As grassroots football takes flack from some quarters as part of the inevitable England World Cup inquest, the next generation of players are already one year into a journey along a new football pathway. We chat to the FA's Nick Levett on how the new structure for youth football is bedding in.
We are one year into the most significant set of changes to the structure of youth football in England in over a decade.
As the final whistle blows on Roy Hodgson's England squad's time in Brazil, it is only half time in the Football Association's two-year process to introduce new small-sided formats of the game for our youngest players.
The new player pathway features age-appropriate team, pitch and goal sizes which, along with a more 'child-friendly' approach to competition, aim to improve the experience of football for those taking their first steps in the game.
As is customary in football, we wanted to bring you a half time report and who better to help provide it than the man who led the FA's youth development review and consultation, laying the foundation for the changes that have now become reality?
We caught up with Nick Levett, the FA's National Development Manager for Youth and Mini Soccer, to find out how the changes are bedding in. We got a progress report on various key changes to the game, starting with the new first step on the football ladder for English players.
New 5v5 format
A new 5v5 game, played on a smaller pitch in mini-soccer (7v7) goals, is now in place for under-7s, who will continue to play it at under-8s from next season. But how has the new format gone down?
"The overwhelming feedback for 5v5 has been positive and the retreat line which has been introduced at that age [and up to under-10s - see below] has gone down very well," says Levett.
He adds that there is a "very valid discussion" about mini soccer goals perhaps being too large for the new smaller format, accentuated by the smaller pitch with fewer, younger players.
Some leagues have taken it upon themselves to reduce their goal size by laying the existing mini-soccer goals flat on the floor and using the base as goalposts for the 5v5 game.
Having introduced a new goal size for the new 9v9 format, the FA were reluctant to introduce a similar change for 5v5 with extra costs for clubs as part of the initial youth development review, but Levett concedes that they may need to re-assess the situation.
"That's certainly something that we’ll monitor and see if we need to address it in the future but, other than the odd isolated incident, on the whole it's been positive. There has been an increase in the number of teams this year. We need to ensure that this translates into developing better players."
New 9v9 format
Perhaps the most significant change to the structure of youth football this season has been the introduction of a new 9v9 format to act as a stepping stone between mini soccer and the 11-a-side game for under-11s and, as of next season, under-12s.
Now 10- and 11-year-olds no longer need to play on full size pitches and in full size goals, with an intermediate size being introduced for both. Club Website members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the new format when it was first touted back in 2010 and, unsurprisingly, Levett says the feedback has been "overwhelmingly positive".
"There was a teething period of working with local councils on facilities and there will always be a bit of that as change evolves, but County FA development officers and managers have really addressed a lot of those concerns," said Levett.
"The majority of feedback that I’ve got is two-fold. Firstly, people are saying ‘It’s common sense. Why didn’t we always do this?’ which is what we’d anticipated.
The second thing is: ‘This is so clearly the right thing to do for kids, can we take it to under-13s?’
"Our position at the FA is that if you want to take it to under-13s or under-14s, then it’s a choice locally that you can make. If a league’s member clubs want to play under-13 9v9 then go for it. We don’t plan to enforce anything nationally locally, but if you want to do it locally that’s OK.
The new 9v9 format will be phased in for under-12s this coming season but, according to Levett, "the majority of under-12 football taking place across the country is already 9v9".
"The success of 9v9 at under-11s has meant it has leaped on a year early. I think we may well see the same thing happen at under-13s, but we’ll keep an eye on things and see what happens.
New formats helping transition
So have the new formats of the game already started to have a positive effect on participation levels? Levett suggests they have, pointing to evidence from youth leagues including the Sheffield & District Youth League - one of the biggest in the country.
"They have seen an increase in the retention of players at the 'transition points' between 7v7 and 9v9 and between 9v9 and 11v11, whereas previously they were losing players," said Levett.
"Across the board, we’ve seen an increase in the number of players, which is great. The challenge we’ve got now is to ensure they stay in the game post-14 or 16-years-old, where we know we have a drop-off at that stage.
New approach to competition
Alongside changes to the formats of the game, the Football Association is also changing the structure of the football season at youth level. League tables are being phased out and the season will be split into three 'mini-seasons', each section consisting of friendly matches and a trophy event at the end.
This season all under-9s played under the new system, which they will continue to do until they reach under-11s in the 2015/16 season. By then all kids of primary school age will play under the new 'child-friendly' approach to competition, free from adult-driven pressure for picking up three league points every week.
Scrapping league tables caused more controversy than any other aspect of the changes - primarily among the adults in the game - and, whilst kids seem to have taken to the new setup with few problems, Levett recognises the need to support those coaches or club officials still coming to terms with the new system.
"We’ve had some very positive feedback from children," said Levett. "For example a league in Cornwall put on a Champions League for the younger age groups with a Europa League for all the teams who didn’t make it into the Champions League. They did it so well that the under-13s and under-14s want to do it now as well.
"Where leagues have looked to put on different types of events for those age groups it has been really well received. For example some leagues have played their winter league as Futsal.
"What I think we have to be better at nationally and locally is supporting league administrators with options for competitions and what this looks like. We need to be better at sharing best practice so, for example, last week I sent out all County FAs an example from the Garforth Junior League on how they organise their competitions, with logistics, a breakdown of fixtures week by week and so on.
"Leagues can be proactive themselves and go to the County FAs and ask for help or some examples from across the country. The County FAs have to be a really good conduit to share that experience. The ones that are working well are the ones that have a great relationship with the County FA.
"Good practice from leagues will also be made available on thefa.com/kidsfootball, but the best things happen when people talk to each other locally and make things happen.
"We’re going through a period of change, which is never easy. It’s difficult, it’s challenging, but I think in five years’ time we’ll be looking back saying ‘this is great now and the change was worth it.’"
Can players 'play up a year' next season?
By far the most common question we've been asked here at Club Website in recent months has been, following a change to FA rules on age-group restrictions, whether or not players are allowed to play for the team in the age group above them.
Levett has a handy yardstick for assessing how any of the changes to youth football are bedding in - his inbox.
"This is one of those things that filled my inbox up so I knew we didn’t have quite right," he says. "What we need to do was allow in the rules for a player to play up a year if they needed to."
He stresses the word 'needed' and cites examples of teams in rural areas needing a couple of younger players to make up a team, or a one-parent family with kids a year apart that need to be taken to two different places, or a really talented player who doesn't get challenged at their own age group.
"Can these kids play up an age group? Absolutely. We cannot have a rule that stops you participating for any reason.
"We had to rewrite the rules to reflect this, so the FA Rules 2014/15 allow you to play up a year regardless of the format or the competition approach, because being able to participate is more important than anything else."
But Levett says the rules are intended to benefit those who play the game - the kids - not those coaches who might want to use them to their advantage.
"The rule isn’t there to allow an entire team of under-8s to play up a year and play 7v7 instead of 5v5," he points out. "As of the 2014/15 season, you can always play up an age group if it’s the right thing to do for you, for your local personal circumstances.
"If we find leagues running entire ‘B divisions’ consisting of the year group below, playing at the format above where they should be, then the rule will be written entirely so that cannot happen. It’s not developmentally the right thing to do. We’re trusting leagues and clubs to do what’s right for kids."
As of last season, the halfway line now also acts a retreat line in all football from under-7s to under-10s. The defending team has to retreat behind this line at goal kicks, thus allowing the attacking team more space to play out with the ball from the back. The ball is in play as soon as it leaves the goal area.
Earlier this season, 71 percent of Club Website members told us that they were in favour of the retreat line (4,125 polled), while this figure rose to 76 percent for those people involved in football below under-10s (2,458), something that Levett was pleased to hear.
"It’s a new rule that we’ve had to get used to and look at the impact of it. The research that was done on the retreat line made it look like it was the right thing to do, but it’s great to hear that 76% of people in youth football think it’s the right thing to do.
"I was with the North East Hampshire Youth League Secretary and I asked him about how the retreat line has been received. His view was the kids got it and loved it straight away. The adults took a bit of time to realise that it actually helped the kids. Since they’ve got to grips with it, they’ve really bought into it."
Playing in quarters instead of halves
Another change considered as part of the youth development review was for games to be split into quarters rather than halves for our youngest players.
The FA chose not to impose this change for any level of youth football, but left it as an option for teams or leagues to take on and, according to Levett, the feedback from those who have has been "really, really good".
"The feedback from kids was that they can try their hardest because they knew they’d have a rest. Coaches said they knew they had a break coming up where they could speak to players and make substitutions, rather than trying to get across loads of information during the game.
"So we haven’t pushed it but the feedback has been really good and I think there will be some natural evolution and take up of that as more and more start to try it.
Moving forwards - developing a culture of change
So it appears to be a case of 'so far so good' for the brave new world for youth football in England. Levett certainly seems happy with how the changes are bedding in, but is keen to point out that it is still early days.
"We owe a huge thank you to our volunteer network - coaches, administrators - who have got to grips really well with some of the new changes. We’re conscious now that we need to allow these changes to settle down and embed before we look to re-evaluate where we’re at."
Regular appraisal, feedback and changes to the structure are something that Levett is keen to make the norm. He believes it is more sensible, easier and more productive to fine tune a system as it develops rather than trying to impose huge changes once every generation.
"We have to develop a culture where we have a mindset for change, where we try things and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, we revert back to something different. But if we never change, we’re never going to move the game forwards and I think that’s what other countries have done better than us.
"They have a culture of change, whereas we have a massive revolution every 10 or 15 years and throw things up in the air, which is more difficult to deal with. So I think small changes along the way, while really helping and supporting the network of fantastic volunteers would be a step forward.
Central to developing this culture, says Levett, is keeping dialogue open across the game and he encourages anyone with any feedback, ideas or suggestions for youth football to contact their County FA or email email@example.com.
"We still welcome feedback about what we need to look at and how we need to do things. A lot of the ideas we've implemented come from coaches and people at a local level.
"Let’s keep the dialogue open and keep making the game better for children, because ultimately that’s what this is all about."
You can follow Nick Levett on Twitter at @nlevett.
Dan Pope, Club Website editor
Levett defends grassroots game over World Cup questions
Our interview with Nick Levett took place after England's opening World Cup defeat to Italy, at which point - like many of us - he was encouraged by the "creativity" and "innovation" in England's attacking play and hoped for a good tournament ahead. Of course, things didn't turn out quite how any England fan had hoped and the team has now returned home after their earliest World Cup exit.
The inevitable inquest has followed, with everything from the Premier League and its many foreign players right down to the standard of coaching and facilities at grassroots level taking the blame from one quarter or another for England's failure.
Annoyed by the suggestion from some that grassroots club football was to blame for England's failings in Brazil, Levett took to Twitter to defend the grassroots game and later spoke to BBC Radio Sheffield about the role that grassroots football plays in England. You can listen to the clip below.