Cage football: Clubs recreate spirit of the streets
Written by Simon Austin — June 5, 2017
THIS is a million miles away from 'E triple P', auditing and coaches telling eight-year-olds what passes they should make.
Allan Cockram is standing outside an orange cage daubed in graffiti, wearing a cut off T-shirt and occasionally breaking into spurts of what looks like body popping as house music pumps out of a sound system.
Inside the cage, two kids are taking each other on, 1 v 1, trying tricks and flicks, and loving it.
The 53-year-old former Spurs and Brentford midfielder transports his cage up and down the country (he’s taken it across the United States and Europe too), spreading his vision like “some kind of footballing gypsy”.
His principles are simple: “enjoyment first, technique second, tactics and teamwork third. I don't think kids should be coached in a team until they're 11 or even 12. Up until then it's about creativity, enjoyment, doing things off the cuff and developing the technique and personality that will define you."
Cockram came up with the concept of Urban Cage Soccer more than a decade ago, when he was the technical specialist at the Philadelphia Union.
At first people thought he was a crazy eccentric. Not any longer. More and more clubs are switching onto the idea of cage football as they attempt to recreate the fun and creativity of street football in a sanitised age with numerous digital distractions.
Manchester United's youngsters play cage football, so too do Everton's.
Dave Adams, who was head of academy coaching at Swansea before the briefest of spells with Everton, explains: “With EPPP, everything was becoming formalised, monitored, audited. A lot of the academies are trying to go back to the spirit of street football.
“One day a week at Swansea we’d get the nine to 12 year olds together in our indoor barn and have a mini tournament. It was a mix of ages and they’d be in charge of it, making the rules up.
“In a small area you have to move your feet quickly, control the ball as it bounces off the wall, do things off the cuff. I definitely like the principle of cage football.”
Recently, the Guardian reported that 14% of the English-born players in the Premier League were from within a 10-mile radius in south London; players like Wilfed Zaha, Nathaniel Clyne, Jordon Ibe and Victor Moses.
Many of them played on the fenced-in astroturf pitches of the council estates and leisure centres - bigger versions of Cockram’s cage.
Again, music plays from the sidelines and crowds gather to applaud moments of audacity and skill. It's a long way from the sanitised environment of the academies and the "factory-produced" players that Richard Dunne has described.
Cockram says such environments emphasise the individual, whereas a lot of academies are too concerned with team play, even at very young ages.
“You have to cultivate the individual, develop personality and skills," he says. "As I said before, team play and tactics are the final piece of the jigsaw, once you've developed the technique and individuality. They're the foundation blocks."
It’s a theme that Michael Beale, the former Liverpool Under-23 coach who is now assistant manager of Sao Paulo, warms to.
“Here every player has a trick and the ability to play one v one,” he says. “I don’t believe in saying there’s no ‘I’ in team. There are 11 individuals in a side and I think it’s more about fuelling the individual than tactics.”
Cockram wishes this had been the case during his own career, when he was a long-haired maverick often dismissed as a “luxury”.
“I was lucky to come through at Tottenham, under Keith Burkinshaw and Peter Shreeves, looking up to players like Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles,” he remembers.
“But there was this prevailing view - ‘if it’s going wrong, kick it long’. English football valued physical strength, running, no mistakes. The players I admired - mainly foreign ones - weren't like that."
This passion prompted him to give up a subsequent career as a firefighter to become a youth coach and it's now driving him to take his cage on a national roadshow. More and more clubs are now coming round to his way of thinking.
* TGG did put in requests to speak to Jed Roddy, the Premier League's director of youth and architect of EPPP.