While soccer fans in Thailand have their eyes glued to their televisions watching Euro2000, former professional soccer player Darren Jackson is focusing on soccer a little closer to home. If he has his way, 15 potential soccer stars from Thailand will be heading to the UK for youth matches to be played against local teams by the end of 2001.

“The teenagers from here – whether they are Thai or another nationality, but living here – will play in front of scouts from clubs around the UK, and could be signed on the spot,” Jackson, who is from England, says. “Scouts are out in force at the moment with the Premier League being so huge. Boys are picked at age 14, and as transfer fees become more expensive, clubs are look to select up and coming players to keep under their wing.”

But there is a lot of work to be done yet. Twenty boys aged around eleven or twelve need to be selected and trained intensively by Jackson and his assistant, Andrew Jeffries, for eight months. Fifteen boys will then be selected for a further four months’ training before taking off to the land where the best soccer players can earn up to 50,000 pounds a week.

Many things are still in the pipeline, such as arranging for a match to take place prior to a Manchester United Premier League game, but with Jackson’s contacts – he formerly played professionally for England Under 21s, Oxford United, Reading, Hong Kong and Finland – he is confident of pulling it off.

Jackson is also searching for sponsors for the trip, to make the costs lower for those picked to go. “I’m looking for an airline and other companies that would be willing to sponsor the boys. I want to keep the price as low as possible so that the kids I do want to take can all go. But whatever happens, the trip is going ahead.”

Jackson, who has an FA coaching badge from England, has been training schoolchildren in Thailand since the end of 1998.

“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 went to 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 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 weekends they play against other schools. Then they play in a tournament arranged by local sponsors – such as Ecco and Nike – 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.”

The most recent tournament was held at NIST school on May 28. While the competition was sponsored by Global Silverhawks, the main prize was donated by Nike – one of ten soccer balls in Thailand signed by the Brazilian soccer team when they were here last, which went to the best player, Varin Narula. The prize for top goal scorer was sponsored by Gatorade, and went to ‘Rambo’, while the player of the tournament was awarded to Colin Vaghn.

“The children play in English premier league colours, with each international school having its own kit,” Jackson explains. “There’s also a Nike and Gatorade kit, and two other sponsors have sponsored tournaments. “

As at any Saturday soccer match anywhere in the world, 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.

Uthaivan says her son’s skills are improving – and all the papers he writes in English are now about soccer. “And going to England is a great idea! I hope my son will make it. It’s good for the kids to have this goal – it will make training fun.”

Vizes Nakornchai’s son Tagore will turn 9 in July. He’s hesitant to attribute all of the boys’ 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!”

Nakornchai believes that it’s important for children to develop team skills. “To work and play in a team is equally as important as developing individual skills,” he says.

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, and played several trials for Chelsea.

“But nothing ever came of it, so I became a teacher,” he says. He worked at St Johns International School,teaching swimming and physical education to primary kids, but has now left to assist Jackson. “He’s got to the stage where he needs more help. You can see the difference with the ones Darren has been training – the change, it’s fantastic.”

Jackson estimates he is currently training around 80 children, from schools such as Harrow International, ISB and NIST. The split is about 50-50 between Thais and children from other countries. “I’ve just started a Saturday clinic so I can reach other kids [who don’t go to these schools] as well.”

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 seemed to come out of their shell and they’ve 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. That’s the big difference between English and Asian children – a lack of space and lack of practice. The only time they get to practise is at school during the week or if they join a club.”

“English kids tend to play at breaktime, lunchtime, after school, after dinner, weekends, so they improve more quickly,” Jeffries adds.

And Jackson is sincerely confident there are more Zicos among the children he is training. “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.”

“Some of them are excellent,” enthuses Jeffries.

“They’re so young, as well,” Jackson points out. “In England, they don’t get serious coaching until they’re 13 or 14 years old. My children at seven or eight are taught the basics. They can all kick a ball. The hard part now is getting them to play as a team.”

But for those who are chosen, it will be a tough road ahead. “Very tough,” Jackson says. “I want them to do well when they’re in England. It will be a lot harder than what they are doing now during the week. I’d expect more. They’d be playing at least three or four times a week with me. By the end of the year they might be in with a good chance. At the least, they’ll have a trip they’ll never forget.”

/ Current Affairs