By Simon Evans
BURTON ON TRENT, England (Reuters) – There has long been a desire among those nostalgic for British football’s lost past for the days when players learnt their craft on cobbled streets in between terraced houses or on spare land in industrial cities and towns.
Times have changed — the game is far more organised at youth level than ever before, primary school kids are driven to Premier League academy sessions in branded tracksuits and the streets are full of cars and not impromptu kickabouts.
Yet there are still players emerging from street-level football – albeit of a slightly different kind.
Many local councils have created fenced-off areas, known as ‘cages’, where kids can play a relatively free form of the game, without having to worry about the ball flying off in front of traffic or shattering a neighbour’s window.
On Thursday at Wembley, one of the products of South London’s vibrant cage-football scene, Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi, could start for England against Montenegro in the country’s 1000th international game, where a point will be enough to secure qualification for Euro 2020.
“When I was young, I used to play cage football a lot, kick around in the streets, no matter where, wherever, just to make sure I was kicking a ball, doing something with a ball,” the 19-year-old Hudson-Odoi told a small group of reporters at England’s training camp this week.
The South London cage scene has produced other top talents, such as England’s Jadon Sancho, who plays for Borussia Dortmund, Ademola Lookman, also in Germany with RB Leipzig, and talented Fulham youngster Ryan Sessegnon.
Hudson-Odoi believes the highly-competitive but often informal environment of cage football produces players with a strong desire to demonstrate their technical ability.
“We want to show our skills, show what we are capable of. Since we were young, we have always had the approach of whatever we do in training we try to do in games, to replicate. From young, we have all had the same mentality,” he said.
It also breeds a resistance to nerves and pressure, as Hudson-Odoi has shown with his rapid rise from the Chelsea youth ranks to the first team and England set-up.
“I think you have got to be confident in every game. There is no way you can show fear or be scared of any situation, you have always got to show what you are capable of, confidence that you are good enough to be playing in the first team,” he said.
“Cage football helps a lot, because it is where we have grown up and where we have always played football,” he added.
Hudson-Odoi had a chance to follow Sancho and Lookman to the Bundesliga.
Yet the arrival of Frank Lampard as Chelsea manager, replacing Italian Maurizio Sarri, ensured he stayed with his boyhood club, despite the temptation of promised opportunities at Bayern Munich.
“I was thinking about it, just because there were times last year where I felt a bit of frustration, I wanted to play more, times when I was thinking, ‘what happens if I do this or do that’?
“But at the same time I thought, ‘this is the club where I have been at, this is where I want to become… keep playing more and more games’. The more opportunities that come, I have to take them.”
It took just one conversation with Lampard to convince Hudson-Odoi to stay at Stamford Bridge.
“He (said) obviously he believes in me and wants me to do well. If I believe in myself and he believes in me, then things will go well for me at this club. He wants me to play for him, wants to work with me,” he said.
“It was a great feeling to know that he had trust in me and I have trust in him. I had a conversation with him and I knew I wanted to stay 100 percent,” he said.
With Raheem Sterling left out of the England team to play Montenegro following his training-camp altercation with Joe Gomez, Hudson-Odoi, who won his first cap in March against the Czech Republic, could get another chance to show the skill he honed in the cage.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)