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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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