’re involved in.”
Former USA striker Eric Wynalda reckons that even Messi, had he been born in the States, would have been “totally screwed up”.
Both the FAI and IRFU have issued guidelines on sideline behaviour as part of their player development plans. But that Donnybrook U12 coach, Craig McDonnell, says not everyone is listening.
“It has gotten to a point where we must contact teams before they travel to our home ground to play us, informing them that they must abide by the initiatives set out by the FAI and the DDSL (Dublin and District Schoolboys League).
“At a lot of clubs, however, with a win at all costs attitude, they are simply uninterested.
There is a large sign at Donnybrook’s Herbert Park pitch which reads ‘Just let the kids play’.
The 25-foot sign beside the pitches at Ajax’s academy, where generations of footballers learn the principles of Johan Cruyff, simply reads ‘Silence’. Parents are encouraged to watch training and matches but must remain quiet.
The latest crop of graduates showed their talent in the Champions League semi-final at Tottenham on Tuesday. Then, in the second half, the ‘soccer IQ’ to manage a game that was turning against them.
Like Ajax’s magnificent captain Matthijs de Ligt, Donnybrook coach Craig McDonnell is just 19, but is already acquainted with wisdom.
He isn’t trying to build the next superstar, just allow kids to “have fun, run around, and express themselves, like they would in the park with their friends”.
He has already grasped the central irony in lamenting the demise of the street footballer, while denying young players the conditions of the street by controlling them on our own PlayStations.