THE benefits of professional footballers taking part in small-sided matches during training can be seen at the very highest levels of the Scottish, English and European games every week.

Brendan Rodgers at Celtic, Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City are all, along with myriad other managers around the globe, passionate advocates of the practice.

The Parkhead, Anfield and Etihad Stadium clubs have got far larger budgets than the majority of their rivals and are able to both buy and pay a higher calibre of player as a result.

Still, it is maybe no coincidence they are currently flourishing in the Premiership, Premier League and Champions League given the innovative approach they take when they are preparing for matches.

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The Scottish Football Association (SFA) have long been aware of the positive impact which being involved in different game formats – from futsal right down to three-a-side – on a regular basis can have on youngsters as well.

The Herald: The likes of Ben Doak, Josh Doig, Lewis Ferguson, Billy Gilmour, Aaron Hickey, Max Johnston, Nathan Patterson, Ryan Porteous and Calvin Ramsay, to name just a handful, all were when they were coming through the Club Academy Scotland (CAS) system or were pupils at the JD Performance Schools as kids.

Would they have the technical ability, physical attributes and mental maturity which they do now if they had not? Would they have been able to perform with such assurance in top divisions across the continent as well as, in some cases, on the international stage in the last few years? It has unquestionably aided their development.

That has resulted in an increased emphasis being placed on small-sided games at the CAS clubs this season.

Andy Gould, the chief football officer at the SFA, has witnessed first hand in recent months how our potential stars of tomorrow are now getting more touches on the ball than ever before as a result.

He is optimistic the changes which have been introduced this term will help in their ongoing efforts to produce a new batch of Gilmours, Hickeys and Pattersons in the not-too-distant future.

“The small-sided game has always been a fundamental part of the development of players,” said Gould. “But what we have done, and this is very much a collaborative effort with the clubs, is develop that further.

“We want to make sure the pathway isn’t stale. We want to make sure the opportunities the players get aren’t the same week in, week out. We know young people very much respond to different stimuli, different ideas which test them and challenge them.

“Bringing in different formats of the game, and not just seven-a-side and nine-a-side, on smaller pitches and with different rules on kicking and dribbling will do that. We now, for instance, have dribble ins and kicks in instead of throw-ins.

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“Different game formats offer different objectives. If the pitch is tighter and smaller, you are going to have to think much quicker and be more technically orientated. If pitches are longer and narrower, you have to be more direct in your play. 

“We have also introduced different opponents and have opened it up to clubs in the English academy system, including Manchester City. So the kids now experience different styles of play. Our coaches also get to meet different coaches.”

Gould continued: “We know that even in the professional game a lot of top coaches use the small-sided game frequently through their training week in order to get across their key messages.

“We know Brendan at Celtic, for example, absolutely uses the small-sided game in various formats. But I have visited many clubs in Scotland and England and know that it is used in a lot of places. It gives you intensity and technical opportunities.

“The players respond to it because they are involved. The more players who are involved in a game the less contact time they have and the less they are feeling involved in the situation.

“But research is very strong on the small-sided game being a fundamental part of young player development too. The small-sided game ensures every player gets time on the park.

“The club coaches didn’t want players standing on the sidelines not getting minutes. Whatever level you are coaching at, you want that young person to have a good experience and want to come back in the future.

“Small-sided games give players game time, contact time with the ball. There are huge physical benefits. Agility, endurance and speed all improve. It is a fantastic tool. All we have done is say to coaches that there are lots of ways they can make the game suit the player. It is the most flexible game in the world. So let’s use that.”

The Herald: The days when a young player only took part in 11-a-side games on a full size pitch after they had turned 12 are long gone.

“We can be in a rush sometimes to get young players into the adult game,” said Gould. “But my belief is that small-sided games should be a fundamental part of a player’s journey and we shouldn’t rush to 11-a-side football.

“Even when we do get to 11-a-side football, we should still be using the small-sided format at different stages, either in training or in games, to stimulate players. Futsal is a good example. It is a derivative of the small-sided game which promotes technical ability.”

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The academy system has been criticised by fans, former players and managers over the years for producing clones who lack the personality, backbone and physicality required to compete with men in the professional game. Gould argues that small-sided games give them all three.

“The feedback from players has been really good,” he said. “In some ways we have allowed them a little bit more autonomy. We are allowing them to make more decisions on the field of play. We know this is very beneficial. It just encourages you to do it more. Their enjoyment has improved as well as a result.”

Gould is optimistic the progress that players like Doig, Ferguson and Ramsay, who are on the books at Serie A outfits Sassuolo and Bologna and Premier League challengers Liverpool respectively, have made in the last few years will give those who are currently coming through the age-group ranks at our leading clubs the belief they can follow in their footsteps.

“We sometimes underestimate the effect of role models,” he said. “These players set the example for the next generation coming through. Some of those players have come through a Performance School, all of those players have come through a Club Academy Scotland programme. They have relationships with players at younger age groups and sometimes go back to speak to them.

“Those players have had opportunities to perform in the big leagues and on an international stage with Scotland. We are going to the Euros and we have now got a team performing. We underestimate the excitement and inspiration that those players can give to the next generation.

“We ourselves look at the journeys those players have come through, the pathways those players have had, as coaches. What are the things which have been critical for them? That helps us to alter and improve the pathway for those coming behind them. These guys are not just inspirations to the players who are coming behind them but also the coaches they have worked with.”

The Herald: Gould is well aware, however, that being handed first team opportunities by their clubs is vital. In years gone by, managers were loath to take a chance on kids when their teams were bidding to lift a title or scrapping to avoid relegation. But he is hopeful that is, slowly but surely, changing.

“All of those players have had rich experiences, good coaching, supportive backgrounds,” he said.  “All of the building blocks, whether that be technical, tactical, physical, psychological, are really important. But they have also had game time and game time is important, getting the right challenge at the right moment to take them to the next stage.

“Without a doubt, the players who are at the various age-group levels now are more rounded. The next stage of that is their clubs giving them the opportunity at the right time. If we can all do that then we have got a bright future without a shadow of a doubt.

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“The clubs who have given young players opportunities have been very encouraged by the performances those players have delivered. I appreciate the circumstances the clubs and head coaches are in, but our message to them would be to continue to promote talent. We work very closely with them to achieve that.”

Gould and his associates also work with aspiring coaches at grassroots level and is confident they are also endorsing small-sided matches at their sessions as a result of their interactions.

“Coach education and development is a fundamental role for the Scottish FA,” he said. “We have a mature system. What we learn in Club Academy Scotland is now promoted in the grassroots education coaching courses.

“A huge number of coaches will go through our introductory courses and our early years courses and they both absolutely promote small-sided games. Beyond coach education and development, we obviously want to promote what we are doing through our regional coaching teams. They also do a lot of work to promote what we are doing.”

It is fair to say here is not a lot of love for the professional clubs at grassroots level in this country. The best young players at boys’ clubs frequently get lured away by academies and that can create resentment.

Gould, though, feels strongly that a child with the ability to make a career for himself in the professional game should not be prevented from doing so. He thinks the ill-feeling can be avoided by having open dialogue.

“There are always moments when players will move, will need to take a step from one part of the game into the other part of the game,” he said. “That is where we need to ensure there is good communication. There are moments when that maybe doesn’t work and clubs need to be better connected at the youth level.

“Our role is to make sure clubs understand their responsibilities within the game. There are good clubs delivering good programmes in good environments with well-educated coaches. But it needs to be joined up, it needs to be collaborative. There are maybe moments where that doesn’t happen. But I would say that in general it does.”

Mike Mulraney stated that retaining and improving facilities across Scotland would be his main focus when he became SFA president last summer and Gould can appreciate why. He has been involved in player development in a variety of guises for the past 25 years and thinks youth football in this country is presently in a healthy state. But he understands there remains work to be done.  

“We have made really good progress,” he said. “We have seen an increase in the number of registered players. We have over 160,000 registered players now. That is the highest we have ever had. The majority of them are under 18. So the youth sector is flourishing. It is in a better situation than it has been. 

“But there are things we want to improve upon. Facilities is an area we believe requires attention and support. As more players want to play, that adds pressure to the facility estate we have. My job is to look ahead and that means improving facilities and infrastructure that will get more kids on pitches.”

And more young players taking part in small-sided games.

The Herald: