Calls for increase in nine-a-side "stepping stone"

Club Website 9v9 poll resultThe step up from small-sided football to the 11-a-side game is too great for children to make, according to three quarters of the grassroots football community.

A recent Club Website poll found that 74 percent of almost 5,000 people surveyed think that nine-a-side football played on an intermediate-sized pitch should be used as a stepping stone from mini-soccer to the 11-a-side game.

Small-sided football is widely accepted as the best way for children to learn the game.  A small pitch and fewer players on each side allow more touches of the ball and a greater chance for kids to develop their technique.

A transition to the full 11-a-side game needs to be made at some point but when this change should be made is always a subject of debate in the wider football community.

Mini-soccer is recognised as the only form of football up to the under 10s age group in England, whilst in Wales and Scotland this form of the game continues until under 11s. Clubs in Scotland can also opt to carry on with the smaller version of the game for another year, should they wish to do so.

Regardless of whether the change is made at 10 or 12, it involves a dramatic leap for any child to make. One season you are playing football on a small pitch and with sensibly proportioned goals and then, just one summer later, you're playing on a full size pitch in goals where most goalkeepers would fail to reach the crossbar.

This is a huge leap for any young footballer, particularly those that develop physically later than their peers. The sight of two strapping lads at centre back lumping balls up front to another big lad is fairly common in 11-a-side football at younger age groups - and who can blame managers for wanting to take advantage of the difference in size and strength that occurs at this age?

All young players will play 11-a-side eventually - this is the natural end-game of their football development. The question, however, is not where they end up but how they get there.

How can we best manage their development to create better players and, perhaps more importantly, how do we manage the expectations of the coaches and parents who have grown up playing 11-a-side and feel that kids today should follow in their footsteps as early as possible.  After all, it never did them any harm, did it?

The FA logoAccording to Nick Levett, the FA's National Development Manager for Youth and Mini-Soccer, it's about "changing the mindset" of those adults that resist such a change and saying to them "look, this is better for kids and if it's better for kids then we have to consider it."

Speaking at Grass Roots Football LIVE at the NEC earlier this month, Levett expressed a belief that the FA will "end up going" to a structure where nine-versus-nine football is used as a stepping stone but that such a change "will take time".

A lack of 9-a-side pitches is seen by many as a hurdle in developing this form of the game but, if there's no room to build these alongside existing mini-soccer and 11-a-side pitches, then why not just play across half an 11-a-side pitch?

The pitches are already there, it doesn't take a lot to mark out a penalty box in different coloured lines and portable goals are getting cheaper each season, plus people like the Football Foundation can help out with grants for that sort of thing.

Despite the numerous hurdles, nine-a-side football is certainly on the increase - a number of leagues in England have taken up this option in the last season or two - and indications are that perceptions on the game are changing.

In October 2008, 56 percent of respondents to a Club Website poll said they would prefer to see under 11s take the step up to 11-a-side football rather than stick with mini-soccer, if they were the only options on the table.

Now, just two years on, and with the nine-a-side game growing - albeit slowly - it appears that the nine-a-side stepping stone could be just the answer that many people are looking for.

Have your say!

What do you think about the results of our latest poll?  Do you think '9 v 9' should be rolled out more widely across the country? Get your thoughts off your chest in our comments section below.

Club Website poll result:

Should 9-a-side football (played on an intermediate size pitch) be used as a stepping stone from small-sided football to the 11-a-side game?

- Yes  73.72%
- No  26.27%

Total votes cast: 4,616

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