Sports

Visions of a new, exciting schoolboy football structure

BY ANDREW EDWARDS

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

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For over one hundred years, the Inter-secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) has been a champion of Jamaica's sporting prowess. Providing competitive platforms for the emergence, identification and nurturing of the vast majority of the nation's top talents, certainly in track and field, football, netball, basketball and cricket.

Through the years, ISSA has by and large proven itself to be dynamic, adaptable and a reliable ally to most sporting disciplines. Truthfully, the organistion is hardly recognised for the Herculean tasks it fulfills annually, keeping the conveyor belts of athletic and sporting development going, so that Jamaica may continue to increase in success, recognition and record-breaking feats on varied global sport stages.

Adapting to global trends and maintaining its core values has never been and will never be a simple process for ISSA. The merging of the annual Boys' and Girls' Athletics Championships must be acknowledged as the single most progressive adaptation made by ISSA. There can be no disputing the fact that since that merger in 1999, Jamaica has achieved unprecedented success in global track and field events.

Football is the next big sport, possibly the biggest, managed by ISSA, and for years now the debate has been brewing about how to adapt and develop the sport.

Truth be told, much of the debate has been centred around the number of games played in the 12 weeks of competition and subdividing the competition in tiers. These debates are absolutely necessary and need to be taken to another level if — as we have done in track and field — we are to become the envy of the world in football as well.

Below is an articulation of some proposals that are believed will allow for better, sustained development of football players without compromising the academic pursuits of the students who play the sport. Before the proposals are opined, let it be clearly stated that as a former student athlete, a teacher of more than 20 years and a coach of almost as many years, I do not subscribe to the myopic and biased view that student athletes are less successful academically because of their participation in sports.

In a previous article it was posited that ISSA considers a technical department for each sport it manages. This is essential for progressive, sustainable development of individual sports in conjunction with the respective sport association.

While I am not aware of the extent of relations between ISSA and respective sport associations, I do know that there is cooperation. In fact, it is common knowledge that the annual boys' and girls' championships does have a technical committee comprised of some of the most astute and accomplished minds of the sport. This should also be the case in football and all other sports.

The unique history and culture of our sports infrastructure, football in particular, obliges ISSA, in tandem with the JFF, to pursue a cooperative path for the development of our youth football. FIFA, through its technical study group (TSG), has found and embraced that youth football in some countries is best developed through the school system. Jamaica is one such country.

According to the FIFA manual on youth football, the recommended minimum number of competitive games essential for the development of youth players is 30 games, ideally spread over a minimum seven months. The development occurs best when players are matched up against others of similar age and level of play. This is very instructive for the proposals that follow here.

A total revamp of the existing football structure is necessary to achieve the sustainable developments that will improve our international football possibilities. The Manning and DaCosta Cups should be replaced with a three-tier national competition (Divisions One, Two and Three). Ideally, using the 2017 performance rankings, schools will be placed accordingly. The top-ranked forty-eight schools, across the Manning and daCosta Cup, will be placed in Division One, with the next 48 in Division Two and the rest in Division Three. Schools which did not participate in the previous campaign automatically enter in Division Three.

Each tier will comprise a maximum 48 teams divided into four groups of 12. The top four teams in each group progress to the quarter-finals (four groups of four played home and away), with the winners progressing to the semi-finals.

The lowest-ranked four teams (across all zones) in Divisions One and Two will be demoted, and the four semi-finalists from Divisions Two and Three will be promoted to the next level.

In the preliminary round each team will play all teams in their group home and away (22 games) — September to December. Games will be played, on average, every four days. This will reduce burnout and students missing the same school day each week. The post-preliminary rounds of the competition will be played in January and February, with the finals slated for mid-February.

A single knockout competition should be contested between the top-ranked 128 teams, across all tiers, at the end of the first round of the preliminary stage. This equals seven rounds of competition, starting in November. The first three or four rounds should be contested in November and December, with the last three or four in January and February. The final should be the last game of the season at the end of February. Match-ups will be determined using a draw from a single pot and also to determine who plays at home.

Under this structure, all teams will play a minimum of 22 games. The top two from each tier will play a total of 31 games, and if said teams make it to the knockout finals, they will play a maximum of 38 games.

These proposals further posit that the age structure be changed to Under-17, Under-15 and Under-13, respectively. After age 17 players should be decided on their futures and at that age, high school football is definitely not the best platform for the next stage of their development. This age structure is also best aligned to the age structure of FIFA and consequently the national teams. Remember, the context is future global dominance.

In year one, Under-15 and Under-13 teams of each school will compete in the same division as the Under-17s. Thereafter, each age level team of the said school determines their own level annually.

One of the key concerns of the 'small schools' is the poaching of the 'bigger schools' of their players. This can be controlled by a combination of rule changes as follows. The student player should meet certain transfer criteria to be determined. The receiving school should be required to compensate the sending school for their investment in the player being transferred, as per FIFA rules. Restrict the number of transferred players who can be rostered by schools per season and for each game. Schools recruiting players from beyond their Ministry of Education geographic demarcation should bear the burden of proof for minimum standards of accommodation and supervision for each student recruited. Impose transfer bans on schools which recruit players who do not play a set number of games, especially in instances when said player was a regular at his previous school.

This proposal will necessarily mean increased travel for some schools, particularly those from the urban areas. Note, however, that among rural schools it is not unusual in football for schools in St Thomas to be paired with schools in St James or Westmoreland. In cricket it is quite common to have zones spreading across three or four parishes. The travelling is a part of the development and may very well prove a great equaliser.

The argument that football cannot straddle two terms is founded in bias. Basketball and track and field already straddle the same two terms as football and cricket is played from January to May sometimes June, also straddling two-terms.

Breaking tradition is never easy, especially ones such as the Manning Cup and Olivier Shields contested since 1910 and the daCosta Cup since 1950. However, when considered, one must agree that the current structure has waned in effectiveness in -sofar as preparing the next generation of Reggae Boyz.

These changes will, without doubt, give rise to numerous challenges and criticisms. However, in the broad scheme of things, when the big picture is observed, change is necessary. These proposals clearly increase the possibilities for significant developments over the short, medium and long term. Increased numbers of competitive games over a longer period of time will accrue unimaginable growth for our youth players.

Subdividing the schools in tiers will allow for teams to compete closer to their levels of development, which is critical at the respective age. Many 'small schools' will now have a better chance of winning an increased number of matches and possibly titles.

This structure will, over time, improve the quality, readiness and maturity of players invited to the youth national teams. Our natural assets of athleticism will gradually be supplemented with deeper tactical nous, tactical appreciation and understanding.

There's no panacea for success, and whatever changes are determined by the ISSA will need time to be fully appreciated and accepted. The rewards at the national and international levels will also take time.

As we have already started a new year, I call on all readers to raise the level of your expectations, increase your commitment to the realisation of those expectations, increase your desires, and back them up with the requisite attitudes and work. Remember, dreams only work if you do; so, get on up and create the kind of year you truly and deeply desire. I give thanks for this opportunity to share, for the talents and numerous gifts with which I have been blessed, and I am thankful for all that awaits in 2018.

Editor's note: Andrew is a former national youth coach and the current

technical director of Genesis Football Academy and head coach

of Manchester High School.

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