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Tuesday 19 November 2013

Education at heart of Christmas Truce ethos

Young players learn all about First World War after contesting St George's Park finals

Journalist and FA Level 1 coach Peter Lansley visited St George's Park recently for the Premier League Christmas Truce Tournament National Finals. Here is his account of what he saw and how the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan has the education of young players at its heart.

"The EPPP talks about the holistic development of our young players and wanting to encourage rounded individuals – that's very central to the plan"
Martyn Heather

Much talk regarding the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) has been on the future and the aim to develop more home-grown players. But the plan also has the education of young players at its core and so history has a key role to play. 

Nowhere is this more visible than the part of the EPPP's Games Programme that brings the events of World War One to life – the Premier League Christmas Truce Tournament.

Next year marks the centenary of one of football's more ethereal tales. It is the story of the Christmas Truce, when soldiers in combat on the Western Front in Belgium laid down their arms on Christmas Day and ventured into no-man's land to sing carols, exchange gifts and play football.

The Germans apparently defeated the Saxons 3-2 in this outbreak of peace amid the harrowing ordeals that lasted throughout the First World War, and the event served to demonstrate the enduring power of the sport to unite people. It is a legacy that lives on to this day.

Since 2011 the Premier League has celebrated this unique piece of football history. Every December it runs the Christmas Truce Tournament in the small town of Ypres, in Belgium, where much of the fighting took place in the Great War. It has become a successful platform for the entwined educational and football development of the best young players in England, France, Belgium and Germany, as two teams from professional clubs in each country come together to honour their forefathers.

History lessons

When the Under-12 players come together they will unquestionably want to win, but the perspectives of the history lessons they are learning mean their trip will mean so much more than which team scores more goals than the other, claims Martyn Heather, Head of Education at the Premier League.

"We try to develop this idea about the 24-hour professional, that what you do off the field is just as important as what you do on the pitch"
Martyn Heather

"The Elite Player Performance Plan talks a lot about the holistic development of our young players and wanting to encourage rounded individuals, and that's very central to the plan," Heather says. "We try to develop this idea about the 24-hour professional, that what you do off the field is just as important as what you do on the pitch. We have to try and educate them from an early age that to be a professional footballer isn't just about the adulation, it's about everything.

"But that's why this is such a successful tournament. The qualifying stages of the tournament, where two teams compete for the right to represent the Premier League in Ypres, are very popular with the coaches and the players because it provides the opportunity to mix that educational aspect with the football." 

The national finals, at St George’s Park in Burton, have the past two years taken place over Remembrance Weekend in November. The aim is to provide the boys with an experience they will never forget, not only for the Under-12s of Arsenal, the tournament winners this year, and Manchester City, who will accompany them to Ypres next month, but for all the players, parents and coaches in attendance.

Squads from Bolton Wanderers, West Ham United, Stoke City and Reading all competed, socialised together and commemorated those who had lost their lives fighting for their country. At 11am on Remembrance Sunday, in the cold and the sun on pitch eight at St George's Park, play stopped for two-minute's silence in a ceremony ending with the sounding of the Last Post.

"By making them read out the poems, lay down the wreaths, read out the names of those who died, you're making these young players think about what they're doing," Heather adds. "It's important. It does go solemn.

"But that’s the reason why this tournament keeps on growing, because of the amazing response of the clubs and the players. The more we do it, the more we see the positive effects. It's surpassed our expectations."

Honouring soldiers

At the ceremony, Reading's player wore T-shirts bearing the names of players from the club who went to war but survived while the coaches' T-shirts had the names of those who had died. It was part of what the club had taught their U12s about the war's impact on the club ahead of their trip to St George's Park, according to the club's Foundation coach Chris Sweetman.

"With the centenary approaching it is important for younger people to know more about such historical events and the impact they have had on their lives today"
Alex Gwyther

"The players attended an hour-long presentation with the club's historian who had gone to Reading Museum and got some World War One artefacts as well as mock-up sets from the TV series 'Blackadder Goes Forth', models of trenches, for the kids to look at," says Sweetman, who adds that it was a learning experience for the coaches, too.

"A lot of it was geared around football as well as the songs the soldiers would have sung. The boys learnt how many players who returned from the war weren't able to play again because of the injuries they suffered. Our kids complain about their feet hurting and blisters but we showed them their suffering was slight compared with the players who served in the war."

All the boys also had the tale of the Christmas Truce brought to life in front of them by Alex Gwyther, whose one-man performance 'Our Friend The Enemy' tells the story of Private James Boyce, of the Queen's 1st Regiment, through his diary entries about the truce.

"The kids were really responsive, which was surprising because we thought that they might have been restless after a day's worth of football," Gwyther says. "They came up to me in droves afterwards and asked loads of questions about the stories.

"It's great that the Premier League is taking this angle, especially for 12-year-olds, who do not learn that much about the First World War at school. With the centenary approaching it is important for younger people to be more knowledgeable about such historical events and the impact they have had on their lives today."

Christmas Truce Conference

The Premier League is already scaling up the event up to mark the 100th anniversary. Heather is bringing together all the Heads of Welfare from the 20 Premier League clubs for a conference over the Christmas Truce Tournament weekend in Ypres from 6-8 December. He wants the educationists to see the impact of bringing history to life and making it relevant to young people. All the competing clubs have been working on First World War projects and the results have been edifying.

"You can engage young people and make them understand the Christmas Truce – it's our responsibility to do that"
Martyn Heather

"You can engage young people and make them understand the Christmas Truce, which all these lads have done back in their studies with their clubs," Heather, a former teacher, says. "We've said don't just look at those who died, look at those who came back and maybe couldn't play football again.

"When you follow a story, it's quite something. Ahead of the national finals the goalkeeper in the West Ham team had done research about a goalkeeper who went to war and came back with shellshock and never played again. It was an emotional piece. It makes you realise you can engage young people. It's our responsibility to do that."

The Christmas Truce Tournament in Ypres is a very interactive educational experience. The day before the matches players tour the sites, the war graves and the museum before the Ode to Remembrance is read at the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. Members of each team lay a wreath at the memorial, whose large Hall of Memory contains names on stone panels of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found.

In between the elite eight-team tournament over the Saturday and Sunday, the boys all come together for a special dinner, which provides another cultural experience, explains Heather.

"We mix all the tables up, so that there's two Germans, two French, two Belgians, two English and no adults," he says. "They exchange gifts and by the end of the evening they're all best mates. Then the next day on the field, you see them all cheering each other on. That idea of developing friendship is a big part of what this is about, respect and friendship.

"They're the messages. We're not here to glorify war, we're here to highlight that out of something terrible, something humane happened, and football's part of the reason for that. Those messages are the same today as they were nearly a century ago."

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Key Points

  • Journalist and FA Level 1 coach Peter Lansley reports from Premier League Christmas Truce Tournament National Finals at St George's Park
  • Greater emphasis is placed on education for the event at St George's Park with players learning about First World War
  • Young players made to think about sacrifice made by their forefathers in combat