Guest blog / Blognod gwadd: The Welsh Way
You might not have heard but Wales recently qualified for a major tournament. It has prompted talk of a ‘Golden Generation’ but, as Wales fan and “former qualified non-practising coach” Shôn Lewis argues, this overshadows the grassroots coaching revolution and the firm foundations that are now in place to hopefully sustain continued success.
“Who are we?”
“Where are we going?”
Two questions that are often forefront in the minds of most footballing organisations. They all at some point ask themselves those same core questions as they search for that element which will define them both to themselves and in the eyes of others…their identity. Defining a method and style of play to strive for will enable the creation of a player development pathway that will be capable of (in time) providing a nation with players that possess the skill and talent necessary to execute their chosen methodology on the field of play. Finding the answer therefore is vital, as it provides a formula that can be a springboard for sustained success along with providing a safe, solid foundation where a team can always return to and rebuild from if fate deems it necessary, a go-to point in times of trouble if you will.
Most nations are still searching for that elusive answer of course and, instead of the preferred situation of knowing where they’re going therefore having the capability of dictating what each generation will provide the team (and thus having a modicum of control over their own future), many nations’ fortunes will often rise and fall with each passing generation as they allow the skillset/ability of that current generation to dictate their methodology, style and ethos.
Those who have found the answer however, have also (mostly) found sustained success, or rather, have had the capability to have a sustained attempt at success. Some of course have seemingly always been aware of their own identity, from Brazil and their free-flowing samba style to Germany and their efficient, almost machine-like brand of playing, Italy’s catenaccio and the Dutch’s totaalvoetbal. Whilst all have tasted both success and failure to varying degrees over the decades, the style of each new generation has always generally circulated in and around that team/nation’s core identity and has for many decades dictated the type of player that particular nation generally produces. However, changing the football direction of a nation is no mean feat that’s often been compared to the turning around of an oil tanker. It takes time…a lot of time!
During the closing stages of World Cup 2014 qualification it was no surprise to see the British press pore over the work of Belgian Michel Sablon and, following the Euro 2016 qualification process, wax lyrical over Sigurður Ragnar and the Icelandic FA’s (KSI) work. Both men helped oversee radical and substantial changes to their respective nations’ youth development structures over the past decade which have resulted in recent spectacular successes as they assisted their respective nations in finding their footballing identities.
As the technical director for Belgian football, Sablon introduced sweeping changes to the Belgian game designed to take them from a team known for its counter-attacking culture into one known for its players’ skill, team-play and fluidity going forward. He introduced such policies as a blanket ban on all formations bar 4-3-3 throughout the youth levels to protestations from Belgian coaches and accusations that he “was crazy” and had “lost it”. Slowly over time the changes (which included a more scientific approach towards coaching and increased time spent on coaching individual players along with an emphasis on the dribble, or 1v1) began to pay off as Sablon took to the road to preach his new philosophy via hundreds of seminars throughout the country. Today they currently sit second in the FIFA rankings with a fairly youthful team and are accepted as one of the strongest nations in world football and an excellent youth structure.
Sigurður Ragnar is the former Technical Director of the KSI, who back in 2002 oversaw major changes to the Icelandic game. With an emphasis on coaching he introduced a new learning pathway to coincide with the hundreds of mini pitches, community indoor halls and artificial pitches built around the country by the KSI using municipal funding to ensure everyone within the relevant communities would benefit. These changes saw a nation with a population of 329,000 qualify for a major finals. There isn’t an expectation for Iceland to now go on to dominate the world of course, however their journey is rightly regarded as the definitive proof that ‘size doesn’t matter’, a blueprint if you will of how to ‘do it right’ in the modern game and how to achieve sustainability…a vital component on the road to answering that second question of “where are we going?”
Whilst Belgium’s philosophy centred around 1v1, and the importance of being comfortable on the ball from an early age. Iceland’s centred on inclusiveness and ensuring Icelandic children became involved from an early age, staying involved through to their early teens. Both however, primarily targeted one area first…improving the quality levels of coaching in an attempt to ensure that the potential rise in player quality was permanent. Both nations will proudly walk out onto the French turf at the 2016 European Championships, a testament to all the hard work done over the preceding generation and the promise of a brighter, more consistently competitive future.
However, whisper it quietly…a silent revolution has also been happening on your very doorstep! It’s had nary a mention in the national press, however there is in fact a third nation appearing at Euro 2016 whose developmental pathway mirrors almost beat for beat those of the aforementioned two nations. It too has seen an equally spectacular rise from ignominy to the bright lights of France in little more than a generation…Wales.
Back in the mid-1990’s the powers that be in the FAW seemed to be asking themselves the very same questions “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”
…the answers weren’t pretty…
“no-one” and “oblivion”
Looking back over the years Wales has punched above its weight talent-wise (and often results-wise). However the harsh truth was that the land that gave football such players as Meredith, Ford, the Charles’, Allchurch, Kelsey, Toshack, Yorath, Flynn, Ratcliffe, Rush, Southall, Hughes, Saunders…that lad that was allergic to friendlies…Speed, Bellamy etc just couldn’t bloody qualify!
By 1995 Wales was a stagnant footballing nation, lurching from one failed campaign to the next, riding on the coat-tails of its neighbours and feeding off the scraps. The 80’s bubble had burst and their best players in a generation were reaching pensionable age having narrowly failed in their latest (and arguably last) attempt at qualification. No glut of new players of note were coming through, Wales had only had a national league of its own for 3 years and relied completely on the English pyramid system to provide all of its international players. The country had no real development philosophy of its own to speak of and was staring down the barrel of the imminent Bosman ruling, set to flood the British (English) game with foreign players. Getting a future Rush, Southall or Hughes coming through to international level had mostly amounted to sheer blind luck up to then and was about to become even harder. In perfect Welsh style, the pundits generally accepted it, cue the bi-annual qualification Welsh pundit lament:
“You have to remember that we’re only a small nation, we can’t compete with the bigger countries who have much larger resources…we’ll always need that element of luck to qualify”.
Source: 99% of Welsh media pundits circa 1980-2014
It felt as though Wales wasn’t capable of putting in consistent displays, there was never any progression, it was as though each positive result against a big nation was a one-off upper cut to the established footballing order before falling away again by the very next match. Now more than ever, Wales didn’t have the resources to mount a sustained challenge for qualification, and the fans would seemingly have to be content with a famous win here and a plucky performance there…it wasn’t meant to be, it just wasn’t enough!
Change was needed.
The Dragon’s Rise
It came in the form of the Football Association of Wales Trust. Created by the FAW in 1996 and entrusted with the development of grassroots football in Wales, their aim was to increase the participation rates amongst Welsh kids and address the major problem of player retention, effectively turning Welsh football from a reactive into a proactive force. Many kids in Wales were lost to the game by the time they’d reached their early teens (an age identified as crucial in player development when late developers usually find their height, balance, power etc in the form of a rapid growth spurt) for varying reasons. Whilst of course there’s never a guarantee that those retained within the game will develop any further by the time they reached their 13th year, many potential late developers (i.e. potentially great players) weren’t being retained by their local clubs into their teenage years and were destined to be lost forever.
Fact finding missions to some of Europe’s elite clubs/National Training Centres helped to inspire new teaching techniques which borrowed the best aspects from the best footballing structures on the planet to create a new way of teaching kids. Early on, mini-pitches were introduced at grassroots level to increase a player’s number of touches on/familiarity with/confidence on the ball, and also increase a child’s awareness on the pitch, to learn to play with their heads up and use the spaces available to them more effectively and intelligently.
A new coaching pathway was created to train the new generation of Welsh coaches that would be responsible for implementing these changes at grassroots levels throughout Wales which became the More Coaches, Better Coaches campaign. By the early 2000’s the FAW Trust’s Football Development Officers regularly held sessions throughout Wales to spread the word about this new way of coaching.
On the pitch during this time, Mark Hughes’ stint in charge of the national side gave football in Wales a timely and exciting, if all too brief, shot in the arm as the ‘A’ side’s newly found organisation seemingly swept away all that opposed them in the early days of qualification for Euro 2004. Expectation soon changed back to exasperation as injuries to the ageing paper-thin squad and a one-dimensional style of play ultimately proved fatal to Wales’ qualifying aspirations and they once again fell into transition. However with the benefit of hindsight some early indicators of positive change were seemingly beginning to manifest themselves even during Hughes’ era. Players like David Vaughan and Matthew Jones appeared in the latter half of his reign, promising young talent that seemed to play in a slightly different style from what had come before, more comfortable on the ball in tight areas, able to pick an accurate pass and not afraid of taking players on. How beneficial/negligible the FAW Trust’s changes were to these players’ careers (already in their teens during the mid-1990’s) are of course debatable, however their playing styles were certainly prophetic of what was to follow over the next decade.
As the years rolled on through the 00’s into the Toshack era, the Coach Education structure and Player Pathways were further honed, tweaked and fleshed out as an emphasis was placed on having fun during the early years of a player’s development in an attempt to ensure participation/retention rates continued to rise. The numeric limitations on age-grade players filtered upwards through the Player Pathway (U7’s:4v4, U8’s:5v5, U9’s:6v6 etc). The organising of competitions with winners/losers was outlawed up to the ages of 12 in order to remove the pressures of winning on players and coaches (and by proxy remove the temptation for coaches to only retain/play the strong and drop the weak) and ensuring the whole squad had a game was encouraged. Parental pitch-side problems were also tackled with the Behind the Line campaign and an exclusion zone introduced around the field of play.
Infrastructure was also now being given increased attention with the Trust’s Better Facilities vision as they asked local authorities, local clubs and educational establishments to collaborate with them to create ‘fit for the future’ facilities to further increase participation in the game, with the message of 3G training pitches forefront in their thoughts to create 24/7 footballing facilities in Wales. Greater bonds were also being forged with Wales’ underfunded domestic Welsh Premier League clubs, now under the jurisdiction of the FAW itself, in an attempt to use/develop their Academies to cast the Trust’s development net Wales-wide and open up more opportunities for potential new players in the remoter areas.
On the elite side of things the FAW Trust’s work was given a huge helping hand as Toshack unified the Elite Player Pathways (EPP) under the guiding hand of Brian Flynn and reduced the number of coaches involved. Flynn began an exhaustive recruiting drive which unearthed new talent from further afield to supplement the potential within Welsh borders that was still in its infancy. They ensured that the entire EPP prepared the same way, were taught the same way and played the same way as Toshack’s senior side, thus ensuring that transitioning between the grades became more fluid and seamless.
For all the furious debate surrounding the value of Toshack’s tenure amongst fans, something that cannot be disputed is the fact he gave the youth their debut which undoubtedly sped up their development. He also created the mentality of the ‘common cause’ which linked the development side together and created a bridge to the ‘A’ side. He and Flynn regarded them all as one team, with players such as Ramsey and Gunter flip-flopping between playing for the development squads and the senior side, a success for one was a success for them all.
All were combined together under Flynn’s tutelage and what started as a slow drip of potential talent in 2005 with the introduction of the likes of Cotterill, Nyatanga, Ledley Duffy and Bale soon became a torrent by 2010 as the work of the newly-rebranded Welsh Football Trust’s (WFT) work really began to bear fruit with Gunter, Ramsey, Church, King, Edwards, Vokes, McDonald and Collison to name but a few appearing on the national stage as they were fast-tracked to the seniors. All had come through the Trust’s EPP, all displayed an eye for a pass and a comfort on the ball, all showed the distinct hallmark of this new footballing philosophy that was to find its name under Gary Speed…the ‘Welsh Way’.
It was beyond doubt that Wales was producing a different type of player to that which came before, players more suited to a continental style, some of whom were beginning to make their mark at club level, Gunter, Ramsey and Bale had already made big money moves into the English Premier League and over the next 5 years more were to follow with varying degrees of success. For all the individual talent on show for Wales however, barring one or two good performances/results, lasting progression at international level eluded them under Toshack.
By 2013 the WFT’s coaching licence courses were UEFA accredited and its UEFA A & Pro licences were now attracting some of the biggest names in world football to study at the FAW’s newly built Dragon Park, the likes of Gary Speed, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Roberto Martinez and David Ginola shunned the courses of more established footballing nations to come and study under the tutelage of the WFT’s Technical Director Osian Roberts.
On the pitch during this period, the senior side was bought into the 21st century under new manager Gary Speed and his staff with a more professional, technical and modern preparation for games. Osian Roberts was brought to the touchline as one of Speed’s assistants, along with periodization fitness guru Raymond Verheijen and fitness specialist Damian Roden. The new regime took 6 months to germinate, but it found its feet between September and November of 2011, where the quality of Wales’ youth became evident with displays of increasing competence and swagger.
Whilst the national side’s performances on the field took an unquestionable and understandably severe blow between 2012 and 2014 in light of the tragic loss of Gary Speed, the progress of Wales’ youngsters and the evolution of the WFT’s grassroots development continued apace, with a greater emphasis being placed on Futsal, a move to its new home at the aforementioned Dragon Park and the rollout of the Futsal coaching qualification and the creation of the Welsh national Futsal team.
Since the late 00’s the development squads have seen an ever-increasing amount of positive results and successes and, in 2015, under the guidance of Chris Coleman and Roberts the senior side finally experienced its own success in the most tangible way possible…qualification for Euro 2016.
Since October of last year many have heaped praise on Wales and the successful navigation of their Euro 2016 qualification campaign, however not many have looked beyond the summer of 2016. Indeed, in light of Wales’ relatively lofty position in the FIFA Rankings, some have declared it a false position, whilst others prefer to remark (albeit proudly) upon Wales’ current ‘Golden Generation’ of players. However, this is perhaps a slightly disingenuous tag that glosses over what’s actually been going on in Wales.
A golden generation suggests a fortuitousness, and that a nation’s lucky to have all these great players come through at the same time. However as touched upon earlier, luck is what Wales historically always relied upon to supply its players for the national side. The current Welsh squad is probably the first one that hasn’t been as a result of pure luck, but rather two decades of bloody hard work at all levels.
Work that’s continuing to evolve to this day, that’s still bearing fruit and, if anything, is accelerating. The Welsh development sides are now beginning to qualify for the Elite stages of tournaments on a fairly regular basis, the Welsh playing style is becoming ever more removed from the traditional British stereotype and more in line with that of the continental game, and Welsh youths are currently showing they’re (by a margin) the best within the UK having won the Victory Shield with aplomb two years in a row.
Potential doesn’t always bear fruit of course, and since 2000 a number of talented young Welsh players have failed to make the grade long-term. However having said this, Wales currently has more players actively playing in influential roles in the top two tiers of the English pyramid system than it’s ever had in the past, it also currently has the largest playing pool to date from within which to pick its players, almost all of whom have either been taught at grassroots level within Wales or been brought into the EPP early enough to have been exposed to the Welsh philosophy of playing. It can be suggested that rather than a golden generation, this current Welsh side is the tip of the iceberg, the first couple of generations off a constantly evolving conveyor belt of potential talent that should, for the majority, stand it in good stead for many years to come.
Welsh football has long been linked (quite rightly) with the traditional British style of play, historically at odds with the rest of the world game. The UK media is yet to pick up on the fact that a sea change of philosophy has happened within the Welsh game, it is no surprise therefore that Europe and the world at large are also unaware. A positive showing at Euro 2016 however may well grab Europe’s attention, opening up another avenue into the professional game for Welsh youth, one that’s outside of the UK. Should this happen it will only be a further shot in the arm for the development of Welsh football and ensure its destined for an extended stay at the top table.
Perhaps 20 years after Welsh coaches first pondered the future it may be time to revisit those questions…
“Who are we?”
We are Wales, we play the Welsh Way
“Where are we going?”