Italian UEFA licensed coach out to revolutionise youth football

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GIAN Marco Campagnolo is not your average youth football coach in Scotland but, as head of North Merchiston’s under-15s, he is attempting to lead a football revolution.

The slender and immaculately-turned-out Italian with perfect posture sips cappuccino in a Bruntsfield delicatessen, but his dialogue is not centred around sociology, the subject in which he lectures at a university and which would befit his appearance as an academic.

Instead, the Lombardy-born 34-year-old professes the ills of Scottish football, the other half of his “double life” becoming more apparent as words pass the lips of the holder of a UEFA ‘B’ coaching licence and former Serie A youth teamer.

National team coach Craig Levein has attempted to establish a more effective coaching structure for Scottish football talent, with particular emphasis on the on-field education of young players and Campagnolo is outspoken on the major issues he thinks Levein and Co must confront, saying many youngsters are unable to enjoy the sport both because they lack sufficient technical grounding due to the over-inflated value placed on results of games.

“If the result is the only measure of performance, the boys will get disappointed and lose interest. Players and families need to know that performance is not all-important. If you’re a competent coach, you tell them victory is not the measure of performance, you tell them “you are improving”.

“I saw a player in a Saturday youth game, he was crying after losing. The only thing these players have is a lack of enjoyment of football. They are not given the elements to enjoy football, this is why they cry when they lose. In Italy, players enjoy playing.

“There’s an element of enjoyment in football, but [as a player] you have to be in control of what you do. If you have the technical skills, you are enjoying the moment you make a short pass, not fearing it.”

AC Milan and Italy star Andrea Pirlo, who grew up in a village adjacent to Campagnolo, is a prime example of the type of technically-gifted player Scotland seems currently incapable of nurturing.

Campagnolo, who spent time at local senior side Cremonese in his teens, left Lombardy to combine working towards his UEFA ‘B’ licence with study at university in Trento, leaving class to undertake theory and practice sessions from 6-11pm each day. After enjoying success as coach of one of the region’s leading youth teams, he came to Scotland after accepting a job at the University of Edinburgh with a keenness to continue at that level of football.

“I didn’t have expectations when I first arrived, but I was curious,” he smiled. “In Edinburgh, I saw football everywhere – in the Meadows, in schools at weekends, so I was excited. I was attracted to the grassroots movement.

“I started from the bottom. I didn’t know about football here. I would like eventually to coach at youth level at a professional team, but my journey is to learn local habits.

“I was struck by the absence of tactics: in games you’d have 20 boys in a space of ten square metres, and in training they’d spend 30 minutes practising corners. Then, I realised I had players who could run more, move more, and who had more aggression than in Italy.”

It did not take long for Campagnolo to exert his own style while setting up his team to play to the players’ existing strengths. However, an approach that incorporates Barcelona-style ball retention has not gone down well with everyone in the Capital.

“Teams we play against get annoyed but if we’re getting criticism from the other team, good. I see these matches as stages for players to increase their technical skills and to be stimulated. My boys now play a certain way and started well, but they lost a couple of games and lost confidence. It was a crisis, and I had to react to their [natural] skills.

“During “the crisis”, the boys would ask why they should play this way, taking time to build opportunities instead of the lottery of the long ball. So, I told them before one game, “Forget about tactics” – and they lost. From there, they took on my suggestions and combined them with their own quality.

“In Scotland, you have good spirit, aggression and strength. I was unhappy because changing my way of playing was to lose the opportunity for the boys to learn, but we didn’t change radically.”

It is not just on matchdays that the Italian is attempting to alter a culture. Last month, Campagnolo’s North Merchiston team contested 13 competitive matches, with time for just four training sessions in between, but now they have games only every Sunday, the coach has noticed a marked improvement.

If Levein reaches his Holy Grail of 10,000 hours of football practice for kids, more of that time, says Campagnolo, must be spent on honing skills on the training ground rather than contesting matches.