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Youth football changes get “positive” feedback – Levett

As grassroots football takes flack from some quarters as part of the inevitable England World Cup inquest, the next generation of players are already one year into a journey along a new football pathway. We chat to the FA’s Nick Levett on how the new structure for youth football is bedding in.

We are one year into the most significant set of changes to the structure of youth football in England in over a decade.

As the final whistle blows on Roy Hodgson’s England squad’s time in Brazil, it is only half time in the Football Association’s two-year process to introduce new small-sided formats of the game for our youngest players.

The new player pathway features age-appropriate team, pitch and goal sizes which, along with a more ‘child-friendly’ approach to competition, aim to improve the experience of football for those taking their first steps in the game.

As is customary in football, we wanted to bring you a half time report and who better to help provide it than the man who led the FA’s youth development review and consultation, laying the foundation for the changes that have now become reality?

We caught up with Nick Levett, the FA’s National Development Manager for Youth and Mini Soccer, to find out how the changes are bedding in. We got a progress report on various key changes to the game, starting with the new first step on the football ladder for English players.

New 5v5 format

A new 5v5 game, played on a smaller pitch in mini-soccer (7v7) goals, is now in place for under-7s, who will continue to play it at under-8s from next season. But how has the new format gone down?

“The overwhelming feedback for 5v5 has been positive and the retreat line which has been introduced at that age [and up to under-10s - see below] has gone down very well,” says Levett.

He adds that there is a “very valid discussion” about mini soccer goals perhaps being too large for the new smaller format, accentuated by the smaller pitch with fewer, younger players.

Some leagues have taken it upon themselves to reduce their goal size by laying the existing mini-soccer goals flat on the floor and using the base as goalposts for the 5v5 game.

Having introduced a new goal size for the new 9v9 format, the FA were reluctant to introduce a similar change for 5v5 with extra costs for clubs as part of the initial youth development review, but Levett concedes that they may need to re-assess the situation.

“That’s certainly something that we’ll monitor and see if we need to address it in the future but, other than the odd isolated incident, on the whole it’s been positive. There has been an increase in the number of teams this year. We need to ensure that this translates into developing better players.”

New 9v9 format

Perhaps the most significant change to the structure of youth football this season has been the introduction of a new 9v9 format to act as a stepping stone between mini soccer and the 11-a-side game for under-11s and, as of next season, under-12s.

Now 10- and 11-year-olds no longer need to play on full size pitches and in full size goals, with an intermediate size being introduced for both. Club Website members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the new format when it was first touted back in 2010 and, unsurprisingly, Levett says the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

“There was a teething period of working with local councils on facilities and there will always be a bit of that as change evolves, but County FA development officers and managers have really addressed a lot of those concerns,” said Levett.

“The majority of feedback that I’ve got is two-fold. Firstly, people are saying ‘It’s common sense. Why didn’t we always do this?’ which is what we’d anticipated.

The second thing is: ‘This is so clearly the right thing to do for kids, can we take it to under-13s?’

“Our position at the FA is that if you want to take it to under-13s or under-14s, then it’s a choice locally that you can make. If a league’s member clubs want to play under-13 9v9 then go for it. We don’t plan to enforce anything nationally locally, but if you want to do it locally that’s OK.

The new 9v9 format will be phased in for under-12s this coming season but, according to Levett, “the majority of under-12 football taking place across the country is already 9v9″.

“The success of 9v9 at under-11s has meant it has leaped on a year early. I think we may well see the same thing happen at under-13s, but we’ll keep an eye on things and see what happens.

New formats helping transition

So have the new formats of the game already started to have a positive effect on participation levels? Levett suggests they have, pointing to evidence from youth leagues including the Sheffield & District Youth League – one of the biggest in the country.

“They have seen an increase in the retention of players at the ‘transition points’ between 7v7 and 9v9 and between 9v9 and 11v11, whereas previously they were losing players,” said Levett.

“Across the board, we’ve seen an increase in the number of players, which is great. The challenge we’ve got now is to ensure they stay in the game post-14 or 16-years-old, where we know we have a drop-off at that stage.

New approach to competition

Alongside changes to the formats of the game, the Football Association is also changing the structure of the football season at youth level. League tables are being phased out and the season will be split into three ‘mini-seasons’, each section consisting of friendly matches and a trophy event at the end.

This season all under-9s played under the new system, which they will continue to do until they reach under-11s in the 2015/16 season. By then all kids of primary school age will play under the new ‘child-friendly’ approach to competition, free from adult-driven pressure for picking up three league points every week.

Scrapping league tables caused more controversy than any other aspect of the changes – primarily among the adults in the game – and, whilst kids seem to have taken to the new setup with few problems, Levett recognises the need to support those coaches or club officials still coming to terms with the new system.

“We’ve had some very positive feedback from children,” said Levett. “For example a league in Cornwall put on a Champions League for the younger age groups with a Europa League for all the teams who didn’t make it into the Champions League. They did it so well that the under-13s and under-14s want to do it now as well.

“Where leagues have looked to put on different types of events for those age groups it has been really well received. For example some leagues have played their winter league as Futsal.

“What I think we have to be better at nationally and locally is supporting league administrators with options for competitions and what this looks like. We need to be better at sharing best practice so, for example, last week I sent out all County FAs an example from the Garforth Junior League on how they organise their competitions, with logistics, a breakdown of fixtures week by week and so on.

“Leagues can be proactive themselves and go to the County FAs and ask for help or some examples from across the country. The County FAs have to be a really good conduit to share that experience. The ones that are working well are the ones that have a great relationship with the County FA.

“Good practice from leagues will also be made available on thefa.com/kidsfootball, but the best things happen when people talk to each other locally and make things happen.

“We’re going through a period of change, which is never easy. It’s difficult, it’s challenging, but I think in five years’ time we’ll be looking back saying ‘this is great now and the change was worth it.’”

Can players ‘play up a year’ next season?

By far the most common question we’ve been asked here at Club Website in recent months has been, following a change to FA rules on age-group restrictions, whether or not players are allowed to play for the team in the age group above them.

Levett has a handy yardstick for assessing how any of the changes to youth football are bedding in – his inbox.

“This is one of those things that filled my inbox up so I knew we didn’t have quite right,” he says. “What we need to do was allow in the rules for a player to play up a year if they needed to.”

He stresses the word ‘needed’ and cites examples of teams in rural areas needing a couple of younger players to make up a team, or a one-parent family with kids a year apart that need to be taken to two different places, or a really talented player who doesn’t get challenged at their own age group.

“Can these kids play up an age group? Absolutely. We cannot have a rule that stops you participating for any reason.

“We had to rewrite the rules to reflect this, so the FA Rules 2014/15 allow you to play up a year regardless of the format or the competition approach, because being able to participate is more important than anything else.”

But Levett says the rules are intended to benefit those who play the game – the kids – not those coaches who might want to use them to their advantage.

“The rule isn’t there to allow an entire team of under-8s to play up a year and play 7v7 instead of 5v5,” he points out. “As of the 2014/15 season, you can always play up an age group if it’s the right thing to do for you, for your local personal circumstances.

“If we find leagues running entire ‘B divisions’ consisting of the year group below, playing at the format above where they should be, then the rule will be written entirely so that cannot happen. It’s not developmentally the right thing to do. We’re trusting leagues and clubs to do what’s right for kids.”

Retreat line

As of last season, the halfway line now also acts a retreat line in all football from under-7s to under-10s. The defending team has to retreat behind this line at goal kicks, thus allowing the attacking team more space to play out with the ball from the back. The ball is in play as soon as it leaves the goal area.

Earlier this season, 71 percent of Club Website members told us that they were in favour of the retreat line (4,125 polled), while this figure rose to 76 percent for those people involved in football below under-10s (2,458), something that Levett was pleased to hear.

“It’s a new rule that we’ve had to get used to and look at the impact of it. The research that was done on the retreat line made it look like it was the right thing to do, but it’s great to hear that 76% of people in youth football think it’s the right thing to do.

“I was with the North East Hampshire Youth League Secretary and I asked him about how the retreat line has been received. His view was the kids got it and loved it straight away. The adults took a bit of time to realise that it actually helped the kids. Since they’ve got to grips with it, they’ve really bought into it.”

Playing in quarters instead of halves

Another change considered as part of the youth development review was for games to be split into quarters rather than halves for our youngest players.

The FA chose not to impose this change for any level of youth football, but left it as an option for teams or leagues to take on and, according to Levett, the feedback from those who have has been “really, really good”.

“The feedback from kids was that they can try their hardest because they knew they’d have a rest. Coaches said they knew they had a break coming up where they could speak to players and make substitutions, rather than trying to get across loads of information during the game.

“So we haven’t pushed it but the feedback has been really good and I think there will be some natural evolution and take up of that as more and more start to try it.

Moving forwards – developing a culture of change

So it appears to be a case of ‘so far so good’ for the brave new world for youth football in England. Levett certainly seems happy with how the changes are bedding in, but is keen to point out that it is still early days.

“We owe a huge thank you to our volunteer network – coaches, administrators – who have got to grips really well with some of the new changes. We’re conscious now that we need to allow these changes to settle down and embed before we look to re-evaluate where we’re at.”

Regular appraisal, feedback and changes to the structure are something that Levett is keen to make the norm. He believes it is more sensible, easier and more productive to fine tune a system as it develops rather than trying to impose huge changes once every generation.

“We have to develop a culture where we have a mindset for change, where we try things and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, we revert back to something different. But if we never change, we’re never going to move the game forwards and I think that’s what other countries have done better than us.

“They have a culture of change, whereas we have a massive revolution every 10 or 15 years and throw things up in the air, which is more difficult to deal with. So I think small changes along the way, while really helping and supporting the network of fantastic volunteers would be a step forward.

Central to developing this culture, says Levett, is keeping dialogue open across the game and he encourages anyone with any feedback, ideas or suggestions for youth football to contact their County FA or email theirgame@thefa.com.

“We still welcome feedback about what we need to look at and how we need to do things. A lot of the ideas we’ve implemented come from coaches and people at a local level.

“Let’s keep the dialogue open and keep making the game better for children, because ultimately that’s what this is all about.”

You can follow Nick Levett on Twitter at @nlevett.

Dan Pope, Club Website editor

Levett defends grassroots game over World Cup questions

Our interview with Nick Levett took place after England’s opening World Cup defeat to Italy, at which point – like many of us – he was encouraged by the “creativity” and “innovation” in England’s attacking play and hoped for a good tournament ahead. Of course, things didn’t turn out quite how any England fan had hoped and the team has now returned home after their earliest World Cup exit.

The inevitable inquest has followed, with everything from the Premier League and its many foreign players right down to the standard of coaching and facilities at grassroots level taking the blame from one quarter or another for England’s failure.

Annoyed by the suggestion from some that grassroots club football was to blame for England’s failings in Brazil, Levett took to Twitter to defend the grassroots game and later spoke to BBC Radio Sheffield about the role that grassroots football plays in England. You can listen to the clip below.

COMMENTS

Darren says:

I agree with Thomas regarding the retreat line. Its a ridiculous rule. We have a goal kick and the opposing team line up on the half way line. Most of them sprint like mad towards the ball which instantly puts the player on the ball under pressure and he panics and just lumps it forward. A good idea on paper but when put in practice it doesn’t work. Its works for the very young kids like under 7s and maybe 8′s but to have this rule at under 9′s and especially under 10′s is ridiculous. Also the strikers spend all their time sprinting back to the half way line and sprinting back half the length of the pitch again to put the defenders under pressure. Quite often when they eventually get the ball they are knackered! But all that will happen is you will have another survey and ask loads of people who don’t understand the game and then you will come up with another 70+% of people agree with it and you will do it anyway…regardless of whether its a good thing or not because you have to look as though you are attempting to change the game. The kids suffer again. Its a shame Brian Clough isn’t alive today because he would have told you what a nonsense it is!

August 13, 2014 at 20:35

Ian Morton says:

Hi Nick
When doe’s 5 v 5 mini soccer for u7s and u8s become mandatory.

August 13, 2014 at 13:03

Edward Wyatt says:

Hi,why has it been proposed that goal difference is being removed from youth football leagues.Surely the whole point of playing football, is for the team to score as many goals as possible.Also for teams to consede as few goals as possible.How are you going to be able to sort out promotion and relegation,if three or more teams have the same number of points.You could end up with four or more teams on the same number of points.Many thanks,Edward Wyatt.

July 24, 2014 at 14:32

D Langley says:

SR, you make some valid points and thanks for doing so.

Personally, as a parent who has just had to move my 8 year old son to another team due to him being sidelined and marginalised, I’m getting more than a little sick and tired of the ongoing parent bashing. No one has my son’s development and welfare higher on their agenda than I do!

Perhaps we’ve just had a bad experience but we’ve found that some coaches will come out with fine words about children’s football being non-competitive, giving everyone a fair and equal chance, letting them play in an unpressured environment and catering for all abilities, yet in reality the behaviour has been very different – for example:

- criticising a player for making a mistake whilst the game is going on (the lad’s just learning and he can’t rewind history 10 seconds!),

- criticising a player who’s struggling in an unfamiliar position (by all means give a right sided attacking player a run on the left side of defence but don’t have a pop at the lad if he struggles there at first!)

- doing away with the equal playing time principle, sacrificing it at the alter of winning relatively meaningless “tournaments”

- favouritism towards certain players depending on who is flavour of the month at the moment – and I thought cricket was bad for nepotism!

- and who can forget the legendary “GET RID OF IT” – as soon as a parent hears this, the alarm bells should start ringing!

My sincere thanks to all the coaches, helpers and parents out there who are putting in the time and effort to make junior football fun, inclusive and with positive outcomes for all.

July 21, 2014 at 10:25

SR says:

having a son of 14 and being around kids football for 7 years the mentality of the adults that seem to attach them selfs to kids football beggers belief managers assistant manager assistant assistant manager grandparants and any other know all that wants to shout at kids . untill this changers nothing will ever change. The fa,s obsesion with pointless routines regarding cones red cone blue cone green cone and run to pink cone .My son as never been taught to pass a ball head a ball tackle chest a ball instead wasting hundreds of hours doing pointless routines out of fa manual . Can the fa start a campaign to get kids back on local parks jumpers for goal posts without a adult in sight PELE DIDNT LEARN TO PLAY FOOTBALL DRIBBLING AROUND CONES BEING SHOUTED AT BY ADULTS

July 17, 2014 at 22:14

David Brennan says:

My club are entering an under 7 team in the 2014/2015 seaon and a group of 10 boys have been training togather since September 2013 on Saturday mornings.

3 of the Boys are born in October 2008 so old for their school year but not old enough for the 31/8/2014 rule, where they must be aged 6. The other 7 boys are all Year 1 and will be aged 6 on 31/8/2014.

The have been playing togather all this time and friendships have been made. The parents have bonded and I have taken the FA Level 1 coaching course to coach the boys in the 2014 2015 season. I am a soccer dad willing to get invloved and the boys are eagerley looking forwrad to their season.

I have just found out about the minimum age rule. This seems really unfair in our situation. The three boys affecetd are on size and ability no differnt to the 6 eliglble players and I would challenge anyone to look at the 10 and ask them to identify the non eliglble players.

These boys just want to play football with their freinds what do you suggest I do.

Shattering their dreams of playing football is not what i suggest anyone would want

July 14, 2014 at 18:47

Chris Bourne says:

Grass roots football:
Ive recently joined in ‘helping out’ at my local football club for kids, completely run by volunteers, self funded.

Grass roots is run by parents wanting to encourage all children to learn and develop in many ways.

I also see some pitches and equipment in dire need of ‘cash’ (where does that come from…. funded by the volunteers) dangerous metal goalposts, in danger of falling offer in poor state of repair or cheap plastic goals not upto the Job. We need quality goals.

There is a huge review of ‘investing’ in grass roots or ‘park football’ needed to stem the decline.

July 4, 2014 at 13:55

John Wilson says:

Nick, i have not met you however I have met all your predecessors starting with Charles Hughes and Robin Russell. I feel a little responsible as I created Mini Soccer and provided the first portable goal in a bag in 1989 (not the Samba goal but the more engineered ITSA Goal posts) I brought the concept to the FA with a franchise system for the very young but all the advice I gave at the outset was ignored.It seems the feed back I have read on the development of junior football seems to indicate that has not changed.The people that know and have the experience and the answers seem to be ignored , not consulted enough or listened to. There are many very good people out at junior club level and there are some not so good but that is the mix in life and football. When I introduced mini soccer to the FA with our Soccerfun and Soccerstart schemes we explained that it would explode girls and women’s football which it has, we explained that a strategy would be needed with regard to local authority pitches to accommodate this growth ,follow up strategy and introduction into 11 a side and league structures would be needed and had this been done then the 9v9 system may well have not been required. The proof will be seen in the future but I do not see that as the problem. I agree with other comments grass roots money could have been used differently and may be should have gone into local and district councils to improve the grass football pitches around the country making them flat, drain properly and have proper line marking not weed killer ditches. Money could also have been made available to established clubs to help them take out long leases,develop their own grounds and playing surfaces. What we actually have is fantastic very very expensive 3G pitches and a plan to do more and more. May be if you looked in the afternoons at these pitches (and very soon in the evenings as no one can afford to use them) the use these actually have. Our local club cannot afford £90 for half an hour on such a surface…..and frankly what is the point as at the week end they will be playing on a surface that bears no resemblance to where they are supposed to train. I have a lot of sympathy for the football club volunteers as what it is all about is the FA wanting to exercise complete control over football in the UK. The FA were set up to just govern the game and the develop rules and were not set up to use the game as a method to generate financial gain. Mini Soccer was developed by me for kids from the age of seven upwards and it was the success of this that drew in the younger nursery players as they wanted to do what there older brothers were doing. It was simple to add inexpensive safe 8×4 nursery goals for these younger children before stepping up to 12′x6′ that there older brothers were playing with. The latest is to develop Futsal this might be the answer as the other countries play that…so FIFA now want to control football tha is not 11 a side. The truth is that it was just footballers playing indoors and the goals in the halls were handball goals and that is why they are different ….but to have Futsal & mini soccer goals is just duplication when Mini soccer goals are the better size goalposts for children.
It is simple and always has been…..get inspirational individuals with the children when they are starting to kick a football at the age of two (look at the picture of George Best at the age of two) preferably not FA coaches and let the children dribble to their hearts content with their friends encourage positive play , ball control, basic skills and get the kids back to feeling that the favorite toy is a football not FIFA 14 and a mobile phone. everyone should look at the video of Lionel Messi at a young age ….from the kick off he just went straight for goal….any one in his way he just tried to go round…..would that ever be possible with a so called FA coach i think not. Free the youngsters up give them the freedom to express themselves not all will want to dribble some will want to stop players from dribbling and that is football….. the system was given to the FA twenty five years ago but it was ignored and actually blocked…. I have been involved in football since 1957 at all levels and I despair. It does seem that Italy and Spain may be following but the game today is in the main less entertaining … training sessions are dominated by passing on carpets and games at the top level reflect that. My belief is FIFA 14 is doing more to influence young footballers than FA basic coaches that have not played the game at a higher level and may not have enough experience or carisma. I am not tarring everyone with the same brush there are some very good people out in kids football, I have met them,and the game prospers by the mix. Unless a change happens with the very young starters in the game ( players can be educated about passing at a later age when they have the dribbling skills but it cannot be added in a player in my opinion. It is instinctive skill like learning to walk and learning to talk. If you learn to walk you can then develop that into running but only when you know how to walk first and if you can talk you can learn to write!

Good luck with the 9v9 initiative but please encourage teams to use lighter safer goalposts ( ban heavy steel freestanding goalposts at grass roots level) ideally with aluminum crossbars as the plastic longer crossbars dip and deaden the rebound and players will not react properly to footballs hitting the posts.

If the FA or any one wants to know about the original Mini Soccer concept email john@itsagoal.net

July 4, 2014 at 09:46

John Swanson says:

Can I also add “spin” can get your story across any way you want and don’t quote statistics back there is a well known saying for statistics….. get out and do a season in a “Park club” collect the subs, work with the kids, wash the strips, deal with the league, the FA, raise the money, organise the referees,…………. for a whole season AND do it in your spare time then pay to do thecourses/checks and give up your family holidays then tell “park coaches” how to do it

July 3, 2014 at 22:12

John Swanson says:

Andy Marriot.. you took the words right out of my mouth…. except for the grassroots bit… in pro football/FA speak that means accadamies… the “pump money into grassroots” no they don’t it goes to accadamies. Lets call what we do “park football” volunteers who pay and give up holidays from work to do courses, pay for kids who can’t afford it ( but you’d never turn them away) then see your team/club fleeced by local authorities for pitches/training… don’t even start me on the quality of the facilities.

July 3, 2014 at 22:08

msb03 says:

I agree with so much of what Andy Marriott says. Grassroots clubs are expected to supply the talent for the next level up to improve via academies etc to produce the next set of international players but receive no support from the FA just more and more red tape, which costs the clubs and therefore the parents each time. Without all the volunteers there would be no football. The FA need to filter the money down from the Premiership etc down to local junior clubs just to allow them to keep running. They need to invest in better facilities run by the FA rather than local councils who just up the prices, carry out little or no maintenance, just to balance their books for other budget deficits. The local authorities are so unhelpful in assisting clubs get their own grounds or taking over existing LA run facilities and let them be run by clubs. They aren’t interested they just want money off of the Clubs for everything.

June 30, 2014 at 20:13

Graham Spamer says:

We are coming into the U8s season in September and are staying on the same pitch as U7s and at 5v5 on a pitch which is 40×30 or supposed to be, the problem with this is the boys can score from in their own half and happens on lots of occasions. Why not go to 7v7 on a bigger pitch allowing more space to promote passing and moving into space?

June 27, 2014 at 22:30

Andy Marriott says:

It’s great that the FA have had a serious look into making the game age appropriate for younger players. I agree with all the reforms about pitch and team sizes, playing time, retreat lines, the whole thing. What worries me is that grassroots football produces a lot of great young talent every season, but most of those players never get seen by the so-called big clubs, and those that do are then whisked away never to be seen again, not to play with their friends at a local level or worse still, where their local club receives no credit or support in developing more talent. It feels like grassroots is just seen as a huge sweet jar from which the clubs can pick up young players at their whim. What is needed is for grassroots teams and clubs to receive a decent level of financial support and for volunteer level football to have an overhaul from literally the pitch level up. We play on waterlogged pitches with hardly any grass from around November onwards, have no changing or toilet facilities and are forced with paying exorbitant prices for 3 or 4g astro pitches to train or play matches on, all of which is funded by the parents of the players. How can we possibly keep producing the talent with no recognition other than an arbitrary pat on the back and a total lack of facilities unlike the professional clubs? We do it for the love of football, that’s a given, but without the thousands of volunteers giving up literally hundreds of hours of their spare time every year, there would be no youth football in the UK at all. We need funding from the Premier league and FA at the grassroots level and not just a pot of money to be bid for to buy goalposts, but an allowance per club to provide players a level playing field with the big clubs.

June 27, 2014 at 17:58

tom cowan says:

the new format might be great for the kids that get in a team but smaller teams mean smaller squads and hundreds of kids are getting turned away at a lot of clubs in the north east as they have to many and I run kids football

June 27, 2014 at 17:25

Nick says:

Hi Alan, allowing players to play up is aimed at maintaining participation for the one/two children in a specific team. It is not aimed at allowing a whole team to play up and leagues should not sanction this. If there is any query please ensure you work with your local CFA as you rightly say, goes against the principles of small-sided games and development of players. It’s just adults desperate to jump a format, not about the kids!!

June 27, 2014 at 12:18

Alan Greenwood says:

Not to much with the philosophy on the new formats, however I have one gripe I can not see why the age appropriation has took a step backwards in allowing the teams who want to jump up an age group, it does not serve any purpose on young players in playing against 12 month older players and possibly losing most games and have a detrimental effect on the views of young footballers which the plan is aimed at. You can not allow change year on year there has to be a period of consolidation to see how the plan works overall.

June 27, 2014 at 10:53

Nick says:

Hi Thomas, have a look on thefa.com/kidsfootball as I think there should be a presentations about the retreat line on there. Lots of County FA’s are organising CPD on the retreat line so might be worth seeing if you can use their experience to help the clubs and coaches in your league.

June 26, 2014 at 23:35

thomas says:

like the new 9v9 but think the retreat line needs tweaking as we found that as soon as the keeper played it out you had 3 players steaming towards him and he just booted it up the field, it made every team we played do the same so instead of the keeper kicking out it was the defenders, good idea in theory but in practice not so good. Sick of grass roots getting the blame for the problems in the adult game, its the pro clubs who are to blame as they pick up these kids from 6 years old and train them and don’t allow them to play games with friends, nothing to do with all us volunteer coaches.

June 26, 2014 at 19:40

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