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Simon Clifford

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About Simon Clifford


By Alex Bellos, Telegraph Magazine, 09/10/2004


Simon Clifford may be the most influential person in amateur football. He certainly has the biggest mouth. “I’d like to make the perfect footballer, the footballer the world has never seen,” he says confidently. It is 4am and he will not stop talking and let me go to bed. I cannot escape as I am staying with him in his home in Leeds (he would not let me book into a hotel). Even when I do make it to the spare room, he storms in and sits at the end of the bed. “In the future I will own the England team,” he tells me, like a father confiding the family secret to a chosen son. Not, he adds, in the way a Roman Abramovich might do it, by buying all the players. Clifford will create them. “In the last decade no one has done as much as me for the grassroots game in this country,” he insists. “People will be shocked with what I achieve.”




This is fighting talk from a man who only seven years ago was a teacher at a Catholic primary school in Leeds. Now Clifford  runs an empire of soccer schools that involves 150,000 British children and has outposts in the US, Australia and the Far East. “What Simon is doing is fantastic,” says the Bolton and Nigerian mid-fielder Jay-Jay Okocha. “Normally what you see in other children is just the basics of the game. He is saying that nothing is impossible. If English players can learn the qualities Simon is teaching, then it will be good for the country.”


Clifford’s dreams have deep pockets too: Lego have given him a seven figure sum, its entire sponsorship budget for the UK and Ireland. And has used his innovative coaching technique to teach footballers including Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and – somewhat improbably – actress Keira Knightley. “It was brilliant,” says Knightley. “Simon’s a wicked guy and an absolute genius.” It’s an impressive CV, and Clifford is still just 33 years old.




Four hours after allowing me to sleep I am awoken by him showering me with a pint of cold water. The act – playful, eccentric and utterly domineering – gives an inkling of how he has managed to rattle British football culture. A policeman’s son from Middlesbrough, Clifford has risen from humble football fan to international sporting guru thanks to remarkable energy, opportunism and a devil-may-care attitude with the powers-that-be.




In the morning we drive to Clifford’s headquarters in Leeds city centre. He is dressed, as he always is, from head to toe in his own branded merchandise: trainers, blue socks pulled tightly up to his knees, sports shorts and a blue football shirt. He looks more like a sportsman than a teacher or entrepreneur. Clifford drives a brand new Mercedes S Class automatic with personalised number plates -  a surprisingly “old school” football manager type of car for someone with such forward-thinking ideas.


Clifford’s office is above an Italian café famous for its opera-singing proprietor and a warbling La Bohéme can be heard as we walk upstairs. Framed on the walls are signed shirts from Ronaldo, Pelé,  Zico, Rivelino and other Brazilian greats. It is immediately obvious from which country he seeks his inspiration. Clifford’s business was founded on a very simple idea – if  the best footballers in the world come from Brazil,  then why not teach British children to play like Brazilians.




Clifford founded his first Brazilian Soccer School in 1996, an after-school coaching class that met on Leeds’s Roundhay Park. His charismatic personality, coupled with an ability to teach youngsters fabulous ball-juggling skills, caught the public imagination. Soon the schools were spreading around the country like jungle vine. His aim, he says, was to “make football more beautiful, more entertaining”, by encouraging young players to imitate the flamboyant Brazilian style. Then it became about success, about proving he could push forward boundaries of excellence. Clifford appears to be delivering.  His system has already produced four England and five Scotland internationals at junior levels. If he can do that with no scouting or selection, he asks, imagine what he can do if he gets the most talented kids.




With dark hair that flicks up from his forehead and settles in a centre parting, Clifford  looks like an overgrown schoolboy. He is a non-stop entertainer, often laughing loudly and flashing his incisors when he smiles. He radiates confidence and drive – one part headmaster to two parts cocky northern lad.


When we walk through Leeds every second person seems to have a connection to his schools and they approach him to shake his hand.  Clifford’s  reputation, in fact, stretches beyond the city and into showbusiness. Not only was he the man who taught Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley to “Bend It Like Beckham”, he choreographed the film’s football scenes and was the basis of the character played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. As a result Clifford is now cinema’s leading – and possibly only – football choreographer. Earlier this year he flew to Hollywood to consult on the Will Ferell and Robert Duvall soccer comedy, Kicking and Screaming, due out next year.




It is delightfully random how a man who was never a footballer and whose only introduction to coaching the game was as a primary-school teacher, is now turning football upside down. The story began in 1995 when Clifford arrived at Middlesbrough’s new Riverside stadium too late to buy a season ticket in the cheaper stands. Only the “posh seats”, used by players’ families and friends, were left, so he grudgingly paid the inflated price. A few games into the season he spotted two rows behind him the father of Juninho, the Brazilian midfielder recently signed by the club. He made it his mission to get to know the Brazilian’s dad, and would not let up. “I constantly said ‘would you like me to buy you a cup of coffee?’ I bugged him that much. Eventually, I think he got so sick of it he said yes.” Four months later Clifford was Juninho and his father’s closest friend in Britain.




It was a fan’s dream come true. At the time Clifford was teaching in Leeds, but every afternoon he would drive up the motorway to Middlesbrough. The relationship became an obsession, “I would go to Juninho’s house every night and we would just talk football.” Clifford was struck by how the football star was left to his own devices by the club. “He didn’t know how to go to the doctor’s. I helped with a lot of that stuff.




Clifford, who received a first class degree in Sports Science and Media at Leeds University, also used his time with Juninho to try to learn why Brazilians played with more apparent skill than other nations. He began to realise – counter-intuitively – that Brazilian footballers were much more disciplined than their British colleagues. Juninho confided to Clifford that he wanted to do more than the one obligatory training session a day, but was scared of getting into trouble with Middlesbrough’s coach, Bryan Robson, if he was spotted practising with the ball on his own.




Juninho also introduced Clifford to futebol de salão, a type of football played on a basketball court that uses a small,  weighted ball. In Brazil, most of the greatest players of the last 50 years – including Pelé, Zico and Ronaldo – began their careers playing this indoor variant. Juninho was a typical Brazilian child: he started futebol de salão when he was four and only started playing on grass with a full sized ball when he was 14. Clifford felt a thrill that he had uncovered the secret of the Brazilian game – the footballing equivalent of the Holy Grail. He asked Juninho to have 30 of the small balls sent over and immediately started using them with his own school children.




In the summer of 1997 Clifford borrowed £5,000 from his teachers union and flew to Brazil. Using Juninho’s contacts he met up with several former World Cup stars.  “Brazil had won four World Cups. You’d have thought it would have been obvious to go there to learn how they did it, but I was the first person to do so.” Clifford was most impressed with the work ethic. “Brazilians play better than anyone else,” he concluded, “because they train harder than anyone else.




The trip resulted in the BBC documentary A Whole New Ball Game, which came to the  attention of Glen Hoddle, England manager at the time, and his assistant John Gorman. The men asked to meet Clifford at a hotel on the outskirts of  Leeds. “They wanted to get England playing like Brazil,” Clifford remembers. “I said you are better off starting with kids. They said we haven’t got kids, we’ve got this bloody team and we’re about five months away from the World Cup.




The exchange made Clifford realise that if anyone was going to get England playing like Brazil it was him. He was only a primary school teacher yet he had the ear of the most important football coach in the land. In 1998 he left his teaching job and, as a mark of his ambition, founded the International Confederation of Futebol de Salão in the upstairs room of his house.  Using his academic knowledge of coaching, his experience as a teacher and a fan’s passion he developed his own coaching programme inspired by the Brazilian way. That was six years ago.




In a sports hall at Leeds Metropolitain University, Simon Clifford switches on his ghettoblaster. The heart-pumping rattle of Brazilian percussion blares through the room as if he is about to start a samba class. Instead, his group of 16-year-olds from Chapeltown, Leeds’ toughest neighbourhood, are practising flicks, feints and dribbles. Clifford only switches the music off to bark instructions. “Music enhances mood,” he explains. “And it also means the lads can’t talk to each other.”




Brazilian Soccer School sessions, like this one, last two-hours and are almost entirely devoted to training core skills. The boys have a ball each and repeat some 200 moves that Clifford has named mostly after Brazilian players - such as the “Ronaldo” or the “Emerson”. Clifford believes that children must, to begin with, consider football an individual pursuit. “If I wanted to learn the violin in school, I am told to practise at home. Then maybe a couple of years later, if there is an orchestra we all come together to make beautiful music. But the way football is traditionally taught – before you get mastery of the instrument you are straight in the bloody choir.” He makes sure that in addition to the class his pupils spend two hours a day practising on their own. Just like in Brazil.




The boys are using the small, weighted futebol de salão balls and it is evident that this makes them play very differently. “The ball is more difficult to manipulate so you have to be more precise,” Clifford explains. “You only have two choices, the dribble, or the clever pass, because the aerial ball isn’t an option to get out of trouble. You can’t lift it off the floor. The small court adds to this because the gaps are so small.” At one point he asks the boys to “freestyle” their skills and I see dexterity that would not be out of place in the Cirque de Soleil. They effortlessly juggle the ball between all parts of their legs and feet and can catch it on the back of their necks.




Some academic analysis has been done on Clifford’s method. Steve Nichol wrote his undergraduate thesis at Northumbria University on coaching techniques and concluded that it would take eight FA sessions to get the benefits of one doing futebol de salão. (On graduating Nichol bought his local Brazilian Soccer School franchise). Dr Charles Buckley, of Liverpool Hope University, says research suggests that learning with small, unbouncy balls is better for the development of children’s ball skills.  “I say at nine, 10, 11, copy the Zicos of this world. Forget the big ball. Forget the games,” Clifford says. “Facilities don’t make a good footballer. What does is putting in the hours and good coaching.”



Simon coaching at Roundhay Park


With the emphasis on flashy tricks, Clifford produces almost exclusively midfielders and strikers. Yet when they are brought together to form a team, even with a full-sized ball,  they are often able to give FA-trained players a run for their money. In 2002, an under-14s team largely from his Chapeltown school, beat the Scottish national team of the same age. That same year, Seb Muddell from Norwich became the first futebol de salão player to be selected to play for England,  at schoolboy level. Recently the first Clifford graduates have turned professional – Micah Richards, aged 16, is in the senior reserves at Manchester City, and Nicky Riley, aged 18, is at Celtic.




While it is inevitable that Clifford’s most promising youngsters get poached by the big clubs, he is determined to maintain some control over their careers. Together with London-based literary and actors agency PFD, he has founded a sports agency that will represent everyone schooled by his method. “If a club wants to buy a player I will say, ‘OK,  but he is doing two hours a night training with me.’ If you don’t like it he is not coming to Man Utd.” He says only this way will his young players be protected from the lackadaisical culture prevalent at British clubs.




When Clifford was in his early twenties he fell over on his elbow while playing football, causing a giant haematoma in his lower back. He was hospitalised and eventually had a kidney removed. Clifford says the experience made him come to terms with death, and helped induce in him a fearless drive to make the most out of life. He brings an evangelical zeal to his work, and sometimes I sense he sees futebol de salão as almost a religion. He refers to all his coaches and pupils as “our family” and treat him as something of a visionary. Clifford would prefer to be seen as embodying the qualities of the late Brian Clough, who grew up two streets from his grandfather in Middlesbrough. With his tongue in his cheek he has even adopted Cloughie’s catchphrase of calling everyone “Big ‘Ead.”




Like his role model, Clifford enjoys being frank and controversial. He says the FA’s youth programme is doomed to failure because it values match results more than skills and fitness training. Many Premiership clubs have invited Clifford to give demonstrations – at Everton he took a class including Wayne Rooney – and several now use the smaller balls in warm-ups.  Alan Irvine, former head of Newcastle United’s youth academy and now assistant manager at Everton, believes that futebol de salão  “probably gives you better coordination and gives you a better feel for the ball.


The first high-profile enthusiast of  the Brazilian Soccer Schools was Michael Owen. He was introduced to them by Clifford, who in 1999 was asked to collaborate on the England striker’s BBC soccer skills series. “I thought Michael would teach me a few things and in fact it was completely the reverse,” Clifford says.  “There was a move I call the ‘Rivelino elastic’. It was the move more than anything he was obsessed with.” Owen mastered it and, says Clifford, on more than one occasion used it in games to score.




Yet Owen had difficulty with other tricks. “He could not get to grips with ‘the Ronaldo’. He kept tripping over the ball. I think it is because of the way Michael as an English footballer has been brought up. Your body, I think, develops in quite a stiff and rigid way and isn’t as open to new movements.” If England’s top striker was unable to master simple Brazilian moves, Clifford began to think that more coaching was needed at an early age. “Not one of the England team kicked a ball in any formal way before they were five,” he says. “But look at Tiger Woods in golf and the Williams sisters in tennis. They all started at the age of one or two.” He came to the logical conclusion that to end decades of failed expectations Britain ought to start training players when they are barely out the cot.




After three years of research, Clifford last year launched Socatots, the world’s first football coaching programme for toddlers. (Or pre-toddlers, since he accepts anyone from the age of six months.)




He takes me to a Socatots session in a Leeds church hall, which is being taken by his wife,  Gillian,  a primary-school teacher. Seven two-year-olds are sitting in a circle with their legs apart. Each has a blue rubber dome placed between their knees. Facing every child is a parent and, when Gillian gives the go-ahead, the adults pick up their kids’ right foot and move it to touch the dome and back again.  The stationary dome, explains Clifford,  is used for “kicking practice” because toddlers often lose interest with a proper ball since they will inevitably kick it away. Less than a year after he started Socatots, Clifford claims striking results. “We have two-year-olds now who can do moves that Michael Owen can’t.” By Christmas he estimates that one hundred franchises will be offering classes around the UK.




Working with Owen led Clifford to contacts with other Premiership players and a confidence that he was capable of coaching at the highest level. He has been asked by former PFA Young Player of the Year Jermaine Jenas to be his personal coach, but decided against so as not to upset Jenas’s relationship with his club Newcastle United.




The final piece of Clifford’s masterplan to revolutionise British football is taking place in Garforth, a small town outside Leeds. Last year he bought the local football club, Garforth Town, by assuming its £100,000 debts. The recently-built stadium, which has a 3,000 capacity, is already feeling the weight of his personality. The bar boasts signed shirts of Pelé, Maradona, Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Clifford wants to turn Garforth into an elite academy for the best players coming up through his network of schools.




Garforth is currently wallowing in the Northern Counties East Division 1, the lowest level in the FA feeder system. At the moment the first team has no futebol de salão-trained players, because they are too young, but eventually only they will make the side. Clifford expects the club to slowly climb the league divisions. According to his published 25-year-plan the club will win the Nationwide Conference in 2013, gain promotion to the Premiership seven years after that and in 2028 be Premiership champions. When I suggest this is far too ambitious, even by his own standards, he relishes a brash reply. “I have exceeded all my predictions until now, so why not? If it’s a 400m race, I’ve just run a metre.”




Just when you think Clifford needs a rest, he sprints faster. Two weeks after I return from my trip to Leeds and my memorable night at his home, he calls me excitedly. “Guess what! I have taken over managing Garforth already and I have made my first signing – Lee Sharpe.” It is a testament to Clifford’s extraordinary personality and charisma that he has already signed Lee Sharpe, former England player. The Saturday after Clifford took charge, they won their first match of the season.

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Guest Knightrider

Amazing success from someone who didn't play the game. I've seen him in action several times on DVD coaching tools and what Ronaldinho et al can do with a ball, so can he and so can those he coaches, or that's his aim anyway. Should be made top mush at the FA or better still, giving control of our youth set up.

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Recently the first Clifford graduates have turned professional – Micah Richards, aged 16, is in the senior reserves at Manchester City, and Nicky Riley, aged 18, is at Celtic.


Whatever happened to him...? :parky:


Not sure if he's got a hand in anyone else good's development that has come to light since this article was written?

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This guy has got it spot on!


In this country they throw the kids into teams far too early and half the time base the position that they will play on their size which is ridiculous at such a young age.


My first born is gonna get skills coaching as soon as he can walk..... the geordie pele

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Sounds like a lovely bloke and I like his style and wish him every success.



But Brazilian football IS in the blood. blueyes.gif


Brazilian Football is down to culture and climate, nothing else.

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Guest optimistic nit

"Working with Owen led Clifford to contacts with other Premiership players and a confidence that he was capable of coaching at the highest level. He has been asked by former PFA Young Player of the Year Jermaine Jenas to be his personal coach, but decided against so as not to upset Jenas’s relationship with his club Newcastle United."



worst decision he ever made.

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Guest Knightrider

"Working with Owen led Clifford to contacts with other Premiership players and a confidence that he was capable of coaching at the highest level. He has been asked by former PFA Young Player of the Year Jermaine Jenas to be his personal coach, but decided against so as not to upset Jenas’s relationship with his club Newcastle United."



worst decision he ever made.


Not to worry, I'm sure Big Sam if appointed will seek his advice again on our set up and should the board ask questions, I'm sure Owen will chip in and vouch for him too.


Regarding the man himself, I don't agree with a lot of his ideas but you can't knock the man and if I were the FA, he'd be the first person I'd look to for advice and guidance regarding kids football and the grassroots game which is a disgrace in this country tbh.

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