Cage football: Clubs recreate spirit of the streets

THIS seems a million miles away from EPPP.

A middle-aged man in a cut-off T-shirt is standing next to a metal cage daubed in graffiti. He's shouting encouragement while breaking into fits of what looks suspiciously like body popping.

Inside, two young players are taking each other on, 1 v 1, trying tricks and flicks. Loving it.

Allan Cockram, 53, is a former Spurs and Brentford midfielder who transports this metal football cage up and down the country every week like “some kind of footballing gypsy”. He’s even taken it on tours across the United States and Europe.

Cockram's principles are simple - “enjoyment first, technique second, tactics and teamwork third" - and are becoming increasingly popular, even at the highest levels of the game.

"I don't think kids should be coached in a team until they're 11 or even 12," he tells TGG. "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 technical specialist at the Philadelphia Union MLS side.

At first people thought he was crazy. Not so much now. Manchester United's youngsters play cage football. So do Everton's. And we've reported how Dutch side AZ Alkmaar have built a 'Performance Playground' at their Academy.

Dave Adams, who was Head of Academy Coaching at Swansea before becoming first-team coach at Middlesbrough last year, tells TGG: “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 came from within a 10-mile radius in south London. These are players like Wilfed Zaha, Nathaniel Clyne, Jordon Ibe and Victor Moses, who played on the fenced-in astroturf pitches of the council estates and leisure centres.

These are 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 these are environments that emphasise the individual, when a lot of Academies have been too concerned with team play.

“You have to cultivate the individual, develop personality and skills," he says. "Team play and tactics are the final piece of the jigsaw. Technique and individuality are the foundation blocks."

This is a theme that Michael Beale, Liverpool's head of coaching for the foundation phase, warms to.

Cockram was with Spurs from the ages of 12 to 21

When he was assistant manager of Sao Paolo, before returning to Melwood, he said: “Here (in Brazil) every player has a trick and the ability to play one v one. 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. Now it's what inspires him to drive his cage on the back of a lorry up and down the country's motorways. Finally, more and more clubs are coming round to his way of thinking.

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