Grassroots football is where all players begin: it’s the heart and soul of player development. Recently, the football world has been lit up by Manchester United’s bright young talent, Marcus Rashford. Jon Hoggard caught up with David Horrocks, Development Officer & Skills Coach at Fletcher Moss Rangers to discuss what’s happening at this humble club to produce so many pros.
It is a corner of the world which rarely garners headlines, a collection of football pitches nestled in south Manchester by the River Mersey a stone’s throw from the M60 motorway. But in this unassuming suburban corner lies a powerhouse of youth football: Fletcher Moss Rangers.
Fletcher Moss Rangers were founded in 1986 after two local dads and their sons had a kick-about in Fletcher Moss Park, Manchester. More boys began playing, teams were organised, then more parents became involved and the fledgling club grew larger still. Within a few years links were made to Manchester City, the Soccer School moved to larger space at Mersey Bank, and Fletcher Moss Rangers’ reputation grew in the area as a club that played good football and nurtured talented youngsters.
In the intervening years the club has been a production line of talent feeding into Manchester United in particular. The first Fletcher Moss player to ‘make the grade’ was defender Wes Brown, who went on to play 232 times for United and 23 times for England. Since then, players such as Danny Welbeck, Tyler Blacket, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Elliot Watson, Reece Brown, Kyle Bartley and Ravel Morrison have all come through from Fletcher Moss Rangers to professional careers. The latest to make headlines has been the stunning rise to prominence of 18-year-old Marcus Rashford, whose goals against Midtjylland, Arsenal and the winner in his first Manchester derby has already pushed his name in reckoning for the full national side.
Player Development Project wanted to know what lay behind the production line of talent in south Manchester. So we got in touch with David Horrocks, development officer and skills coach at Fletcher Moss Rangers to find out how they’ve managed to produce so many professional players. “Actually, we’ve been trying to figure that out ourselves,” He replied. “It came as a bit of a surprise a couple of years ago, when Danny Welbeck was starting to make it, and we thought ‘hang about, we’ve got another kid coming through’. And we had several more in the pipeline at other clubs.”
So David decided to look into it a bit more because, as he humbly admits, “we had no idea.” He looked into the database of players he has studiously kept featuring all the players to have come through the Soccer School, all 2,300-plus of them. Of that list, an incredible 70-plus have turned pro. “One common factor,” he explained, “turned out to be that the majority of players who had turned professional, apart from two, were black or mixed race.” He continued, “You see, Fletcher Moss Rangers is actually based in quite an affluent area, but only one percent of the kids actually come from here. The rest come from other less privileged parts of Manchester and happen to be school mates of players currently here.” At the Player Development Project we believe that ‘who we are is how we play’, meaning that a player’s background and environment affects their development as footballers. It is a view that David agrees with. “If the kids are hungry enough, they’ll work harder for something, whereas if they have it too easy they won’t.” He says. The “spoiled” kids – (“often those who have tantrums and all the kit”) – are the one’s unlikely to make it, according to David. “The ones with the poor kit – mismatching socks, shoes in two different sizes – want to come back, knuckle down, try hard and do well,” he explains. “Those boys may not become professional footballers, but they will do well in life.”
“We don’t give the kids the answers, because we find they want to be challenged.
David is a local man himself. A Manchester United fan, he has worked for Fletcher Moss Rangers for 24 years and is obviously proud of the fact that a local grassroots club has wide horizons. For example, the weekend following our chat, two boys from Norway were due to come and play at a session after their father approached the club. “It’s because of the Marcus Rashford factor”, laughs David. The wide horizons also stretch to Canada, with a Canadian club sending two under-13 teams over to play each year. “They’ve been coming for the past nine seasons,” David explains, “and we also have an Irish club that comes over from time to time.”
These “challenging” visits play an important part in Fletcher Moss Rangers’ coaching philosophy. In the case of the Canadian teams, the challenge comes about due to the effects of relative age effect. “The team cut-off ages in the UK match the school year, but in US, Canada and Europe they don’t, and it means we can often have kids 18 months older than ours playing in the same grade.” But David describes this imbalance as a “great measuring tool”, and that it underlies an important part of his belief that players only get better by playing against better players. “We don’t want it to be easy, so we challenge as much as we can,” he continues. “We don’t give the kids the answers, because we find they want to be challenged. It’s quite different to school, where they’re often given the answer. Quite often they’ll work it out.”
Much of the Soccer School’s development philosophy comes from observing Manchester United’s coaching style. “At our Soccer School,” he continues, “we don’t want to build teams, we want to develop players. That’s the same as Man United.” The club also maintains strong links with Manchester University, in order to get advice from the students there. “We can’t be conceited, we’re open to criticism. The game, the people, are always developing so we want new ideas, as well as getting people to have an investment in what we do.”
“Without the the army of part time volunteer coaches and parents we’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
At the heart of Fletcher Moss Rangers, however wide their horizons or successful their alumni, is a local community. And it is important that that community is invested in the club and vice versa. Fletcher Moss Rangers do this in a number of ways, from donating old footballs to local schools “so they have enough for their after-school clubs”, to offering the less advantaged kids boots and kit donated by older players who outgrew them, to getting parents involved with training. The club even help with the costs of putting parents through a level one course in order to assist with coaching. “You’ve got to put back into the community,” says David with genuine affection. “We even send bag loads of boots and replaced kit over to Africa, as one of our staff has contacts in Nigeria.”
Teams are coached by students, parents and grandparents, who all pitch in on match days, training evenings and club meetings. “They put an awful lot of time in,” says David. “Without the the army of part time volunteer coaches and parents we’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. We have Danny who looks after fixtures, Ronnie who doubles as Chair and Secretary at the moment and Alan who is the publicity officer. Without the rest of the people involved we couldn’t do what we do.”
Fletcher Moss Rangers are proud to be affiliated with an adult disability team, called We Are Better Things. This is a mixed group of men and women with learning difficulties and mental health issues. When Manchester Mencap folded the team looked doomed, before Fletcher Moss, as an FA Charter Standard Community Club, “inherited” the group. Under CEO Kate Maggs, the team plays in the Manchester Ability Counts League and has its own set of coaches but are very much part of the Fletcher Moss Rangers community. “They follow the same ethos as the rest of the club,” explains David, “no changes.”
David has been at the club for nearly 24 years, but didn’t take up coaching until he was 40 when he took over the under-14s when asked by his son. “I’ve seen the game change a lot in that time,” he says. “Initially academies used to take players at 13 or 14 years old, but now it’s a lot younger.” The impacts of this to a grassroots club can be significant financially, when considering the FIFA Solidarity Mechanism. Under this scheme, compensation can be given to any club involved in the development of any player who moves between international associations, but only for clubs involved after 12 years of age. For clubs like Fletcher Moss Rangers, this means that despite their development pathway success, they would not see a penny as most of their top players are taken by academies at 8 years old. “Look at Ravel Morrison, who moved from England to Italy,” David highlights, “Fletcher Moss Rangers got nothing. Any grassroots club would be way better off for those payments. We’re where it starts.”
Fletcher Moss Rangers would be better off indeed. They are currently in the process of trying to secure the building at their site as an asset, to help with their financial situation. Despite this, David remains upbeat, however: “If it does fall into disrepair, we will still run. We will still lease the pitches and maybe look for a different building. We’d still run.” Although, he admits “I’d be upset – we do a lot of maintenance on that place.”
It’s an understandable bone of contention for clubs like this. If their latest star Marcus Rashford were to make an international move, for example, Fletcher Moss Rangers would not get any compensation. As David points out though, the grassroots life is about more than the money.
“You put your soul into this. Why do you do it – standing about in the pissing rain? There’s no answer, you just do. I’m dreading the day I hang my boots up, as it has been such a massive part of my life. Until I lose the breath from my body, though, I’ll have enthusiasm for what we do.”
No doubt was left about his enthusiasm when David welled up as he spoke about the first time he knew Marcus Rashford might be something special. “He and Ravel [Morrison] would dribble the ball wherever they were going,” he tells me. When he was about 6 years old, Marcus featured for a Fletcher Moss Rangers team in a local tournament, being held on the same day as the club’s presentation ceremony. “No-one expected us to do well,” David remembers. But the team never showed up in time for the presentations. “I rang their coach, Mark. He said they got through the groups. Then the quarter finals, then the semis. Each time he told me they thought they’d be knocked out and that they’d be back soon.” Then nothing. David remembers being on stage MC-ing the awards, when suddenly the team, with Marcus in their midst, burst through the door with their trophy: “the room erupted!” Rashford had been “phenomenal”. According to his David, the watching scouts had reported he could have done with two balls on the pitch, as he ran the show and always wanted the ball. “And then,” smiles David, “he dribbled his ball all the way home.”
David’s fondness for his former charge is obvious. But he keeps tabs on all his former players, and will reel off anecdotes about players wherever they’re playing, from Oldham to Manchester United to Fleetwood. The key to being a successful grassroots club though? To not concentrate on the tiny percentage of players who make it.
“The cream will always rise to the top. Concentrate on all the others who are there enjoying their football. After all there is no age limit to success. And keep your enthusiasm. Imagine, if we’d have rested after Wes Brown years ago, we wouldn’t have found Marcus.”
Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring for Manchester United against Manchester City. Photo: OLI SCARFF / Stringer