How I learned to love the Pass

Dan Leydon on why the kids might be all right after all.

Pundits lament that kids don’t play football in the street anymore. In their day, marathon forty-a-side kickabouts that were only curtailed by mothers calling playmakers, centre-backs and goalies in for their dinners, were the norm. In the heat of these encounters winning mentalities were forged. A stomach for battle was cultivated. The ability to play across any surface was honed to the point where quick feet were second nature and an eye for a pass was always darting and nimble, alert to the smallest opportunity. The pundits' complaint is that regular football jamborees have vanished from our streets and housing estates. They say they’ve witnessed the withdrawal of the street game from kids' lives.

It certainly is a valid concern. Exercise is of course an invaluable source of fitness and technique; both sporting and social. So, where are the kids? If televised football has never before seen such heights of popularity and talent, how are the kids, from whom future players will surely be plucked, honing the finer aspects of their game? One answer is cooped up in their rooms filing away countless hours on intense, highly developed football scenario simulations.

An edition of FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer or Championship Manager is almost certain to be found in most houses with a gaming console. While it’s a debatable point and wide open to argument, I believe playing these games broadens the participants view of the possibilities of football as a whole; and by definition improves their potential capabilties as a player. Has the unthinkable happened? Have the kids gone inside and continued their kickabouts behind closed doors, via a football scenario simulation?

The benefit of simulation training is integral to two of the worlds most high-pressure professions; medicine and the military. It is used as a process with which to hone skills that could not be practiced in a physical training environment due to danger or risk. While I am not comparing a teen playing a friendly match on his console to a qualified surgeon enhancing their motor skills without risking a patients health, I am saying that there are perhaps tangible benefits of dedicated playing time.

With the proliferation of ProZone and a forward thinking ethos, the point where a manager uses scenario simulation to sharpen a players reactions to a certain situation may be just around the corner. Most games already have a mode which allow the viewer to play from the point of view of a footballer in the game. This is unique as usually the player watches the action from a vantage point akin to broadcast matches. They are essentially dislocated from the action. This specific mode allows the gamer to only control one certain player that they have to cultivate into a world class performer in their position. This style of simulation could prove priceless to managers of the top level clubs who shell out millions on players and facilities.

To be able to repeatedly study features in play along with footage of opposing teams and then walk the player through certain scenarios would be of great benefit, if not just for saving the player time on the training pitch aggravating injuries or overworking. Some of the most important aspects of training take place in the changing room when the team talk is given. It is then digested in the players mind.

This reflects something that modern football has long since uncovered: the importance of the mental aspect of the game. To introduce this type of method would slip nicely into the culture of utilising technology for a sporting advantage. As they say; the player that thinks doesn’t run, and the player that runs doesn’t think.

If I may use myself as a case study. Entering organised football at the age of ten, I was the oldest in my family, the only boy and only person with any interest in football in my household. My connection to the game was so new and innocent that when my granny bought me a Manchester United football jersey I wore it and didn’t see what was fundamentally wrong with it (I supported Liverpool). There I was, starting at right wing in the community games football tournament, not a clue what offside was, nor had I heard the terms ‘goal side’, ‘square’ or ‘keep it compact’. I was still amazed that they gave us shirts, shorts and socks to wear.

I have always been fast on my feet, winning one hundred and two hundred metre races in youth competitions by a distance without any training. This is how I found my niche in the game. Luckily I had a powerful long distance shot to go with my pace, and I’ll admit this combination worked a treat from the under 12’s up until the under 16’s, when I tore my cruciate ligament.

Out of the game from the age of sixteen I didn’t manage to get the operation until I was eighteen due to a misdiagnosis of the injury. I have recently read Mathieu Flaminis' assertion that the imperative development stage in a players' career is between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-six; but this point of view assumes that they had training between sixteen and twenty-one: which was the age I returned to the game. I stayed away from the world of grass and studs as it was more strenuous on my recovering knee.

So I began to participate in astro-turf kickabouts. To my horror I found no gaping wing space which had been my refuge on a full size pitch. There were no long balls hit over the top for me to run onto. The bloody goals weren’t even large enough for me to hit piledrivers into from miles out. The ball stayed low and it zipped about, short and quick. This was an alien game to me. Speed was all but irrelevant. I was lost.

At this stage I was twenty-one and had begun to play football computer games regularly with my friends. The competitive, replay-friendly setup lent itself perfectly to hours of hanging out together. Anyone who has played a football simulator will know that after a few matches individual style will begin to emerge. Everyone has a method of playing. Some score goals exclusively through crossing the ball, a kicked goal becoming a rarity. Others have refined their long range shooting technique and live off beautiful curlers that sail dramatically into the top corner.

My game quickly emerged: I would find myself controlling the right winger coming into the box. The central defender who was tracking back would start to close in and the goalie would then start to charge. This situation was familiar from real games where I would have shot without thinking. Now the vantage point had changed, I could see the free man mirroring my run into the empty box. I tap pass and he has a through ball, I tap shoot and he strokes it nonchalantly, not ferociously, into the net. The polar opposite to my actual style of play. Couple that with the fact the move I had just performed left me feeling like I should have said ‘checkmate’. There was a definite satisfaction in it.

This routine awoke something inside me. At the risk of sounding like a footballing fossil, I think it made me appreciate the pass, something I had not done before. That is like heresy in this day and age of Barcelona-worship but I could always rely on my pace to get me into dangerous positions. I simply bypassed the technical, intelligent side of the game, missing out on its merits. That is, until I began playing simulation games.

Transferring the new-found appreciation of the pass to the pitch happened over the course of eighteen months. I’m still just an average passer of the ball, it takes a second to get my head up and see the options but my game has changed, even if just slightly. Now and again my urges get the better of me and I let loose and smash a shot over the fences that house the pitch; but I now take pleasure in finding a pass and even more in the interception of one. I’ve started to relish watching Javier Mascherano and the way he nips in to break down an opposition attack.

Cesc Fabregas says that he takes more pleasure from creating a goal than scoring one. With his education, he is the footballing equivalent to someone who has a masters degree from Harvard University. However I, with a footballing education gleaned from youth training in the West of Ireland, can identify with him here on this one smidgen of common ground we share, I too take more satisfaction from creating a goal than scoring one. I now know the pleasure of making a good pass. As I watch it drift into the place I wanted, I can vaguely hear the dotted shouts of ‘ah, nice pass’ from around me on the pitch, and it means a hell of a lot more than when I score.

I have found a new appreciation of football, a new awareness of what was possible and a new appetite for spreading the play. Of course the standard of how well I do it is not down to the simulated games – nothing can replace physical practice, despite the exposure to new tactics and methods of playing. I do not for one second recommend it as an alternative to getting out there and just playing as much as possible, but I do see the benefit of using it as supplement to aid player development.

As for the kids, the pundits shouldn’t worry too much. At my local club, there are over one hundred under-eights. As they swarm across a pitch they seem to cover every blade of grass. Even if they go home and play FIFA, at least they’re taking an active interest in something that has the ability to give back.

There be merit in them there pixels.

For more from Dan, follow him on Twitter @blastedfrench, and visit his blog.