Fun is the key to England's football future
I heard a great quote about football last week: "A coach's moral obligation is to play beautifully whatever the opposition does."
According to the Football Association's coaching education manager, Steve Rutter, Guus Hiddink said that, and even if he didn't, it's the kind of thing we would want a citizen-of-the-world, footie philosopher like the Dutchman to say because we want it to be true. And not just of his teams.
But wanting something to be true is usually a response to knowing that it isn't. How many coaches in this country can honestly say they are going for Guus's Grail as opposed to securing three more points?
If the football I experience most weekends is any guide, not many.
Thankfully, the FA has noticed. It may have its well-documented failings as a vote-winner, financial regulator and property developer, but it has finally identified English football's most fundamental problem: a serious shortage of smiles.
England's 2010 World Cup dreams ended in tatters at the hands of arch rivals Germany. Photo: Getty
The misery of England's World Cup campaign in South Africa (and so many other campaigns before) was the culmination of an often joy-free learning pathway for our overplayed but underprepared players.
What starts with the well-meaning but misguided urgings of a competitive dad, continues with prehistoric coaching methods at their first club. By the time a youngster moves into "adult football" at 11, the essential truth of British football is hardwired: it's the winning that matters, not the learning.
While youngsters in other nations are working on their weaker foot, trying (and failing) audacious tricks and playing different positions, our youngsters are pumping the ball forward to the biggest kid on the team.
What's the problem? The under-nines haven't lost for a year.
But fast forward 10 years and many in the team will have drifted out of the game, bored and disillusioned, and the big kid will be struggling to keep his place in a pro academy. He'll have a drawer full of cheap trophies but a terrible first touch.
This is why England's finest (and Northern Ireland's, Scotland's and Wales') are lauded for their courage, determination and effort, but derided for their control, passing and tactical inflexibility. Time and time again the best British players are found out to be honest workers when what is required are skilled technicians.
It was with this in mind that I joined 600 coaches at Wembley last Thursday for the launch of the FA's new grassroots coaching manual, "The Future Game".
You could argue anything that requires a manual - particularly one that weighs as much as a phone directory - cannot be much fun but if we are looking for the Promised Land we should probably bring a guidebook.
Full of illustrated drills, best practice on running a club and the latest thinking on topics such as injury prevention and sports psychology, "The Future Game" is an encyclopedia of good intentions.
But the manual itself isn't really the point. Just as most reference books end up as decoration, the FA's tome is bound to be more admired than read. It's real worth, however, is in the thought processes it represents and in that regard the journey is more important than the destination.
For a start, this book is a more accessible version of the edition that was published in April. That book was pitched at the country's top 1,000 or so coaches - it was more of a mission statement from Sir Trevor Brooking's football development team at the FA than something AFC Kebab might use for their kickabouts.
But there is a connection. In amongst all the verbiage about four-cornered learning and the merits of guided discovery, you get the sense we finally have a plan: get as many kids playing as possible, teach them the basics (properly), allow them to develop those skills in a relaxed environment, introduce competition gradually and give the England manager the biggest possible pool of fit-for-purpose footballers.
Barcelona don't play beautiful football because they work on it in practice (although they do that too), they play beautiful football because Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and friends learned how to trap a ball and pass it when they were six and were then given the next 10 years to nurture that skill without being screamed at to "Get rid!".
So while the FA is keen to promote its glossy guide (available from the FA Learning site for £30), it is also eager to draw attention to the 7,588 people who became newly qualified coaches in the three months between September and November. That's not to mention the 1,500 or so who gained more advanced coaching qualifications in that period.
I think this progress - and we are only a month or two away from reaching 250,000 qualified football coaches in England - is something the FA can be proud of.
Once the book launch was out of the way, the rest of the day at Wembley was taken up by presentations from senior FA coaches and Q&A sessions with big-name managers, among the latter was Sam Allardyce: he definitely did not see this week's events coming.
To be fair to Big Sam, his talk was engaging and informative. I was pleasantly surprised and it is easy to see why he is so well regarded by many of his peers - he cares about player and coach development and is open to new ideas.
I wish I could say Fabio Capello's session was as interesting but I'll be polite and say much was lost in translation. I don't doubt for one minute that English football could learn much from his experiences in the game but, for whatever reason, it's just not happening.
By far the most interesting speaker, however, was England U17 coach John Peacock. OK, he had a great tale to tell - the story of how the Three Lions won their first age-group title earlier this year since the European U18 victory in 1993 - but it was fascinating to hear the new philosophy spelled out so coherently and then demonstrated with clips of Barca-style "passing through the thirds"...from an England team!
It was beautiful to watch and still fresh in the mind when I went along to the child protection module of my Level One coaching course that evening in Walthamstow. There were 14 of us there that night, on hard plastic chairs in a chilly sports hall bar. But we were hearing exactly the same philosophy as outlined by Allardyce, Brooking and Capello at Wembley that afternoon. Teach them well, keep them safe and keep it fun.
We should, barring serious stage fright, pass our assessments this weekend. Most of us will go no further up the ladder. But it's a start and the future of our game depends on it.
ps Touch wood, I will blog next week about how I became a football coach. If you are interested in joining the tracksuited ranks too, you could do worse than starting at the FA's coach and referee recruitment site.
pps Monday, 20 December: Follow-up blog cancelled due to...erm, seasonal weather. We will try again in the new year, by which time I will be Uefa Pro Licence standard at organising a 20-minute session of "target".