Scoring at soccer

In a country as soccer-crazed as Thailand, it’s surprising that there’s so little of it played here. To Englishman Darren Jackson, a former professional player with an FA coaching badge, this is obviously something that needs to be rectifed. Wth assistant Andrew Jeffries, he’s doing his bit to teach children how to play soccer well with his mobile Soccer Clinic, which has now been running for nearly two years.

“I’ve always been interested in coaching children. I met Andrew and he said why don’t you start something up? Go to sports manufacturers and ask if they want to sponsor you for equipment, T-shirts and so on.”

Jackson approached Nike, who loved the idea. “They were behind me one hundred per cent. I also needed a drinks manufacturer to supply drinks. I went to Gatorade who also loved the idea, so now they provide our drinks.”

And so the Darren Jackson Soccer Clinic was born. Boys and girls aged six to 12 who sign up for the clinic are trained by Jackson and Jeffries once a week for five weeks after school, and on Sundays they play against other schools. Then they play in a tournament arranged by local sponsors – such as Ecco and Global Silverhawks – at the end of the five weeks where they get to show-off the skills they have learned.

“During the training sessions I teach them ball skills, pattern plays, game rules and most of all team morale,” Jackson says. “It’s not until the weekend that I can actually get them to play good football.”

Jackson has just returned to the schools after the summer break, and says the response has been “amazing”. He estimates that he’ll be training up to 130 children over the next few months from Harrow International, ISB and NIST. “And I’ve started a Saturday clinic so I can reach other kids [who don’t go to these schools] as well,” he says.

About half of the children training with the clinic are Thai, and half are from overseas. There are a mere five girls playing at the moment, but Jackson is confident that just having these few will encourage other girls to start playing. They play alongside the boys. “It all depends on the child’s ability, not their sex.”

At the last tournament before the summer break, the Mums and Dads are out in droves, egging their sons’ teams on. Uthaivan Karatkul, whose 9-year-old son Lee plays for ISB, is there lending her support. She says that while the ISB tournaments her son has played in the past kept him interested, the children really just went out and played. “They didn’t really do any practise – maybe 15 minutes before a match. But Darren has been teaching them ball-handling and other skills,” she says.

Vizes Nakornchai’s son Tagore is also nine years old. He’s hesitant to attribute all of the children’s improvement to Jackson, as he says their coordination improves naturally with age anyway. “But he does enjoy it more. And he wants to study at Imperial College so he can attend Arsenal games on the weekend!”

Jackson is now planning on expanding his clinic to teach older children as well. “I can concentrate on training the younger children and Darren can progress with the older kids,” says Jeffries, who started playing soccer at schoolboy level in England, played several trials for Chelsea but became a sports teacher rather than a soccer star.

And playing soccer isn’t just about playing soccer. “The children are learning social skills,” Jackson emphasises. “I’ve had quite a few children who have been really shy, but once they’ve started playing they’ve come out of their shell and started to talk more to other children. It’s helping their schoolwork as well – teachers have come and told me that they’ve seen a big difference in such-and-such just because he’s joined the football clinic.”

Jackson and Jeffries both say the main challenge coaching here compared to England is simply the children’s ability. “Because they don’t play enough football,” says Jackson. “They go home, play on their computer, watch TV. There aren’t many parks around for children to play in.”

And Jackson is sincerely confident that there are more Zicos among the children he is training. He’s taking a group of his best players to Singapore for a weekend of matches, and eventually he’s planning on taking about 15 children to the UK, where they’ll play in front of scouts and have their shot at being signed to a team.

But first, Jackson will select a group of nine and 10-year- olds to train seriously for at least a year. “With the kids I have at the moment, there are around three or four boys who I would like to train and take to England. If I do take 15 boys to England, I think maybe 2 or 3 boys would be spotted. But there’s still a long way to go.”

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