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Tosh Farrell

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This story was originally published in the August 24th edition of ESPN The Magazine.

 

It's hard to imagine by looking at him that this guy is a soccer savant. As he steps to the center of the makeshift soccer field in the middle of the LA Convention Center, the public address announcer introduces him as Tony Farrell. But everyone in the building knows him simply as Tosh, the guru behind the Everton Way.

 

Tosh (a British nickname for Tony) is the head of international development for Everton FC, a Liverpool-based club in the English Premier League. And the Everton Way, the coaching philosophy he has championed for the past 12 years, is known in soccer circles for having turned more young players into pro league first-teamers --24, to be exact -- than just about any other system in the world. Five of those players were just 16 years old when they made it to the top level. Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney was one of them; so was Everton striker James Vaughan, the youngest player ever to score an EPL goal. And yet the kids who are gathered in front of Farrell now -- members of the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program and the finest 13- and 14-year-old soccer players Southern California has to offer -- have a sleepy and slightly sneering look about them, as if to say, You have a long way to go to impress me.

 

Over the course of the next hour, he does just that. Never mind that this session is more for the benefit of the coaches and parents who've gathered on the periphery, hoping to become better teachers of the game. What really captures the kids' attention is Tosh's level of excitement, which seems directly proportional to the intensity of the drills he's conducting. At his command, the players progress from running wherever they want with the ball (to learn to make decisions), to passing and receiving it with their shoulders parallel to the goal (so they don't lose time or the ball due to poor technique), to two-on-one drills that emphasize scoring (because American kids pass too much). All the while, Tosh is a one-man chorus of screams, shrieks and laughter, his Scouse accent adding a melodic note. During two-on-ones, he exclaims, "Good, Dean-o! Get after! Brilliant! Terrific!" Dribbling drills provoke a hearty "Excite me!" At one point, he's so keyed up that he steals the ball from a player and puts it in the net himself, celebrating with a mighty fist pump. As the session ends, Tosh asks the exhausted players, "How many of youse want me to come again?" To his delight, every head nods. And even though the United States has only recently become a factor in international soccer recruiting, the way Tosh sees it, he has no choice but to share the Everton Way. Because soccer is the world's game, and he wants to be its ambassador at-large.

 

For the uninitiated, it's important to know that Everton is the scrappy moneyball team of the Premiership. The Toffees don't have the finances to compete with Man U or Chelsea, so instead they rely on their ability to develop talent -- something they do better than most anyone else. The Everton Way is many things, but at its center is this maxim: Great footballers are made, not born. Like every British team, Everton is permitted to sign kids as young as 9 years old to its youth academy. But, per the rules of the Football Association, which governs the EPL, no club may recruit any player who lives more than an hour's drive from its training complex. The mandate was instituted long ago to keep the battle for young talent from turning ugly. The problem for Everton is that one-quarter of its scouting region is in the Irish Sea. So, over the past 20 years, the team has perfected a teaching strategy that, in truth, is more nuanced worldview than coaching dictum. There are no secret mantras or exotic drills in the Everton Way; most of the training techniques are identical to those used at other major soccer academies around the world. The difference is in the details, or more precisely in the club's commitment to paying close attention to them. To the extent that the Everton Way has major tenets, they are as follows: 1) The best coaches should teach the youngest players, because lifelong habits are formed early; 2) all instructors should coach according to their expertise, which means you will never see an Under-16s coach holding forth on the potential of an Under-10s player; 3) winning doesn't matter until kids are about 16; what does matter is technique and development; and 4) every year, at least one player who signed as a 9-year-old will debut with the pro club.

 

The idea of showcasing a young star in the pros may not seem that revolutionary. And yet, for all their assaults on one another over the tweens they covet, most EPL clubs don't develop talent very wellin part because building future stars doesn't seem so enticing when you have the money to buy the contracts of the world's marquee players. (That's one reason FIFA is pushing to cap the number of foreign players on a team at five.) Everton's guarantee is roughly akin to the Mariners promising to promote a Seattle-area player to the big leagues every year. "It's a big selling point," Tosh says. "And it's worked well for us."

 

It's worked well for Tosh too. A growth spurt led him to try out -- albeit unsuccessfully -- with Liverpool's practice squad as a 16-year-old. Later, he played semipro ball for 45 pounds a week. He got his coaching license when he was 32, but the desire to play was still strong. So strong, in fact, that in his late 30s, after a coach had corrected his technique, he found himself playing in the Lancashire League, which featured top-tier reserve squads. Once Tosh started squaring his shoulders to the goal whenever he received or passed the ball, defenders had difficulty anticipating his next move. It sounds simple, but this small change in form liberated the beast of a player within him. He began playing the best soccer of his life, a fact that both pleased and angered him. Why, he wondered, had he not received this sort of instruction as a kid? "I could have played much better for much longer," says Farrell, who vowed never to be so indifferent about any player's potential.

 

He got the chance to prove his commitment to young talent soon after he signed on as an instructor with Everton, in 1997. Before long, he was coaching the academy's brightest kids, including the young Wayne Rooney. No one embodied the Everton Way quite like Tosh. "To see his sessions was to witness a stage show," says Ray Hall, Everton's academy manager. Farrell's act was so infectious and so successful over the next decade that he decided to take the show on the road, eventually coming to the U.S. The world's top teams had largely ignored American players, who were seen as having loads of athletic potential but a lack of solid technique. Their size, strength and speed intrigued Tosh, though, and he was convinced they could be taught.

He set out to prove that theory three years ago, at a meeting with Ian Mulliner, director of coaching for the Illinois Youth Soccer Association. Farrell opened his laptop and presented his plan to corner the American market: a subscription-based website, which costs $99 a year, featuring the drills and coaching philosophies of the Everton Way. He also promised to visit once or twice a year to hold clinics and reinforce the message. "I was so impressed," says Mulliner, a fellow Brit who had first met Farrell at a soccer conference. "Watching the practices online, you could see the players improve over the course of 90 minutes." Soon after the meeting, the state of Illinois, and its 90,000 registered youth soccer players, adopted the Everton Way. In fact, Mulliner sent several of his best players to Liverpool to train alongside the Everton Academy boys earlier this summer. Today, 18 youth associations from Texas to Pennsylvania -- roughly 500,000 kids -- are learning soccer the Everton Way. Connecticut even boasts a collection of teams that renamed themselves Everton America.

 

Of course, every strategy has its skeptics. "This isn't the first time they've tried this," a U.S. Soccer executive says of the expansion efforts made by foreign clubs. He is partially right. Teams such as Chelsea and Barcelona have long held summer exhibitions here, but their primary goal is to build fan bases, not cultivate talent. And while the EPL's West Ham United has ambitions that roughly mirror Everton's, the club hasn't signed up nearly the same number of youth teams. "I'll tell you the difference with Everton," says Iain Smith, whose 11-year-old son, Alex, left his home in Stamford, Conn., to train in Liverpool this summer. "A practice with American coaches is like trying to learn martial arts from a book. You can't do it well."

 

To be fair, U.S. Soccer has been smart enough to realize when it's not so smart. Following the 2006 World Cup and the Americans' disappointing first-round exit, current assistant national coach John Hackworth sat down with other U.S. Soccer bosses to assess the program's future. "We decided we needed to create a better playing and training strategy for our top-level players at all ages," he says. That meant figuring out what made youth programs successful in more than a dozen other countries, so Hackworth and his colleagues spent weeks calling coaches and poring over the academy literature provided by international clubs. Their conclusion? They needed to emphasize coaching and de-emphasize wins and losses. And yes, this is straight up Everton Way. In the past two years, U.S. Soccer has instructed its older youth teams (there are 74 squads for 15- to 18-year-olds) to adhere to their centralized philosophy. And in a huge departure from typical American thinking, the focus on winning begins only when a player makes a national squad. "Ultimately," says Hackworth, "the youth game all over America needs to get to this point."

 

That's what Tosh is hoping for. It's why he spends the wee hours of the night answering e-mails from American coaches while his wife sleeps in the other room. He envisions a future, perhaps no more than 20 years away, when Americans will dominate soccer in England. And even if they don't remain loyal to Everton, it would give him great pleasure to know that a future player from, say, Los Angeles, will be good enough to be poached by Chelsea. In short, Farrell wants to help raise the level of play around the world. And anyone who doesn't believe that need only watch him in action. "I'm doing this," he says, "for everyone's benefit."

 

A couple of hours after his session ends at the LA Convention Center, Tosh's BlackBerry buzzes. A coach from Idaho, that bastion of soccer talent, has e-mailed. He is thinking about signing up for the Everton Way. "I'm still at the point where I have to say, 'I'll go wherever,' " Tosh says. "Because you never know where you'll find the next Wayne Rooney."

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yeah good read, interesting to read about Tosh who'd I'd only ever really known of through playing as Everton on Football Manager!

 

Hopefully he can keep good coaches coming through to bring our youth through once he stops coaching.

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