Saturday 24 December 2011
The inaugural Premier League Christmas Truce Tournament has been hailed as an unqualified success in delivering player development and education to the next generation of young footballers.
The tournament, which took place from December 3-4, brought together Under-12 teams from England, Belgium, France and Germany in Ypres, the City of Peace, to recreate the spirit of the Christmas Truce in 1914.
Then, troops from those four countries - who had previously been fighting in the trenches of Ypres - sang carols, exchanged gifts and played impromptu games of football on Christmas Day.
But, as well as having large cultural significance, the weekend was also an opportunity for some of the most promising young players under the age of 12 to further their development by challenging themselves against the best players in Europe.
And the standard was high: England was represented by Premier League title holders Manchester United, Germany by Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund and Belgium by reigning Pro League champions Genk. RC Lens, one of France's most of iconic clubs and who have an outstanding youth development programme, were the fourth team.
The teams played in a round-robin tournament at the home of Belgian club KVK Ieper before a final and third-place play-off on the Sunday.
For Ged Roddy, Director of Youth at the Premier League, a weekend of 'Best v Best' football was perfectly in line with the principles outlined in the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) as it allows for the creation of more rounded footballers.
"This is what the Games Programme has got to be about: high-quality football, competitive, played in the right spirit with good coaches who understand that it's about development," said Roddy.
"But it's also important that it's competitive and it has an edge to it, and that's what we've had in terms of the football. The lads have all mixed in and the whole culture side of things has made this the tournament with something extra, and that's why it's been special. It's set the bar moving forward."
"The lads have all mixed in and the whole culture side of things has made this the tournament with something extra"
- Ged Roddy
Those thoughts were echoed by Manchester United Academy Director Brian McClair. "As a tournament for kids the Premier League Christmas Truce Tournament had everything," said the former United striker.
"The opposition was top class, the facilities were top class and the organisation was top class. The weekend has surpassed expectations. It's been wonderful to have the time with the kids this weekend because they inspire you. They're doing things that you're not expecting them to do on and off the pitch, which is really great."
Stuart Leicester, winning coach of the U12 Manchester United team that beat Borussia Dortmund in the final 3-0, believes the tournament will benefit his side moving forward.
"Overall it has been a really good learning experience for them," he said. "We've had brilliant behaviour on and off the field from the boys, which is really important. We put a lot of emphasis on enjoying football at the Manchester United Academy and this weekend has been great because it's been fun-packed. Hopefully if the first team does the business then next year we'll be invited back and we can come back as the holders."
Defeat was far from the mind of Dortmund coach Gary Gordon, an Englishman who was formerly a soldier based in Germany. The U12 coach, who brought through current German starlet Mario Götze, thought it was an ideal football festival for players and coaches alike.
"It's important to learn to lose," he said. "You can say we may have been defeated but tomorrow we are going to win again. Football was the victor this weekend and it has changed my view on kids from different teams from different countries.
"The Premier League has done a very good job here in Ypres. It's been well organised with a relaxed atmosphere that's just right for the children. Over the weekend the kids have made a lot of new friends and it's been very beneficial for the coaches too, who have been able to talk to each other, exchange information and talk tactics. But this is a tournament where the kids will develop and I could see my boys developing over the weekend."
The tournament had a large educational element. As World War I is on the curriculum for Year 7 children, the weekend offered a unique educational opportunity for the Manchester United boys especially. On the Friday before the tournament the boys visited the original Christmas Truce site.
The boys also went to a reception with the Mayor of Ypres before attending the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, where they read the Ode To Remembrance and laid commemorative wreaths. For McClair these events were the highlight of the Christmas Truce tournament.
"My favourite moment of the weekend was when the kids went to the Football Truce site, saw a patch of grass and had an impromptu kickabout," he said. "It was proper jumpers for goalposts stuff as the U11's took on the U12's. You would pay to watch that.
"One of our lads did the Ode To Remembrance. His great-great grandfather lost his life at Flanders"
- Brian McClair
"It was also touching that one of our lads did the Ode To Remembrance. His great-great grandfather lost his life at Flanders and is one of the names inscribed at the Menin Gate. So his reading was just something that you can't describe."
On Saturday evening the boys from all four clubs met to have dinner and they exchanged gifts, just as the troops had done on Christmas Day 1914. There were some very moving speeches by players from each of the clubs.
Also at the dinner were representatives of the Royal British Legion in Ypres, the Mayor and other local elected officials from the town, who were impressed at the efforts to keep what happened there in 1914 and throughout World War I relevant to a new generation of young people.
Roddy, who said that plans are already in place to make the Tournament an annual event, hopes the weekend will leave a lasting educational and football impression on all those that took part.
"Brian McClair summed it up perfectly," said Roddy. "He was speaking to the Manchester United lads just after they reached the final and said to them, whatever you do in the game - and hopefully you'll have an illustrious career - every year when it rolls around to the week before Christmas, you'll remember this for the rest of your lives.
"I think that sums up what those boys have got out of it."