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Home arrow News & Press Archive arrow Press Highlights arrow England can be taught to samba - The Times
England can be taught to samba - The Times PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 21 November 2004

by Rick Broadbent, The Times  

THE DIAMOND-STUDDED J J NECKLACE failed to impress Simon Clifford. He listened to Jermaine Jenas talk about houses and then asked: “What do you do to improve yourself as a footballer?” The question cut through the fawning and wrong-footed the Newcastle United player. “You’re out of order,” he replied, but Clifford was unabashed. “You’ll get 20 caps and everyone will forget about you, ” he continued. “Now shut up and listen to me.”

The next day, Jenas rang Clifford and thanked him for issuing the “talk I’ve needed for years”. He is not alone in his gratitude. From Glenn Hoddle and Sir Clive Woodward to Garforth Town and the balaclava-clad misfits on the mean streets of Leeds, more and more people are listening to Clifford. Forget Sven-Göran Eriksson, this former primary school teacher may be the most important person in English football. “I’ll have half the England team within ten years and the other half will be ringing me,” he said.  

It would be easy to dismiss such a claim as fantasy, coupled with the prediction that Garforth will make the Premiership, were it not for the work he has already done. Clifford exudes an almost unnatural positive energy. Hence, 200,000 children have enrolled in his samba-style football schools, he has endorsements from Michael Owen and Jay-Jay Okocha and he has signed Lee Sharpe, the former England winger, for Garforth. On Saturday, Socrates, the hirsute hero of the Brazil team of the 1980s, also played for Clifford’s Northern Counties East League team.

Clifford has used Brazil as his role model in changing what he deems to be hackneyed coaching methods. The futebol de salão, a small, heavy ball that Juninho and his ilk played with until they were 14, is used widely to develop skills, but Clifford’s holistic approach goes much deeper. It is a method born of a chance meeting with Juninho’s father during the Brazilian’s time with Middlesbrough. “They didn’t have any mates and were glad of any bugger to talk to,” Clifford said. “He came over here on four times the money he was used to and he expected things to be four times better. But São Paulo had five training centres like nothing you’d ever seen and Middlesbrough were training in a prison with dog s*** on the pitch. He said that, in terms of preparation, the smallest street-corner kids’ club in Brazil was more professional than Manchester United.” In the summer of 1997, after a visit to the country around the new year, Clifford took out a £5,000 loan and spent his school holiday on a trip to Brazil. It changed his life. Armed with a backpack, a camera and a notepad, he stayed in a cockroach-infested dormitory, filmed children playing in the favelas (slums) and trained with Denilson. “They’re much fitter over there,” Clifford said. “They did a 10km run at São Paulo and Denilson was first in 31 minutes. The goalkeeper was last in 37. Over here, everyone would struggle to get inside 37.”

Inspired, he set up his first school. The idea grew and a television documentary of his trip led to a meeting arranged by Hoddle, the England coach at the time, and John Gorman, his assistant. “They’d changed Swindon’s away kit to yellow and blue to be like Brazil (when Hoddle was manager there) and were really into it,” he said. “Gorman introduced me to his wife as the man who is going to change English football.” Little wonder Woodward wants to meet him as he plots his foray into football. Clifford has no time for the insularity and nepotism of British football.

He mentions the Everton coach who was dismissive during a match against one of Clifford’s teams. “He told me our players were tactically naive. I told him we were 3-1 up.” He lauds another Goodison man, Tosh Farrell, as “one of the best of the FA's academy coaches” but says that the system is absolutely frightening. “Clubs scout kids on their ability to beat a man, but when they get a bit older it’s pass, pass, pass,” Clifford said. “We had a kid who went for a trial at Newcastle. He brought the ball down with the outside of his boot and the coach went mad. ‘You can’t do that,’ he screamed.” It is one example of many offered. There was the idea to put sand pitches in the centres of excellences to be like Brazil, even though São Paulo — the home of Pelé, Juninho, et al — is 45 miles from the coast. “I thought, ‘Is this the level of the debate?’ People think it’s about facilities, but show me a facility that makes a footballer. Bring me balls and a coaching programme.

Bring me kids every night. Don’t build some daft bloody temple. Kids here might do four hours a week. In Brazil they do 20. So England’s future opponents are doing five times as much. It’s not rocket science.” Skill, he says, is drummed out of you in England, but his charges learn 200 moves, mainly named after Brazilian legends. “Here, it’s all results-based, which means they spend their time on set plays and a bit of tactical stuff. They might get a ball out for the warm-up. In Brazil, even at a session on a scrap of grass, there will be four coaches and 40 balls. It’s been allowed to go rotten in this country.” Having assumed Garforth’s debts of £100,000, Clifford wants the club to prove that his methods will work at senior level.

There is also a more philanthropic side to his work and he has recruited a group of youths from Chapeltown, an area of Leeds where crime and drug use are the norm. “The first three months are getting them used to living on £40 a week,” he said. “I make them have a drugs test. They have to give up everything.” Clifford believes that England’s previous concession to Brazilian ways has been to bury its head in the sand and he is adamant that he will strike gold in coalmining country. Samba on the streets of Garforth? Socrates is on the pitch and Pelé’s shirt on the clubhouse wall. The dance has begun.    

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