The England manager tells Lisa Salmon he’s amazed at the improvement in children’s football skills and the game’s future is “hugely exciting”.
Gareth Southgate is excited about the future. And that’s not just because he’s the manager of a great England team, but because the nation’s children are taking football skills to “another level”.
After watching boys and girls aged between five and 11 display their footballing talent at free coaching sessions, the England football manager and former player said: “I’m amazed, really, at what that age group looks like compared to 10 years ago, or certainly when I was that age. The emphasis on skill development and enjoyment is so much higher, and their ability with the ball is another level to what it used to be.
“I think the game and kids’ development in this country has changed enormously over the last five or 10 years, and we’re starting to see that at the senior ages, but over the next 10 to 15 years it’s going to be hugely exciting.”
Southgate, who steered the senior England team to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018, for the first time in 28 years, was clearly delighted with the skills he saw on display at a McDonald’s Fun Football session (mcdonalds.co.uk/funfootball). The free sessions, organised by McDonald’s and the four UK Football Associations, are offering thousands of children throughout the country aged between five and 11 the chance to play football and develop their skills under the watchful eye of experienced youth coaches. The sessions start from this month.
And, for a few minutes only, a beaming Southgate took the coaching reins himself, although he modestly admits: “I did a tiny bit of coaching, but they’ve got really good coaches who are much better qualified to take that age group, they’re very experienced at doing what they do. They knew they could do it better than I would.”
Here, father-of-two Southgate, 50, talks about kids’ football, the women’s game, coronavirus and how he’s been keeping fit during the pandemic…
Do you enjoy watching children play football?
“I get great enjoyment in watching young players develop and improve, and show themselves on the stage. It’s such a difficult and long journey to become a professional, even to be involved with a club at 15 or 16 is an incredibly tough journey, like any talent pathway, whether that’s dance or music. There’s a long journey ahead, but without good foundations at this age it’s very difficult to pick that up later.
“I think it’s amazing how youth football has changed. Investment in facilities is critical – I live in the north of England and a lot of the games are cancelled because of wet weather or frozen pitches, so we still have a challenge with facilities, but when we’ve got facilities that can be used, the skill levels of young kids are improving all the time, and ultimately that will definitely benefit England in the years to come.”
Why is football so important for children?
“We’re always looking at: can we find the next professional player? But in my mind, having taken grassroots teams myself, this is more about kids having fun and – particularly at this time we’re living through – the opportunity to play football for free. Opening up facilities for youngsters to play and be with their friends has such important physical gains but also helps mental wellbeing, which is critical.
“It’s about kids having fun – there are actually some very, very talented kids playing, girls and boys, but it’s not just about the highly talented, it’s about kids enjoying themselves and getting out – especially with the period we’ve just been through. To be able to come to a safe environment and play with friends and other kids is so important. It’s nice to get outside and see them with smiles on their faces – generally speaking, you’ve got to drag them off the pitch before they get fed-up or bored.”
There were plenty of girls playing at the session you attended – what do you think about the growth of the women’s game?
“Girls and women’s football has grown enormously over the last few years, I think in the main due to the success of the Lionesses, which has inspired girls to play. But equally I think it’s seen as being more acceptable now.
“I’ve got a daughter, and know girls’ sport has always been difficult and underfunded, but now there’s a real change in that dynamic and football has become the sport of choice for a lot of girls – they love playing, and they’re able to go and do it with great freedom now.
“Attendances have increased, and the international games have definitely drawn really big audiences, which would have been unheard of a few years ago. I think it’s going to take time, like anything, but those steps and the investment have happened, so it’s just a case of continuing to grow that, really.”
How has coronavirus affected children’s football?
“There are definitely some restrictions and things that as coaches you have to be aware of – we were the same working with the senior team last week. Of course, generally speaking, youngsters aren’t going to be affected as directly by the virus as older people, but still we know the consequences if they catch it and pass it on to their families. So there’s a huge emphasis on safety, and similar to schools, there are guidelines in place for coaches.
“We know through research that’s been done in the professional game as well, that short periods of time when they’re playing and coming into contact is extremely low risk. So it’s more the socialising – quite a lot in football there’d be high fives and handshakes and those sorts of things, and now it’s elbow bumps and fist pumps – it’s just making sure you’re sensible.”
How have you kept fit during the pandemic?
“I’ve always been conscious of keeping fit, but mentally I find it’s really important to be able to go and switch off. I run, and I’ve been using exercise apps on the phone, and also just before lockdown we invested in a static bike, so I mix it up because my joints won’t take the pounding running every day. I can do most of the distance I used to be able to do, but not as quickly.
“I find it very important – I know I get a bit grouchy if I’ve not exercised for a few days, and it helps to keep my mind clear as well.”
How important are footballing role models to children?
“I think it’s part of the role of a coach, like any teacher and any parent really. If you’re coaching young children, they’re going to look up to you – you might be the most important person in their life, everybody’s home situation is different. That’s a crucial role that coaches play, particularly in grassroots football and with young players. It’s a position of quite a lot of responsibility, no matter what level of player you’re taking.”
Who were your role models as a youngster?
“When I was growing up my parents were my role models, and definitely the coaches I worked with, some of whom I’m still in touch with today. It was an important stage in my life, particularly when I was a teenager – you form bonds and maybe look outside the family for mentoring or guidance, and I’ve maintained those relationships right through my life.
“The coaches that are there and show a belief in you and have also lived through the difficulties with you when you’re trying to make your way as a player, through all the ups and downs that journey involves, you know they’re there caring for you and also pushing you at the right time. It’s a strong bond that you have as a young player with your youth coaches, definitely.”
Gareth Southgate was relaunching McDonald’s Fun Football programme. Find your nearest Fun Football Centre and sign up for a session at http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk/funfootball