John Colquhoun: Spirit of the streets in the digital age
Written by Simon Austin — March 21, 2019
FORMER Scotland international John Colquhoun gained his football education on the streets and parks of Denny, near Falkirk, and was a dedicated student.
“I would leave the house at eight or nine o’clock in the morning in the school holidays and only come back when I was hungry," he remembers. "On a school night it might be two or three hours' football.
“By the age of 11 or 12 we’d walk a couple of miles to this park where there was a better game and had to wait to be asked on. 'We’re one short, give the wee man a go’.
"Nobody would pass to me at first, because I was just a little dwarf - I’m still a little dwarf - but eventually I earned the right to play. It was law of the jungle.
“The first couple of times you get the ball you do a little bit, show them you can play. Then you learn how to use your body to shield the ball, because if you lose it straight away no-one will give it to you again.”
The hours of practice paid off, because Colquhoun, a speedy, tricky forward, signed for Stirling as a 17-year-old, while working part-time as a painter and decorator.
His big break came in 1983, when he signed full-time with Celtic, although he remains best known for two spells at Hearts, spanning 10 years and almost 350 games.
I first met Colquhoun in November last year, at our second Cohesive Coaching event, and didn’t realise he had once been a pro, because he introduced himself as the owner of Box Soccer, a technical development programme that runs across 12 sites in Scotland as well as two in the United States.
He didn’t mention his own playing career (he won two caps for Scotland), or his work with the media (he was a columnist for the Scotsman and pundit for STV), or the fact he had set up and sold one of the biggest agencies in the country (Key Sports, which represents the likes of Phil Jones, Theo Walcott and Steve McClaren).
Instead, he talked about Box Soccer and his passion for youth development. Colquhoun bought the business in 2015 from Ian Cathro, who is now first team coach at Wolves, in an effort to recreate the spirit of the streets in the modern age.
The USPs are the number of touches players get and learning by discovery, which were both major elements of Colquhoun's development during those long days in the parks of Denny.
“I got technical skills because I was doing it for eight or nine hours a day in the holidays," he says, "that’s a lot of time on the ball. You also had to problem-solve for yourself and take responsibility, rather than being told what to do.
“We won’t go back to those days though. If I could say 'we'll get kids playing in the parks for eight hours a day again', then great, but the chances of it happening are about the same as Woolworths becoming king of the high street. It ain’t gonna happen.
“My parents would tell me to get out of the house and the fact I was going to play football two miles away didn’t cross their minds. If my grandkids, who are two and four, are out of my sight for more than 15 seconds it’s a cold sweat for me, genuinely.
“Even in a few years, when my grandson is seven, it will terrify me if he's playing football in a different part of town. Kids have so many different things vying for their attention now, from phones and tablets to hundreds of TV channels. We didn’t have those choices - it was sport or nothing.”
As the name suggests, Box Soccer is played in a box, "any size you want, with eight cones, two goals and three mannequins”.
It is single set-up, which means players don’t have to switch between drills, and the ball is rolling for 75% of the time, with players getting at least 1,000 touches an hour.
“The fashion now is to say ‘just let them play the game’, but the kids have probably only got three hours of football per week,” Colquhoun says. "So you have to really make the most of that time.
"This was why Ian’s programme (called Cathro’s Clinic) appealed to me so much - because it’s single set-up, you don't lose time switching between drills and sessions.
“Ian worked out that you lose a few minutes of every traditional session with these changes. Multiple that by three days a week, 46 weeks a season, and by 10 years and kids are losing millions of touches of the ball.
“The only changes we have are when you're doing the other foot and two of the mannequins change, which takes about 10 seconds. We like 12 a box, but it can be a few as four.
"When the technical skills have developed, we build up to a small-sided game. We believe the coaches should show and go, creating a balance of command and discovery.
"You show the players but then they have to discover it for themselves, because the messages will go in faster.”
Box Soccer has 70 coaches across 14 sites, with Darren Murray the overall Head of Coaching. The company also manages coach education at Hearts for their 12 to 16 age groups. For Colquhoun, the quality and development of coaches is paramount in youth development.
“Unless you’ve got a really good teacher and are enjoying it, it’s not going to happen. When I ask people what their favourite subject was at school, I follow up with ‘did you respect the teacher?’ The answer is always yes.
"If the coaches are teaching the wrong thing, you've got no hope, and that’s not the players’ fault. Coaching the coaches is more important than anything else in a development programme.
“There are two non-negotiables when we recruit coaches - that they have energy and enthusiasm. Everything else can be developed.”
Box Soccer say that 122 of their graduates have gone on to become pros, with Hearts and Scotland midfielder John Souttar (above) the most famous of the alumni. The 22-year-old attended the Cathro Clinic before joining Hearts at the age of nine in 2006.
The latest step for Colquhoun in adapting to the modern age has been the setting up a digital academy, which has interactive lessons, video guides and live seminars.
“As much as a lot of people in this country want to recreate the 1960s and 1970s, in everything from politics to sport, it isn’t going to happen," he re-iterates. "We have to embrace the digital age and find a way of developing young players in a structured way, allowing them to make their own decisions.”