Former Leeds and England player tells Simon Lansley that Barcelona’s Wembley triumph could be a blessing in disguise for English football.
Barcelona’s humiliation of Manchester United in the Champions League final was the wake-up call English football needed, according to former Leeds defender Danny Mills.
The Spanish club recorded an astonishing 67% possession of the ball as they beat the recently-crowned Premier League champions 3-1 at Wembley.
And Mills, speaking at the FA’s Your Kids Your Say roadshow, believes everyone involved in the game in this country should aspire to the standard set by Pep Guardiola’s team who put ball retention above all else.
“Barcelona beating Manchester United the way they did, was possibly the best thing which could have happened for us,” he said.
“Barcelona are without doubt the best passing side on the planet. They don’t play with an out-and-out centre-forward – but they play with belief, they pass the ball and they play with lots of homegrown players.
“They won the competition with a midfielder playing at centre-half, they didn’t concede a corner, the goalkeeper kicked the ball once out of his hands, they played beautiful football. So not only are they technically the best, they are winners too – and everybody should want to emulate Barcelona.”
Mills was helping another former England defender Gareth Southgate showcase radical FA proposals for the youth game to coaches and league administrators from Yorkshire’s grassroots football community.
Southgate is now Head of Elite Development at the FA and has overseen the proposals, which entail scrapping league tables for children below secondary-school age, the introduction of five-a-side and nine-a-side football, summer football and a change in the date that determines which age-group children play in.
The changes are seen as the long-term answer to improving technique, preventing kids dropping out of the game and ultimately raising the standard of English football.
Mills said: “The fact that Barcelona played that well and won, I think everybody now wants their kid to learn to play like that.
“I played against Xavi when I was at Leeds and he was just a young lad, and he has stayed at the same club because they are such a great club. The players are brought up in the right way, and the majority of them are Spanish players which bodes well for the national team.
“English football is very exciting; the Premier League is watched by millions and has great atmosphere, but technically we are well behind.
“Until we address that, kids will see Premier League football on the TV and just want to emulate that. Unfortunately that’s not great for development and it’s not great for winning.
“So Barcelona winning in the manner and style they did, was phenomenal – for English football and world football.”
Mills believes it is time for some serious messages to sink in with parents who think their child has a chance of playing professional football, and subsequently put too much pressure on kids.
“All the people involved in kids football and grassroots football almost have to disassociate themselves from the Premier League. The percentage of kids making it into professional football is so small that you can almost say it’s not going to happen to anyone you know.
“So people should be looking at the bigger picture – football should be about enjoyment for kids, it’s about them having a good time.”
The 34-year-old has been actively involved in grassroots football for the last eight years because of his own children.
“I would much rather see 10 passes between team-mates and see them miss the target at the end of a great move. That is what we have to teach kids, and they will embrace it.
“There are so many volunteers – dads, teachers, mums – who do a fantastic job with all they do for kids’ football, but they all have to realise that change is needed. If you stand still, you get left behind – and I think the FA have realised that and want to push things in a different direction.
“But change takes time. German football took 12 years to put these changes in place, Spanish football has been doing this for 20 years; I’ve just come back from Brazil and they have been doing it for forever! So to change the whole ethos and mentality of English football is going to take time.
“I am a strong believer that if you play the game the right way for long enough and coach kids properly – then yes, you may lose a few games to begin with but eventually, just like Barcelona, Spain or Brazil, it will pay off and it will come good.
“The professional game and grassroots football are almost completely separate. There’s no correlation between a game of seven-year-olds on a Saturday morning and a Premier League match later in the day.”
With thanks to Simon Lansley of Connect Sport.
Danny Mills joined BBC Radio 5 Live’s Monday Night Club last night for a debate on the FA’s proposals for youth football. You can listen to the show here (go to 1:37.15).