Gary Lineker: Pushy parents screaming abuse from the sidelines are killing their kids’ love of football

It’s the pushy parents screaming at little Liam from the touchline, making him feel clumsy and putting him off his stride, who are partly to blame for the decline of English footie, says Gary Lineker.

There are three questions that I am asked on a regular basis: what is your favourite flavour of crisps? What were you doing when you pointed at your eye and looked at the bench when Gazza cried in the 1990 semi? And why do England always disappoint in major tournaments?

This is no place for brand endorsement but: salt and vinegar. Second, in the West Germany game, I looked at Bobby Robson and pointed at my eye, meaning “Watch him” because I knew that Paul was a very special and vulnerable footballer and needed care.

Finally, before I begin with my reasons why England disappoint in major tournaments and the possible fixes, let me point out that this is not going down the “Things were so much better in my day” route. They weren’t!

We have never produced, proportionally, as many technically efficient players as most other countries. There was a time when our indomitable spirit and work ethic saw us through. Alas, the rest of the world now more than matches us in the less than beautiful side of the game, while we still linger exasperatingly behind when it comes to skill, flair and that most necessary of footballing basics – maintaining possession.

Yes, there are exceptions, and some eras are more productive than others. Italia ’90 immediately springs to mind, with Gascoigne, Waddle, Beardsley et al; 1996 was another vintage group, with Gazza still hobbling around alongside Teddy Sheringham and friends. Then there was the “golden generation” that never quite managed to grab even bronze.

These wonderfully gifted individuals came through in spite of the maligned and archaic system of development we’ve had in this country, certainly not because of it.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Until very recently, we never taught our youngsters properly. We have never taught our coaches to teach our youngsters properly. And we wouldn’t have had enough coaches, even if we had taught them how to teach our youngsters properly. Countries such as Spain, Germany and the Netherlands (the ones that consistently produce fine footballers) all have ten times the number of qualified coaches as England.

I am writing not to crush you with pessimism but to offer some degree of hope. Change is afoot. In very recent times, the FA has made some long-overdue but crucial changes that should make a drastic difference to the kind of player we develop.

In this country, since footballs made from pigs’ bladders were whacked into goals without nets, we’ve played on full-size pitches. Whatever our age. This is ludicrous. Sevenand eight-year-olds valiantly trying to cover the same acreage as those grown-up chaps in the Premier League is absurd. To add to the lunacy, a little goalkeeper, barely out of nappies, has to stand between posts that are eight strides apart – adult strides – and under a crossbar more than twice his height.

It’s obvious, then, why we have a long-ball culture: the big lads who can kick it furthest are the ones that stand out. What chance for the diminutive yet gifted midfielder? No chance of him developing his tiki-taka football. The only way to get to the other end of the pitch is to belt it and then belt it again.

This madness is only exacerbated by the maniacal parents on the touchline spouting nonsense at their children. The competitive nature of most mums and dads is astounding. The fear they instil in our promising but sensitive Johnny is utterly depressing. We need a parental cultural revolution. If we could just get them to shut the fuck up and let their children enjoy themselves, you would be staggered at the difference it would make.

Having four boys myself, I have stood on the sidelines of countless games, spanning many years. Oh, the drivel I have heard, the abuse I have witnessed, the damage I have seen done. Promising young players barked at by clueless dad. “Don’t mess with it there.” “Just kick it.” “Stop fucking about.” I could go on. I have seen a father pick his son up by the scruff of the neck and yell in his face: “You’ll never make it playing that crap.”

Occasionally, I’ve intervened and expressed my view that they are being a hindrance. The reactions have varied from acknowledgement and genuine interest to complete disgust that I should stick my nose in.

Incidentally, I never shouted anything other than encouragement from a touchline . . . to both teams. My father was generally reserved on the touchline but he did lose it once after I swore at a referee when I was about 14. He got the coach to take me off. I learned a lesson that day.

Some of the academies around the country have introduced a rule that parents must be quiet and only applaud. This has allowed talented young players to express themselves on the field, to take people on, to try a trick, all without the dreaded, predictable rubbish cascading into their ears. This is a very good thing. Who cares who wins an under-eights game? Who cares if a youngster makes a mistake? It’s how we learn.

We are creating a generation of players who are living in a world of Fifa pixels, who think they know everything about the game, yet who have never enjoyed the explosion of joyful emotions that comes with the scoring of a goal, the immense satisfaction of a defencesplitting pass (midfielders assure me that this is true), the feeling of power that comes with the winning of a crunching tackle (I made that bit up), or the agony/pleasure – depending on your disposition – of standing in a wall and getting one in the bollocks.

Things are gradually changing. Academies are silencing Mum and Dad; the FA has brought in smaller-sided games with smaller pitches and goals (oh, how the parents moaned at that); the coaching is improving. The revolution has begun.

We must keep an eye on the delicate aspects of the beautiful game, the nuances that make it beautiful: the inexplicable moments of grace created by vulnerable geniuses such as Paul Gascoigne. We need to view our young players like Sir Bobby did Paul, with patience, nurturing and understanding. Then perhaps we will see a revolution in the way England play and we might get beyond tearful semifinals against well-nourished Germans. One day, one day, we shall rise again.

Now where did I leave that packet of salt and vinegar?


Gary Lineker says pushy parents are partly to blame for the decline of English footie. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.