01 Mar 2012

MARK ROBINS: SWISS ROLE MODEL

It’s all very well to talk up the importance of a youth programme that every club in the country is required to buy into but at what stage do you pass judgement on it? How long do you give it before you say that it has or has not worked?

In the case of Switzerland, it took more than a decade for the seeds to germinate, two more years for the buds to appear... and now the decision-makers at the Swiss FA have very good reason to feel pleased about themselves.

They introduced a nationwide system in 1996 that was designed to give their football a much-needed fresh sense of direction - and patience was key. In 2009, they won the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria, beating the hosts 1-0 in the final to record their first-ever success on the world stage. Last year, they reached the final of the European Under-21 Championships, beating Brazil, Germany and Italy before losing to Spain, and Manchester United fans won’t need reminding about the new-found strength of their club sides after Basle’s feats in this season’s Champions League.

More than coincidence? It certainly seems so - especially in a country that has a population of just 7.8 million - and Mark Robins was hugely impressed when he went to Switzerland to represent the LMA as part of a six-man UEFA Study Group to see how the programme operates.

In fact, it brought the memories flooding back because he was one of the original pupils in 1984 when the FA launched a School of Excellence at Lilleshall, where the finest youngsters in England aged 14-16 had a live-in education on both fronts. As it happened, he was one of a group of successful graduates from that scheme, going on to make 338 League appearances and score 96 goals for the likes of Manchester United, Norwich, Leicester and Rotherham, and he said: “I don’t know if my background influenced the decision to offer me a place in the Study Group but the development of young players has always interested me, and it was a fascinating four days.”

The Swiss FA’s youth programme, launched in 1996, was based around the setting up of 70 resorts for elite football across the country, working with three age groups. The under-13 to Under-15 group is known as Pre-Formation, 16-18 is Formation and 18-21 is Post-Formation. The country is split into 13 regions and in each of these, three or four of the professional clubs come together as a cooperative with the aim of producing players who will not only raise the standards of the game within Switzerland but also bring about a strong national team.

Within the 13 regions there are four National Schools which are attended by those who emerge as the finest young prospects, and Robins explained: “Everything is geared towards creating players who will eventually appear in the international team and their work is all built on the same philosophy. The Swiss FA have come up with a certain way of playing - it’s 4-3-3 - and their coaches go into the clubs and explain how they want the youngsters to be taught.

“Obviously there is funding involved and although you could say that there are strong similarities with our Academy system, the difference is that there are specific sessions laid down and teams have to play in a certain way.

“It’s all about co-operation. Everyone has ‘bought’ into what the Swiss FA are trying to do and it was a massive thing when they won the Under-17 World Cup because they were able to say... ‘There you are!’”

 The Study Group, which also included the FA’s Gareth Southgate, attended two matches at under-13 and under-16 levels and Robins added: “They passed the ball on the floor through the midfield and not once did we see a goalkeeper kick the ball from his hands. It was certainly impressive and easy to understand why UEFA felt we would benefit from the visit.

“They have laid down TIPS as the key ingredients of their programme - technique, intelligence, personality and speed - and seeing the whole thing in operation certainly gave us food for thought. Scotland and Bulgaria are among the other countries who have been to take a look at what they are doing and it’s understandable that it is attracting so much interest.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and although it took a while for the benefits to show through, you can’t fail to be impressed by what they’ve achieved in the past few years. It’s taken a generation but good young players are now really starting to come through.”

From Robins’ point of view, the trip provided a little bit more information to add to his growing file as he waits to land his next opportunity in League management, and he revealed: “I’m doing all I can to improve my knowledge while I’m between jobs - not just waiting for the phone to ring. For example, I’m currently doing a course on Evaluating Performance which I’m finding fascinating.”

Incidentally, he also recently made the short journey from his Derby home to look at the new National Football Centre at St George’s Park and exclaimed: “It’s absolutely magnificent - the best thing we’ve done in this country for a very long time.

“The Swiss set-up looked good in terms of facilities but St George’s Park is extraordinary. I thought we had it all at Lilleshall when I was at the School of Excellence but this is something else. It’s got every single aspect covered.”