When the Sagicor Dion La Foucade International Soccer Camp 2011 five day journey came to a end on December 23 at St Joseph’s Convent Ground, St Clair, the footballers received certificates of participation, but more significantly, the 80-odd local, regional and international youngsters, some on vacation from as far as Holland and Brazil, had the invaluable privilege of learning from the former academy manager of Liverpool Football Club- John Owens.
Owens, along with another former coach at the Liverpool Academy-Callum Walsh, former Strike Squad players—Brian Williams and Peter Lewis, national women’s team forward Tamar Watson and Under-23 national men’s midfielder Sean De Silva assisted La Foucade with the camp.
Owens is no longer with Liverpool FC, but after spending ten years at the club working with an under-nine to under-14 age group, and then the under-18, before becoming the academy’s headman, he developed an expertise which has seen him travel across the globe sharing his passion.
The 61-year-old holds a UEFA “A” coaching licence, and has played the role of both coach and manager and sometimes both. And during his tenure at Anfield and its facilities, Owens has had the pleasure of guiding some of the globe’s top professionals blossom from raw talents into sporting icons.
Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Steve McManaman and Michael Owen top the lot, but they are just a few of the household names who passed through the academy during his time as a Liverpool coach.
Owens even managed the England Under-16 National team (also known as the England Schoolboys) for three years and then the England FA “C” team before resigning in 2002 to focus on his Liverpool managerial career.
Just as he did when he travelled to Dubai, Owens shared his football expertise with the eager ears when he stopped in T&T. And, in the most efficient and articulate manner, he was able to communicate and enlighten a group of youngsters just as easily as he did with just one at a time.
Even La Foucade, who has been involved with developing adolescent footballers since he began his academy back in 1989, got a pointer or two from the coach’s coach who never seemed short of ideas.
La Foucade, with the help of Sagicor, financed Owens trip to Trinidad.
While La Foucade has a popular track record of accommodating youth coaches from the world most recognised football clubs such as AC Milan, Internazionale and Manchester United, he felt that Owens had something to offer that was seriously missing in football’s agenda in T&T—a person with a strong emphasis on player development from the pre-teen stage throughout the teenage years.
The two met years ago when La Foucade visited Liverpool on one of the many occasions, and the pair found such a natural understanding that just as La Foucade invited Owens to take charge of some training sessions, Owens, during La Foucade’s visit to the Liverpool Academy invited him to lead training sessions with under-nines to the under-18 Liverpool players.
The 2011 end-of-year camp, despite only being opened to 80 participants as compared to the many 500-plus-person camps which he has hosted in recent years, La Foucade described the event as “95 per cent successful.” He revealed that he wanted the camp to be as small and personal as possible between Owens and the players.
The participants, including the skipper of T&T’s brilliant Under-17 girls’ team—Anique Walker, and the parents offered positive feedback, with many expressing sincere gratitude for Owens’ informative visit.
Following the camp, both coaches offered their time to discuss a conceivable way forward for football in T&T. And the ideas were, in truth, very basic in theory.
The men agreed that a major problem in developing, young footballers, is that many a parent or an amateur coach focuses on playing and more-so on winning, even when the player in his pre-teen and teenage years has simply not mastered the very basics of football. The children, according to Owens, are even more eager to play and to win, but the proper preparation and development must be adhered to first.
That seemed almost obvious, but while Trinidadians can often be described as competitive, in reality many Trinidadians prefer to attempt a task by working solely on the end product, rather than working from the ground up, so this pointer seemed to apply to local culture in particular.
In La Foucade’s words: “Maybe too many expect to see the youngsters play matches in and out, while the said parents yell at the sideline, expecting their kid to take home three points.”
Owens strongly agreed. He sees the primary concern for the developing footballer in technique and style, rather than tactics and formation. The latter two skills, according to Owens, are that of the footballers who have already developed the basics.
When Owens was interviewed in T&T he described his experience in England as compared to T&T, and to places he visited in the past, being Dubai, Switzerland and others.
“The difference in England, is that we’re doing it (training youngsters) for the good of the first team of a club, and so, boys who are invited to join the academy, their parents don’t pay because its free. The clubs pay for everything,” Owens explained.
Those that don’t make it into the first team, they go on and they still play football at different levels. Here (T&T), like in the USA, clubs (academies) are run by the payments of the parents. The problem is that you’re only getting a small group of the population who can afford that,” he continued.
Owens was unsure but questioned how our small island prepares for regional competitions.
“Instead of waiting to see if Trinidad and Tobago can field a good team for the next major qualifying competition the next time the opportunity arises, can you do something in the time being to make it happen?” he asked.
He said that from his little experience in T&T, he has seen magnificent talent, but facilitating the players, with all the required tools at such a young age is showing to be the major challenge.
“What would be good, whether its the Government, or someone in such a position to do so, to put down the facilities, the training areas, pay for comfort of the parents, the whole package, to organize transport. Its a small price to pay for the long term result,” said Owens.
He said that when the proper infrastructure is in place and given that the talent and support is there, a step by step philosophy for youth development is there and should be ready to be implemented.
Owens went through a philosophy on youth development, which he said youth coaches should primarily concern themselves with, starting with the identification of a footballer, even by the rawest talent. He said he did not construct the programme, and while it is basic in theory, implementation of the ideas may be challenging if resources are minimal. He said, however, that they surely yield results.
Obviously, initially, there is the recruitment of the individual, followed by the retention of the child, which according to Owens is often easier that it sounds. In order to retain the player, it may be important to seek the comfort of the parent or guardian of the child as it pertains to the child. He said that facilities and equipment are important to maximize development of the child.
“Having the proper and organized development programme is also vital for development, while having the child adapt to a healthy and positive environment,” said Owens.
The properly qualified coaches who are able to develop the child’s skill and attitude even further is important. Owens stressed that a young footballer who focuses solely on a team, by way of the coaches direction, will only lose his sense of individuality, thus a sense of equilibrium must be maintained.
He said a coach must encourage individual performance goals, while sustaining a programme which is fun, progressive and challenging, but attainable. Management of failure, he said, is a major concept in the development of a young athlete.
He went on to say that the coach’s emphasis must be his role in the development of the whole person; not just his skill and on matches, but in his mentality. The coach must give the child a level of freedom but he must help shape the child’s personality, attitude, behaviours, discipline and maturity.
A coach, according to Owens must create and strengthen relationships, especially between himself, a player and his parent/s.
“This is when”, Owens said, “a player can differentiate and compare between himself as an individual and his team-mates.”
Owens’ ideas, again, may have been simple, but his character and tone indicated that only those who really want to achieve a top standard of development for young players, will put forth the effort and energy required to do so.
He concluded the interview stressing that youth coaches like La Foucade, who possess the forte for development players’ skills in their adolescence, deserve a lot more recognition and status than they normally receive.