‘We don’t want the shirt to be heavy’: England Under 18s manager Kevin Betsy is using his experience as a late developer to help the next generation of England stars at St George’s Park
- England bosses know the vital role of grassroots football in providing prospects
- A key challenge at their St George’s Park home is to ease pressure on youngsters
- Under 18s coach Kevin Betsy started at Farnborough and played at various levels
- Ex-Fulham winger Betsy has told Sportsmail about his plans to help rising talent
Detail is everything at St George’s Park and research compiled on how to best connect with England’s next generation threw up an eye-catching statistic.
One hundred per cent of those coming through the system started their journeys in grassroots football. Every single one of them, no exceptions.
In the North that is Saturday mornings, muddy pitches, volunteer parents. A few quid for subs fees.
As a late bloomer himself, Kevin Betsy knows the perils of judging prospects at too early an age
The ex-Fulham winger is now responsible for guiding young England talent at St George’s Park
In the South, particularly London, some of the most promising talents are products of cage football culture — attempting to better an older sibling or bigger kids from the year above.
Grassroots takes many different forms and several of those coaching within the FA’s development phase — teams under the seniors — are following similar paths to those they mentor.
Kevin Betsy is a striking example, now England Under 18s manager almost three decades after his first tentative steps into coaching.
‘I started with Farnborough Town’s community scheme when I was 14,’ Betsy tells Sportsmail. ‘I was fortunate enough to get a role in the afterschool clubs, holiday camps.
Betsy turned out for Fulham in the Premier League and went on to face them while at Wycombe
‘You’re tying shoelaces, fostering a love for the game. It’s so rewarding. There is nothing better than making people smile.’
Betsy was a tricky winger, who Fulham manager Kevin Keegan plucked from non-League Woking for £150,000 in 1998. He featured once in the Premier League and enjoyed a strong career lower down the pyramid, taking in 12 clubs.
Before all that though, when back at Farnborough, his eyes had already turned to coaching.
Betsy was uncertain whether his slight body would ever allow him to flourish in a professional game dependent on physicality.
At 27, Betsy was already gaining coaching experience, developing at Bristol City and Barnsley
Instead of going to university, he took up the assistant football in the community officer role with Farnborough, which seemed his calling until playing took off.
It was always on his mind and, at 27, plans were made for his future. Bristol City and Barnsley both allowed Betsy to coach academy teams while he was contracted with them.
It has been a long road to this moment, shaping England’s youngsters. Betsy, 42, talks passionately about ‘respecting the trade, learning the craft’.
He has coached men and women in America and lived in Africa. It is a mystery how he fitted a professional career in, really.
Highlights of England’s youth team are tricky to find as bosses try to protect emerging players
The FA appointed him four years ago, with his work at Fulham — helping mould the likes of the Sessegnon twins, Josh Maja, Eberechi Eze, Omar Richards, Harvey Elliott and Patrick Roberts — seen as what was required at international level.
Betsy started with the U15s and has coached each age group through to 18. England’s U21 manager, Aidy Boothroyd, often draws comparisons between social work and coaching at this level.
‘No one person has done the job of developing a player,’ says Betsy. ‘It’s a teacher, a parent, a coach, a mentor.
‘And the player has to want to work. I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding youngsters. Some of them have come from the park.
Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott was among the players Betsy worked with during his time at Fulham
‘I look back at when I was at the community scheme. You have to connect with the parents. The parents are giving you their child. They want them to be safe.
‘There will be learning moments, challenges but you’ve got to pitch that at the right moments.
‘It’s the same thing for the national team. A player’s first inception in an international squad is at 15 and that is a huge responsibility for us.
‘We don’t want the shirt to be heavy and ex-players have told us that it is. We have to create the right environment: make them feel safe in a place where they can bond.
England are wary of the pressure of youngsters being compared to the likes of Wayne Rooney
‘The England team needs togetherness as a group. That is exactly the same thing as I was doing at 16-17 (at Farnborough). It’s just on a bigger scale.’
Hearing Betsy discuss the similarities between England’s elite national centre and grassroots is interesting.
Part of the reasoning behind Dan Ashworth and Matt Crocker (both former FA technical staff) turning their backs on the Victory Shield — a round-robin with the home nations — was to stop 15-year-olds being labelled ‘the next Rooney’ live on Sky.
Highlights of the younger age groups are almost impossible to find on YouTube. Jamal Musiala scored a sensational goal in victory over Brazil at the Montaigu Tournament but there is barely a trace of it. The hope is they can flourish relatively undetected.
The Victory Shield was dropped because bosses felt that players were being hyped too early
Musiala is one of four England prospects born in 2003 that were sat down aged 13 to be told they were being fast-tracked.
Jude Bellingham, Amadou Diallo and Karamoko Dembele were the others. All four joined the Under 15s, with Bellingham and Musiala already Champions League regulars and the former a full international.
‘Are we comfortable just letting them play and not worrying about the scoreline?’ Betsy asks.
‘We’ve got so many case studies of it working well. There has to be support, because there are bad times, times when you don’t perform how you’d hope.
Senior England star Jude Bellingham is one of the players to have been fast-tracked by chiefs
‘That is OK. Don’t worry. You’re coming next camp anyway. I’m probably more patient with late developers because I was that player. I’m fully aware that I have that bias.’
Betsy also has a bias towards those who have helped him personally. Geoff Noonan — now an FA coach developer, who took a chance on him at Farnborough — is one, and there are plenty of others.
Keegan is perhaps the most pertinent in mirroring the basic elements of coaching, individual time with a player, and elite sport.
‘The gaffer gave people time,’ Betsy recalls. ‘I can vividly remember finishing sessions with him one-to-one daily.
Betsy credits Category 3 clubs such as Exeter with helping to identify and develop rising talent
‘I had that repetition of practice from a world-class player, a humble man spending his time with a kid from Woking.
‘With England, it’s important we have players from Category 3 clubs — from Exeter, AFC Wimbledon, Burton Albion or wherever.
‘They are fantastic professional clubs and help us. There is no snobbery on how we select players.
‘They’re coming here thinking, “am I good enough?” It takes me back to going into Fulham’s changing room. Am I good enough? You are, yes.
‘It might take one day, three days or three months but we’re still striving to make sure the player has a proper experience.’
Kevin Keegan took Betsy to Fulham from Woking and helped him to feel that he really belonged
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