The Football Association has given the go-ahead to the biggest overhaul of youth football in over a decade.
At their AGM on Monday, FA shareholders voted overwhelmingly in favour of plans designed to structure youth football around the most important people involved - the children.
The youth development plans - aimed at giving kids more touches of the ball and making the game more fun - represent the biggest change to youth football since the introduction of mini soccer in 1999. Many believe they go way beyond that.
An 87% vote in favour of the plans means that kids won't play 11-a-side football until the under 13s age group, while under 7s and under 8s will play 5-a-side and under 11s and 12s will play 9-a-side, all on age-appropriate size pitches.
The traditional league table season will be replaced by shorter periods of competition, as the FA try to get away from the 'win-at-all-costs' mentality that blights some sections of the youth game.
“These changes are a massive step forward for the future of children’s football in this country,” said Nick Levett, the FA's national development manager for youth football, who has overseen the development of the proposals in a two-year project that has involved clubs, leagues and County FAs the length and breadth of the country.
Since the news of changes - outlined in full here - broke on Monday, Levett has been doing the rounds with national sports TV and radio stations, but he also took time to catch up with Club Website and talk us through what the plans mean for our members.
Revised player pathway
Most people in the grassroots community recognise that playing football with age-appropriate team, pitch and ball sizes makes sense for children learning the game, so this first element of the planned changes has been largely welcomed.
The new 9v9 format - mandatory for under 11s and 12s by the 2014/15 season - has proved so popular, says Levett, that leagues aren't waiting to get started.
"I think under 11s 9v9 will be more popular at the start of this coming season than 11 v 11," Levett told Club Website.
"We’ve hit that natural tipping point. Clubs are voting with their feet to find that format of football and leagues are seeing it’s the right thing to do for kids playing the game.”
“There are going to be a number of leagues playing 5v5 at under 7s as well. There are loads that are going forwards and it’s not because we’ve made it mandatory. It’s because they’ve realised it’s the right thing to do.”
Some people have expressed concerns about forcing under 8s or under 12s teams back a level for the 2013/14 season, but this will not be happening.
As Levett points out, the new formats will "be phased in because it doesn’t make any sense for the under 12s playing 11v11 the season before then going back to playing 9v9."
The major concern regarding the new formats of the game regards facilities, in particular where people will find funding to pay for the new 9v9 goalposts.
“Facilities are the biggest challenge, absolutely," says Levett. "We had a similar thing 12 or 13 years ago when mini-soccer got introduced and people said it wouldn’t work because we didn’t have pitches or goalposts.
“That proved that people with a fairly positive attitude can make it happen. There’s over £1m being ring-fenced by the Football Foundation to go towards funding of goalposts, storage, whatever they might need to support the implementation of 9v9."
Clubs and leagues are encouraged to make use of 3G pitches or school pitches wherever possible - try approaching the school through a parent rather than the club - whilst Levett believes that some budgetary priorities might alneed to re-evaluated.
"I've spoken to a league that said they had cancelled their end-of-season presentation night where they spent £20,000 a year on trophies and medals and spent £1,600 on room hire for that night.
"They also saved over £10,000 by putting their handbook online. So there's 32 grand that they've saved and they've put some funding towards supporting 9v9 goalposts.
"It's really about people looking at where they spend money and where they can prioritise if they need to. There's lots of examples there."
"But make sure you speak to your County FA Development Manager, whose job it is to help you with those kind of things. They are all doing the relationship building with Local Authorities now, in what we know is a difficult time economically.
"We know it's a challenge, but there is support there and it's a short-term challenge. This is about the next 10 to 15 years of youth football."
The second element of the plans - to replace the traditional league table season with a more child-friendly approach to competition up to under 11s - has caused more of a stir.
The term 'non-competitive' has been latched onto by some adults who, once they hear that league tables will be scrapped, point out that the country is going soft and before we know it kids won't know what winning and losing is all about.
Levett points out that, on the contrary, competition is still integral to football at all ages. The challenge is trying to find a format of competition that works for children.
"The plan will be to build and phase-in competition for young people, as opposed to pushing them down this over-competitive route at a young age. It is a very adult model and we can’t find any research that supports the benefits of it.
"We want to find a competitive format of the game that still has winning and losing at the heart of it, because it is a game.
"It's my team versus your team and we're going to try and beat you, that's the nature of the game."
The problems start, says Levett, when we try imposing a model that sees children competing every week for three points to finish above a team that they might not even see for another eight months.
"For an eight year old playing at under 9s, that's [almost] 10 percent of your life that the competition is going to go on for. 10 percent of most league administrators lives is about six and half years and you wouldn't dream of playing in a competition that long, but that's what we do to the kids!"
Replacing this will be a new structure where the season is split into thirds, with each third to feature developmental matches and a trophy event that will increase in duration as the children get older.
The new approach will even introduce some competitive football to under 7s and under 8s leagues, which currently play friendly matches only.
“I feel we need to add some format of competition in there [for these age groups] as it’s part of the game," says Levett, "so if leagues want to organise two or three trophy events where you play for a little cup, running over a two week block, two or three times a season, that's brilliant. No problem at all.’
“But we have to manage the environment, so that parents and coaches don’t get too over-excited, because we know it’s an emotional game and sometimes people get carried away.”
The new approach to competition will begin in the 2013/14 season for under 7s, 8s and 9s. Then, as those under 9s get older, they will stay within the new structure which moves up with them to under 10s in 2014/15 and under 11s in 2015/16.
As the kids get older, the level of competition will increase. The two-week trophy events at under 7s and under 8s will be doubled in length to four weeks for under 9s and 10s, while under 11s will have three six-week blocks of competition.
This equates to 18 weeks of competitive football out of a 26 week season, exposing as a red herring the oft-used term "non-competitive".
“I hope that once people see the progression here, that they can actually see it is competition," says Levett.
"It’s learning to win and lose in an appropriate way for your age. I’ve said all the way through, it’s child-friendly football. We've got to be creative with competition to move youth football forward."
Leagues will still have a vital role to play throughout the process by organising both trophy events and developmental matches, which can be used to gauge the standard of teams to help seed trophy events, ensuring a more level playing field for all concerned.
As Levett points out: "It's making the game more competitive for more kids. There is no such thing as non-competitive football, because every match in football is competition.
"But let's understand that these are kids. It’s kid’s football. This isn’t the World Cup.”
So what happens next?
With a 15 month lead-in to the implementation of the new changes, Levett believes there is time to iron out any problems that clubs or leagues may face. He encourages people to contact their County FA as a first port of call to address any concerns they may have.
The FA will also publish guidance booklets to support clubs and leagues. There will be a booklet for each age bracket and game format - e.g. 5v5 for u7s and u8s - containing all clubs need to know about that format of the game, from ethos and background to rules and pitch markings.
A similar booklet is being produced for leagues that covers all formats of the game and how to organise competitions at each age group.
Video clips of one of Nick's 136 presentations on the 'Your Kids Your Say' roadshow will also be made available online to help explain the background to the changes.
As always, Club Website will keep you up to date with all developments as we move towards this brave new world of youth football in 2013/14, so stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.
Dan Pope, Club Website editor
Have your say on the upcoming changes to youth football
Now that the FA's proposals have become confirmed plans, how do you feel about the future of youth football? How will it affect your team? Do you see the short-term benefits for kids and the long-term benefits for the game? Or are you concerned about how it will work in practice? Have your say in our comments section below.