Tony McCool has worked in all aspects of football over two decades. He was one of the pioneers in performance analysis software, coached at Luton Town’s consistently productive academy before moving to Queens Park Rangers, and scouted first-team opposition for MK Dons. Now, in addition to youth development work for Norwich City, he supervises in-school activities programmes.
His concern is authentic, vivid. It requires courage to express it in such terms, because the majority of those in youth development prefer to provide private confirmation of the troubling trickle-down effect of the cynicism and brutality of first team football, rather than raise their heads above the parapet. Careers can be undermined by candour. Power is a potential pollutant at whatever level it is administered.
“Honestly, the stuff I’ve seen in academies. Coaches can be vile with the kids, because they think they’ve got to kiss someone’s arse. I’ve sat in meetings with them, when they discuss the development of the five Cs in a player – confidence, commitment, control, concentration, communication.
“They’ve got their head down like the school swot, writing furiously in their notebook. They walk down the stairs, and nobody’s around now. They see a player and they’re like, ‘Oi, what are you doing? That’s rubbish.’ I said to this one guy “you should read what you just wrote down. The way you are talking to that child is horrendous.’”
His voice breaks, in a mixture of incredulity, sadness and contempt. McCool is at pains to stress his respect for the vast majority of his peers yet, emotionally, the dam has burst. Bad experiences manifest themselves, like muggers emerging from a heavily-shadowed alleyway. Another episode, on a tour to Belgium, looms large.
“It made me think ‘what the fuck am I doing? I don’t want to be part of this.’ It was heart-breaking.
There was a lad, coming up to 16, a left-back. It had been deemed that he wasn’t going to be signed as a scholar, but I go into these things thinking that every day is a new day and that he might do something that will change their minds.
“We’d spent weeks and weeks and weeks with the club philosophy of playing out from the back. This lad receives the ball from the goalkeeper about five minutes into the game, chops inside, and looks to play a diagonal pass into centre-midfield. We’re playing a Dutch team, who close down, press. They work hard and they’re psychologically powerful, physically strong.
“They can read the game. They’ve shown him inside, shut the line off because they’re very clever off the ball. Our lad is doing what he been told to do. He’s played the ball inside, but they’ve doubled up on it knowing where the pass is going. They’ve robbed it, got a counter-attack, and nearly score. The lad is berated from the sideline. Not that the kid hasn’t heard swearing before at school, but pitchside, from the dugout, really?
“Then, out of temper, a coach screams ‘Get off the pitch. Get off the pitch! Get off my pitch!’ I feel emotional now because the face of that child is right in the forefront of my mind. He has been demolished. There was no acknowledgement, no handshake. You could see that he wanted to cry and he didn’t want to show it.
“He made a mistake, but he did what we taught him, so actually we’re at fault, not the kid. He walked off down to the corner flag and I couldn’t leave him. He couldn’t speak to me. He had tears rolling down his face, and I just thought, ‘what the fuck have we become?’ To be treating so called elite talent, a maturing young man, in that way …”
England, our England. The pretence of the Premier League’s youth development strategy, in which players are defined by so-called performance clocks and coaches are turned into clerks by an obsessional desire to harvest self-justifying data, cannot hide the ignorance and intolerance it is supposed to have eradicated. Here is McCool’s experience of another European tournament: “We played Feyenoord, who were coached by Roy Makaay, the great Dutch forward. I think about what he achieved in Spain, and with Bayern Munich, and I am in awe of him. I’m privileged to be standing in the next dugout to him. The biggest thing for me was his behaviour. I never heard one angry word out of him. Not one word.
“Our dugout is carrying on like a typical English pub football team. Quite frankly, we’re playing like one. This guy occasionally goes to the edge of the technical area, calls a kid over, and speaks quietly to him along the lines of ‘when you get the ball in that situation, maybe have a look there, or there. Do you think you could maybe move there?’ All very controlled.
“Our dugout is pumped up, like a drunken crowd at a greyhound track when the dogs come round the final bend. We’re in an elite football environment, shouting and screaming. Do we value knowledge? I see people I want to learn from, people who have pearls of information, let go by clubs because they are seen as a threat to someone who wants all his mates around him. Why do we do that?”