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Wednesday 12 June 2013

Youth Focus: Futsal key to Fulham's flourishing fledglings

In a week devoted to Youth Development, Fulham Academy coach Geoff Noonan talks futsal

  • Fulham U12s lift the trophy after winning the Barclays Premier League Futsal Finals

  • West Brom players receive advice during the Barclays Premier League Futsal Finals

  • The 2013 Barclays Premier League Futsal Finals took place in Leeds over two days

The incorporation of futsal in the Premier League's Games Programme has helped young players in the United Kingdom become as good as their continental counterparts according to Fulham Academy Coach Developer Geoff Noonan. "Having done lots of foreign tournaments in the Under-9 to Under-14 age group the development of our players compares favourably to that of other European countries," he told premierleague.com.

"The development of our players compares favourably to that of other European countries"
Geoff Noonan

This week, as premierleague.com focuses on Youth Development and the changes that have already been made in the first 12 months of a £320m four-year Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), Noonan offers an optimistic take on the future of tomorrow's stars.

Noonan is particularly positive about his own academy players who are already beginning to reap the benefits of Premier League-organised events, such as the 2013 Barclays Premier League Futsal Finals from which his Fulham's Under-12s emerged triumphant.

"The boys have loved it," said the 46-year-old. "Our U12s were very happy being winners but, irrespective of that, we've come away with lots of learning and lots of great development for our players, having played for two days and tried lots of skills and challenged ourselves against different teams in the event."

After three years of consultation and development the EPPP came into force at the beginning of the 2012/13 season, with its chief aim to create more and better home-grown players who are properly equipped to succeed at the highest levels of the Premier League.

The introduction of futsal as part of the first stage of the three-phase Performance Pathway - the U9 to U11 Foundation stage - appears significant, with the boys gleaning the advantages of having played in the numerous events staged over recent years by the Premier League.

Noonan is a leading advocate of the five-a-side sport he believes has been a major factor in his youth teams' success and which serves to counter the received wisdom that the United Kingdom is failing to produce players who are comfortable on the ball.

  • Coach Developer Geoff Noonan has been at Fulham Academy for nine years

  • Fulham score against West Brom on their way to the national futsal title

  • Fulham's players celebrate after winning the Barclays Premer League Futsal Finals

"Futsal is a five-a-side game which is normally played indoors on a hard court surface area," he explained. "We've had it in our programme for four years through the Premier League and accessed the various activities and futsal tournaments the Premier League has run.

"Futsal brings benefits from the age of nine, right through to 14"
Geoff Noonan

"We include futsal in our syllabus from the age of nine through to 14s, so it goes from our foundation phase into our Youth Development phase and we feel that the benefits it brings are enormous. It's highly technical, but also highly tactical because it's a five-a-side game in which the players have to be skilful, quick-thinking, good at one v ones, good at wall-passing and good at movement. It brings benefits from the age of nine, right through to the age 14."

Those benefits have already begun to take shape in the form of silverware. Fulham have won the last two Under-18 Barclays Premier League titles and lifted the Under-19 Dallas Cup at the end of March, and the younger generations at the West London club are also excelling themselves. A year after the Under-15s came runners-up in the Barclays Premier League Futsal Finals, the Under-12 won the competition outright.

The differences between futsal and orthodox five-a-side football are small but essential in helping nurture talent. The ball is heavier, thereby encouraging it to be played along the floor for longer and promoting passing and a focus on ball skill. Other rules also help promote close control.

"There's a four-second rule where if the ball goes out players have to play the ball back in very quickly, which encourages quick decision-making and movement, and the back-pass rule is probably the biggest benefit," added Noonan. "Once the ball has been played out from the goalkeeper to a defender he can't play it back to the goalkeeper, so you have to attack and go forward either by beating a player or by passing forwards."

In the Foundation Stage players are encouraged to develop a mastery of the ball, attributed a minimum quantity of guaranteed game time, offered multiple age-appropriate game formats and exposed to a dedicated futsal programme.

Noonan believes the latter has been integral in helping Fulham’s fledglings flourish. "There's no question that it encourages skill, and individual skill, such as one v ones," he said. "Futsal is just part of the overall programme but it's been a good part, especially in the winter months.

U16 forward Patrick Roberts has blossomed at Fulham's Academy

"To be able to access a Premier League-organised event in January or February in an indoor arena when we know it will go ahead, knowing that it's being played to encourage skill and not out in the freezing cold on a heavy pitch, when you're trying to produce technical players, is the key difference. It's played a major part for us. We've found the Premier League events to be excellent and we've been really happy to support them."

"It's crucial to have these events. The credibility it gives to the Games Programme and the excitement it brings for the boys to play different opposition is priceless"
Geoff Noonan

Although at Foundation Stage the nurturing of ball skills is given precedence above winning matches, Fulham's success in recent futsal tournaments and in older youth competitions suggests that they are on the right track. The U12s had to qualify for the Barclays Premier League Futsal finals by coming in the top two in a southern section qualifying event, held in East London.

They then progressed to the finals, which were held in Leeds over two days and which involved the National Futsal champions from Spain, Inter Movistar. "It proved an invaluable experience for the players concerned. It just gave the boys a real chance to play against some really excellent teams and individuals from clubs across the country," said Noonan. "The Spanish champions came over as well so it was good to be able to compare ourselves against them as well.

"It's crucial to have these events. The year before our Under-15s went to the national event and ended up playing Barcelona at futsal as well. The credibility it gives to the Games Programme and the excitement it brings for the boys to play different opposition is priceless. To play against different clubs in Europe presents different technical and tactical challenges and it’s an experience we really want to give our boys at Fulham."

Premier League futsal events

The Premier League has been running national futsal tournaments for several years and Noonan believes they are improving in quality. "They get better every year," he said. "The events have grown in terms of the age groups that have been able to access it. The organisation and set-up for the finals has improved each year and it's really helped the players. The players have experienced it year on year and we've probably seen more development each year we've gone where our players have improved playing that game and becoming more skilful."

One player to have reaped the rewards of the Games Programme is academy forward Pat Roberts, who has benefitted from futsal during his progression through the youth ranks. The 16-year-old played in Fulham's Barclays Under-18 Premier League Final and is now an England Under-16 international.

The level of organisation for these futsal tournaments means that the negative perception on the development of young players in England is one that is not shared by Noonan. "Having done lots of foreign tournaments and played against foreign opposition in the U9-U14 age groups the development of our players compares favourably to that of other European countries.

"Having spent time playing against teams from Spain, France, Germany and Holland we feel that our players are developing very well and in comparison. The challenge is to keep encouraging the development of individual players, of individual skills, to form the best players rather than the best teams; that’s the challenge at these younger age groups as the boys go through the academy."

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Key Points

  • We look at the U9-U11 Foundation Phase in a week devoted to Youth Development
  • Fulham's Geoff Noonan explains why futsal is beneficial to the development of youngsters
  • The Cottagers recently won the 2013 Barclays Premier League Futsal Finals