How I Learned to Love the Pass

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, centrebacks 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 opportunity. The pundits complaint is that regular
football jamborees have vanished from our streets and housing estates.
With disdain, they say they’ve witnessed the street game withdrawing
from kids lives. A valid worry it certainly is. It is 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, amongst whose numbers
future players will surely be plucked, honing the finer aspects of
their game? Hardly cooped up in their rooms filing away countless
hours on intense highly developed football scenario simulations?

Some edition of FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer or Championship Manager
are almost sure 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 in 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 FIFA to a qualified
surgeon enhancing their motor skills without risking a patients
health, I am saying that there is benefits to dedicated playing time.

With the proliferation of ProZone (a statistic program that covers
players’ movements in great depth leading to a detailed report for
managers and medical staff.) 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. FIFA
already has a ‘Be a Pro’ mode where the camera is situated just behind
one player taking the user right into the midst of the action. 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 goes to show 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 mother had
played basketball in her youth and my father was an avid surfer. My
connection to football 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 ‘goalside’,
‘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 with which to couple my pace, and I’ll
admit this combo 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 thoughts on the imperative
development stage in a players career to be through ages 23-26 but he
is taking for granted that they had training from 16-21 which was the
age I started back playing. 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 weeknight astro kickabouts. To my horror I found no
gaping wing space which had been my refuge on a full size pitch. There was
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 21 and had begun to play FIFA regularly with my
friends. It was the only video game we played. Its competitive
replayable nature lent itself perfectly to when we’d hang around
together. Anyone who has played a football simulator will know that
after a few matches a players 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. In those days my game quickly became
apparent, 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. A
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. I never
did 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 dagerous
positions. I just bypassed the technical, intelligent side of the
game, missing out on its merits. However here I was being enlightened
to the delicate side of the game by FIFA of all things.

Transferring the new found appreciation of the pass to the pitch only
happened at an hour long astro match every tuesday and thursday over
the course of a year and a half. 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 astro but I now take pleasure in finding a pass and even
more so in the interception of one. I’ve started to relish watching
Javier Mascherano and the way he energetically nips in to break down
an opposing attack.

Cesc Fabregas says that he takes more pleasure from creating a goal
than scoring one. With his education (a La Masia) 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 astro, and it means a hell of a lot more than when I

After FIFA’s influence I found myself with 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 FIFA, nothing can replace physical practice, though the
attributes it can appear to aid seem to be the possibility of raising
awareness of tactics and new 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 a players development.

As for the kids, the pundits shouldn’t worry too much. Every time I
have an astro match booked we have to herd off what seem like at least
four squadfuls of children to free up the pitch. They have merely
moved their street game to the pristine surface of the astro pitches.
At my local club (Strand Celtic, Strandhill, Sligo, Ireland) there is
over 150 u-8’s. 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

There be merit in those there pixels.

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