Football Association of Wales review aims to change grassroots game

By Gareth VincentBBC Sport Wales
'Children should feel coaches are there to support and guide them'

The Football Association of Wales' technical director has not forgotten the time spent shivering on the wing during his junior football days.

"I was not seeing the ball for 10 or 15 minutes," David Adams says.

"Is that an appropriate way to develop players? Obviously not."

Children's football in Wales has moved on since Adams, now 40, began playing the game.

But there is still progress to be made, hence a two-year review into mini-football conducted by the FAW Trust, the development arm of the national association.

The hope is their findings - and the actions taken as a result - will bring numerous benefits, including more game-time for youngsters, more touches, more goals and greater enjoyment, as well as better behaviour among those watching on.

On top of all that, there is a belief Wales' new approach to small-sided football will eventually lead to the emergence of more technically adept players at the top end of the sport.

Former winger David Adams played semi-professional football in what is now the Cymru Premier
Former winger David Adams played semi-professional football in what is now the Cymru Premier

"The grassroots game is designed for enjoyment and open access to all players - boys and girls," Adams tells BBC Sport Wales.

"We know full well it's the first landing spot for all players. Therefore it's a very important part of our player pathway because that's where you first recognise those players who are talented and who are then put into more appropriate programmes for their development.

"If we can increase the number of players at the very base of our pyramid, hopefully that provides a stronger national team in the future. It's hugely important we get it right."

A key change following the FAW review surrounds the number of players on the pitch.

As of next season, under-12s will play nine v nine games rather than 11 v 11, and in 2022-23 under-13 matches will also switch to nine v nine.

Under-sevens and under-eights will play four v four games, then there will be two years of five v five and two years of seven v seven before they step up to nine v nine.

"The review was for players all the way through mini-football, from aged six to when they transition to 11 v 11 football," Adams explains.

"We have looked across a variety of associations and clubs across Europe, at the different ways people do these changes.

"It was only us and Moldova that still played 11 v 11 at under-12s. Across 53 member associations, we were the last two to change that rule.

"I think it takes away that physical barrier. We know the bigger, stronger players at that age will naturally find the 11 v 11 game easier than the smaller, maybe technical players."

David Adams worked alongside Alan Curtis when he had a spell in charge at Swansea City in the 2015-16 Premier League season
David Adams (left) worked alongside Alan Curtis (centre) when he had a spell in charge at Swansea City in the 2015-16 Premier League season

The FAW have used GPS data gathered through technology in youngsters' boots to come up with their new plan.

"It didn't just look at the physical side of it - it looked at ensuring the players' technical development was the priority for us as an association," Adams adds.

As a result pitch sizes will be altered, as will the size of goals.

The FAW believe the changes will make football more appealing to youngsters and, they hope, cut the "huge decline" in players as they progress from mini-football to the 11 v 11 game.

Between the ages of 11 and 13, the number of registered players in Wales drops by around 4,000 a year.

"There's a variety of reasons. It could be not just football reasons - different friendship groups, moving from junior to secondary school," says Adams, a former coach at Swansea City, Everton and Middlesbrough who succeeded Osian Roberts as the FAW Trust technical director in 2019.

"But we feel the nine v nine version of the game will make it less competitive, more enjoyable and will see more players play.

"That will help the players who are late developers and who might have dropped out."

The FAW review covered what happens on the sidelines as well as the pitch.

David Adams believes Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola sets a good example for others on the touchline
David Adams believes Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola sets a good example for others on the touchline

"One of the biggest drivers is trying to make sure coaches act and behave in the appropriate way," Adams says.

"We see in first-team football if the manager is constantly shouting and berating the fourth official, players' discipline on the pitch is affected.

"Pep Guardiola is calm and relaxed - there's a reason why his players don't get cards. The behaviour transcends to the players.

"You see it in grassroots football. The coach starts shouting at the referee and then the players do the same thing.

"The pressure is completely different from grassroots football - there is no pressure. The children should feel you are there to help and guide them and give them positive feedback."

The FAW review has prompted a smoking ban at mini-football games, while there will be buffer zones around pitches to stop encroachment by spectators.

"You are stood on the side and you get involved and before you know it you are on the pitch and playing full-back," Adams says.

"But it's not appropriate for a manager or parent to be on the pitch when the players are playing."

Another aspect of the review surrounds game-time, with the FAW tracking how many players - and how many teams - there are at each club in an attempt to ensure all children get the same number of minutes on the pitch.

"I realise it is complex because sometimes you haven't got enough volunteers to run enough teams," Adams says.

"But fundamentally grassroots football is not about winning games, so players should be getting equal game-time. They all come training, they all want to be part of a team.

"It's all part of trying to make sure the experience for young players is right."