Early in the conversation and midway through it, Roy Millar spoke about how development in football happens by design and not chance. “It’s been a bit by chance for India, hasn’t it…,” said the former director of coaching at Northern Ireland who retired in 2009 after for 34 years.
The grassroots programme of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is less than four years old, youth development began a little earlier and a scouting system is taking baby steps. So, Millar really nailed it. But then, a start needs to be made and, by his own admission, when Millar joined the Irish Football Association (IFA) in 1975 all he had was a table and a secretary.
“The IFA just ran football. It was nice to start on a clean slate. Now, it has 70 full-time employees in its coaching department. And that’s for a country of 1.8 million,” said Millar, who was here to conduct a Fifa programme with focus on passing, dribbling and small-sided games for youth coaches chosen by the AIFF.
“These coaches implemented what they are being taught in small-sided (such as 4V4, 6V6) games. I was very happy to see how receptive they were. If you participate in the practical side, you’ll learn a heck of a lot more. Some of these coaches might not be able to do it themselves but will know the difficulties kids could face while doing them,” he said.
At their clubs, these coaches will help in the most important stage in the development of a player. “After a player is 17 or 18, you are not going to change him technically. Maybe, only tactically and physically. So, the phase from 12-17 is the most important. Because at that time even your brain allows you to take in new techniques, new skills. At grassroots, you just let them play with a bit of coaching,” he said.
Ideally, the 21 coaches should have a refresher course every six months, said Millar. Ideally again, they should get their B and A licenses, he said. Sometimes, Millar said, in all the talk about football the obvious things get lost. “The most important thing is the player. The second most important is the coach because he helps improve the player. Everything else comes after that.”
Like everyone else from football’s first world --- Northern Ireland is ranked 28th in the last Fifa list --- Millar spoke of India’s potential, adding “it also means you are not quite good enough now.”
To get somewhere, according to Millar, would take 10 years if India has a plan. “In 30 years at IFA, I basically put in place three 10-year plans. We would redo strategy every four years because government funding tends to come in four-year Olympic cycles but, holistically, India could look at a 10-year plan for youth development.”
A realistic target would be to try and get youth teams to the finals of the Asian age-group tournaments regularly. As they grow up, they would then want to be part of the Asian Cup finals, he said. Between 1984 and now, India have qualified twice for the continent’s showpiece event.
“The U-17 World Cup is a great experience because an India team would get to know what it means to play in a World Cup at that age. This group would then be hungry for more,” he said.
The AIFF and the Union government have lined up a series of foreign tours for the World Cup team. A key to India’s development would be to find the enthusiasm and resources to keep this going for age-group teams after 2017, said Millar. “Send age-group teams to play in Japan, China maybe South Africa regularly. It could be difficult after 2017 but you’ve got to find a way to do it.”
Studying successful football countries is recommended in Lakshya, the master plan made by former AIFF technical director Robert Baan, and Millar broadly listed how they do it back home.
“In Northern Ireland, we don’t miss players. We have six regions and in each there would be two to three full-time grassroots coaches, one full-time excellence coach and two-three part-time excellence coach. Each region sends it best 25 players from under-12 to under-15 to a regional academy. So, at any point in time, I would know my best 150 under-12 players. From the academies they move to the national teams, so there is a pathway,” he said.
Defender Aaron Hughes, who will be Kerala Blasters’ marquee in ISL3, has come through every step in the system, said Millar. “He played for me in the under-16, under-17, under-19, under-21 and then B internationals. He is a good leader and the type of player India can use as a role model.”
Hughes is Northern Ireland’s only outfield player with over 100 international caps and at 103, that number is second only to their legendary goalie Pat Jennings.
The AIFF’s plan for regional academies got shelved not long after it was floated but there has been a spurt in youth football in recent times. There are under-15 and under-18 competitions for I-League teams in addition to national championships for the under-14, under-16 and under-18s.
According to data provided by the AIFF, there have been 68 grassroots programmes in India and there are 1657 grassroots leaders. But only around half of India’s 29 states have adopted the programme or been exposed to it. Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and Madhya Pradesh, ranked fifth, have had no grassroots footprints. The AIFF’s coaching department has four full-time employees, including technical director Scott O’Donell, and a freelancer.
Since retirement, Millar’s turned down first team coaching jobs with Dallas FC (“too close to retirement”) and a club in Hong Kong preferring to freelance for FIFA, UEFA, clubs in the USA and South Africa.
As FIFA instructor, Millar has to do a lot of talking. That he loves doing it comes through when we meet at his hotel after a hard, humid day at work where sessions began at 9am and continued till 5:30pm. “Because the only other thing I’m involved with is a nine-year-old grandson and he often tells me that I am too much talk and no play,” said the former manager of the Northern Ireland U-21 team.