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Youth football investigation. Part 1: Ian Cathro, the 23-year-old behind Dundee United’s academy, insists open minds and open ears are the secret to success

HAD it not been for his patron, Ian Cathro might have been written off as a daft laddie.

But now some believe the 23-year-old may have the insight and originality of thought to revolutionise the way Scotland’s young talent is developed.

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Cathro’s methods were stamped and approved by Craig Levein when he appointed him as Dundee United’s junior academy manager last year. That Levein has subsequently moved to Hampden will only help ensure that his protege’s concepts cannot be swept under coaching carpets.

Those who believe there is a requirement for new methods to be applied to youth coaching had their suspicions only too painfully enforced on the week of Levein’s first Scotland match. Not only – despite the somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win – was the technique and movement of the Scotland players leaden in comparison with their Czech Republic opponents, but there had been even more alarming evidence the previous night.

On that occasion, at Falkirk Stadium, the cream of Scotland’s under-21 players could not match the basic ability of those from Azerbaijan, who fully deserved a 2-2 draw despite playing 
for an hour with only 10 men.

That performance was surely the final confirmation that our elite youth development is not on the right track. No one is disputing the good intentions, and in many cases dedication, of those in the SFA and on the training grounds, but if the system is indeed working where is the evidence?

Disgustingly poor facilities, inadequate PE in schools, and the shocking insistence on playing youth football in the Scottish winter are all factors. But if Azerbaijan, whose national sport is freestyle wrestling, are beginning to produce more accomplished players than we are, fingers have to be pointed at the coaching system.

We can perhaps assume Levein came to a similar conclusion when he was director of football at Tannadice. Few know the youth game better than the new Scotland manager, so why would he choose a callow twenty-something with a healthy disdain for the establishment’s coaching methods as the head of his youth academy?

In Levein’s studied opinion, the boys Cathro was developing at his own coaching clinic in Dundee were of a much higher technical ability than those in the United system. He decided to invite the young man in for a chat.

“I was nervous as hell,” admits Cathro reminiscing in, appropriately, the City of Discovery. “But it was instant respect on my part because we had a proper conversation. My experience of meeting people in football before then was that I got talked at.”

The upshot was that Levein decided to dismantle his youth programme and make Cathro, who had no footprint in professional football, responsible for bringing through a much better quality of youth player at Dundee United.

Entrusting his youth programme to such an untried figure could be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement that the existing coaching system is malfunctioning. This may lead to some interesting discussions in Levein’s new place of employment. Even more controversially, Cathro’s appointment opens yet another can of worms. It begs an obvious question: are former professional footballers the best people to teach skills to young children?

This is a question I put to Cathro himself. Not a man to shoot from the lip, and wary of generalisations, he nevertheless replies: “If somebody is wanting to go into coaching just to prolong their attachment to professional football, that is a mistake. They should want to go into coaching because they understand the process.

“You can’t just give up playing one day and walk into the coaches’ office the next. It’s necessary to understand kids, to learn child psychology and study the detail of technique. Just because you can do something well doesn’t mean you understand it. I’ve never kicked a ball seriously in my life, but I think I have more respect as a coach than some people who have Scotland caps.

“Kids are very intelligent beings. They have more creative thought and more imagination than adults. Through time they will figure out the people who can help them, and they will attach themselves to these people.”

Cathro, who is self-effacing but not shy to state what he believes to be true, is amused at how people’s perception of him has changed since he emerged with Levein’s seal of approval. Whereas he was once patronised, or even dismissed out of hand, now even the SFA are showing interest in his ideas.

The man opposite me in the United training gear could be described, in a positive way, as a Heath Robinson of football coaching. His favourite subject at school was physics and, with the aid of extra-curricular study, he started to apply some of the theory he had picked up to biomechanics, skill acquisition and motor development. Basically, how the body learns and how it could be applied to footballing programmes.

This is not the sort of stuff you expect to learn about on SFA youth coaching classes, but even so Cathro found those stultifyingly inadequate.

“I went along to the SFA youth level four course and failed it three times,” he admits tellingly. “Then I stopped going to the children’s licence because I felt it was a waste of time. There was nothing in it that catered for elite children and so it had no relevance to working with talented kids. They’ve now brought out a new children’s licence which is a lot better. It is a great step forward and is actually a good course, so fair play.”

Unlike, according to Cathro, the standard training session in Scotland, whether for children or adults. “As a kid I found everything about football training incredibly boring,” he asserts. “On any given evening there will be hundreds of clubs training and if I take a generalised view they’ll all do a running warm-up, followed by passing routines which have absolutely no realism or pressure, then a bit of dribbling that involves going round cones.

“There might then be a routine which involves passing the ball around the outside of a square – I’ve never seen that happen in a game either – and then they’ll do a drill when they pass the ball to the coach and he lays it off for a shot. That doesn’t happen in a game either. They’ll do some crossing and finishing, then near the end they’ll play a game. This is the only part of the training that actually happens in a game. What are they getting better at during this session? It’s pretty much useless.”

No room for doubt there, then, and Cathro warms to the theme. “The one thing in front of everybody’s faces is that standards are declining,” he asserts. And many youth coaches, he believes, are a big part of the problem and not the solution.

“To give you an example,” he points out, “I was with the Dundee United under-15s at a recent game and a coach from the other side – I won’t name the club – screamed at one of his players: ‘Don’t lose the ball there.’

“Coaches like that don’t understand what a significant role language has on kids. ‘Don’t’ is a negative, ‘lose’ is a negative and the coach has shouted it in a negative tone. All he has done is panicked the player. What do you think that player is going to be like next time he’s on the ball in that area? The coach has taught him to be negative in that situation. The passing down of bad habits from generation to generation exists strongly in football. It is scary.”

Cathro makes another pertinent point. It is that there are more youth initiative teams than there are really talented young footballers in Scotland, and that this over-supply of teams in turn dilutes the quality of the coaches.

Cathro is currently working on the finalisation of a youth curriculum for five different age bands at Tannadice. Its structure and detail to personal development is, one suspects, light years ahead of existing programmes.

“This is my third bash at getting a complete development curriculum right,” he says, “and this time I’m pretty sure I’ve got it. There are five stages: under-8, introducing technique; 9-11, teaching technique; 12s tuning technique; 13-14 turning technique into skill; 15-17 preparing the player. There’s a fair magnitude to it – it’s complex and structured in its overview. If it was written for a different club it would be a different programme.”

Cathro is currently recruiting part-time staff and it’s a fair bet none will be former footballers. “It’s easier to work with new minds, open minds,” he points out. “Youth football cannot be a cattle market of little robot children being brainwashed. They need to be individuals and afforded an opinion. You need an adult who can accept that what a seven-year-old says may be more important than what he says. It takes a certain sort of person to be able to accept that. Not someone whose view is: ‘Because I’ve got my licence I know everything, so do what I say.’ “What we need, especially among coaches, is people asking questions. It would be brilliant to see people thinking about things and challenging them.”

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