I left teaching behind a few years later, to work as Director of Football and Head Football Coach at Loughborough University. It was a new challenge, working with young players who’d been thrown out of the game.
They needed a different type of mentor compared to the older players – a lot of psychological support, and sometimes a lot of realism about where they were and the challenges they faced trying to get back in the game.
Loughborough was also where things started to move quite quickly with futsal. When I finished playing, I became the assistant coach of the England futsal side, doing that alongside coaching football for Loughborough and Great Britain Universities.
I found coaching futsal gave me something different to football.
On average you make around 80 substitutions during a game of futsal. And every substitution is technical, tactical. Are they left/right-footed? Are they physically coping with the game?
I felt I could have more of an impact on a match in futsal.
“Futsal is relatable to players like Xavi and Iniesta: technically excellent footballers who can work really well in tight situations”
It’s a mentally taxing sport. One small mistake can end in a goal. In football, if a number nine doesn’t press or track properly, it doesn’t necessarily end in a goal. Whereas, if our front player doesn’t press or track properly, it’s likely to. There’s no margin for error in futsal, which makes it really demanding for players.
I have to know how many minutes my players can last on the court before we need to move them off. And how long they need to recover before they can get back on the court. We call it ‘the cliff’. When they fall off, physically or in terms of concentration, we have to get them out of the game.
In England, futsal has an identity issue. Just like me before my first game, people don’t realise how it differs from conventional five-a-side – and how it can really improve a player.
It all comes down to the constraints of the game.
Futsal has to be played on a hard surface, indoors or outdoors. You play to lines, not walls, and you can’t pass back to the goalkeeper unless he/she has it over the halfway line. The ball is denser, and the hard surface generates more of a slide than a roll. So, at the top level, the ball moves about seven times faster than in football.
Space and time are limited. So players have to develop quick decision-making skills and the ability to play their way out of trouble, instead of passing back to the keeper.
Futsal is the pressure cooker.